I know you guys have been waiting for this excerpt for a long time. About three years, if I remember correctly. Or is it four? Since then, The Unholy Consult got split up into two volume and the first installments will be released in a few weeks' time. So here it is, the long-awaited Achamian chapter from R. Scott Bakker's The Great Ordeal. Better late than never, or so they say! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
For the last couple of years, we have been expecting the second part of an extract that was originally posted on www.second-apocalypse.com in 2012. But since parts of that text might have been edited along the way, here's the first chapter featuring Achamian and Mimara to appear in The Great Ordeal in its entirety! That should definitely make your day! =) It contains no spoilers, but there is a big surprise at the end. . . Needless to say, you'll see that it was worth the wait!
Here's the blurb:
The much-anticipated third installment of R. Scott Bakker’s acclaimed series, The Aspect-Emperor. Praised by fans and critics worldwide, R. Scott Bakker has become one of the most celebrated voices in fantasy literature. With The Great Ordeal, Bakker presents the long-anticipated third volume of The Aspect-Emperor, a series that stands with the finest in the genre for its grandiose scope, rich detail, and thrilling story. As Fanim war-drums beat just outside the city, the Empress Anasurimbor Esmenet searches frantically throughout the palace for her missing son Kelmomas. Meanwhile and many miles away, Esmenet’s husband’s Great Ordeal continues its epic march further north. But in light of dwindling supplies, the Aspect-Emperor’s decision to allow his men to consume the flesh of fallen Sranc could have consequences even He couldn’t have foreseen. And, deep in Ishuäl, the wizard Achamian grapples with his fear that his unspeakably long journey might be ending in emptiness, no closer to the truth than when he set out. The Aspect-Emperor series follows Bakker’s Prince of Nothing saga, returning to the same world twenty years later. The Great Ordeal follows The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior, and delivers the first half of the conclusion to this epic story. Returning to Bakker’s richly imagined universe of myth, violence, and sorcery, The Aspect-Emperor continues to set the bar for the fantasy genre, reaching new heights of intricacy and meaning.
The father who does not lie is no father at all.
Between the truth that aims uncertainly, and the deceit that aims true, scholars no less than kings cling to the latter. Only madmen and sorcerers have truck with Truth.
–The Cirric (or ‘Fourth’) Economy, Olekaros
Early Autumn, 20 New Imperial Year (4132, Year-of-the-Tusk), the Demua Mountains
“Nau-Cayûti...” one of the wretches croaked.
“Nau-Cayûti...” another rasped, rocking like a worm.
“Such a prizsse...”
Achamian rolled to his knees, coughed. Manacles clamped his neck, wrists, ankles. A circle of figures leaned close about him, black with confusion. Beyond, the world lurched with shadow and gold. A reeking breeze laved his naked back, pinched his gut and pulled vomit to his throat.
He convulsed with a different body, gagged about a string of burning spittle. Memories of a darkling flight crowded his eyes, claws hooked about his limbs, wings shearing hard air, a blasted landscape reeling out to the horizon.
“Such-such a prizsse...”
More memories came, like ice packed about his heart and lungs. His wife, Iëva, plundering his loins with wanton abandon. The Inchoroi, Aurang, cracking him from his sarcophagus, hauling him into the heavens. Golden bulkheads rearing from bastions of cruel stone, their surfaces stamped in endless, alien filigree...
Golgotterath, the Great Prince realized. He was in Min-Uroikas, the dread Ark-of-the-skies...
Which meant he was worse than dead.
“My father!” he cried, staring about witless. “My father will yield nothing for my return!”
“Return...” one of the wretches gasped.
“There is no return...” another added.
The Wizard gazed wildly about. Ten ancient men encircled him, their skin sucked tight about their ligaments, their eyes bleary with mucous and misery. They wagged their heads–some bald, some wisped with snow-white strands–as if trapped nodding at the surface of a long, nightmarish slumber. One chewed his own bottom lip, so that blood sheeted his chin.
At first he thought they sat huddled–but he quickly realized they possessed no limbs, that they had been bound like larva to cradle-like sconces of stone. And he understood that these ten men were Men no longer, but wheels in some kind of contrivance, arcane and abominable.
At once, the Great Prince realized who it was who truly scrutinized him–as well as who had betrayed him.
“My wife,” he groaned, testing the mettle of his chains for the first time. “Iëva!”
“Has committed...” one of the ancient mouths warbled.
“What was her price...” he coughed. “Tell me!”
“She sheeks only...” the bloody one bubbled.
“To save her soul...”
Laughter, thin and eerie, passed through the wretches, like the lash through the whip, one rising from the trailing of another.
The Great Prince cast his gaze beyond them, toward the gold-girdered walls. He saw hooded light rising across faraway structures, surfaces gleaming through darkness, stamped with infinite detail, packed into inexplicable forms. A sudden awareness of distance and dimension struck him...
Dizzy, gaping spaces.
He fell to his right elbow, so sudden was the vertigo. They floated, he realized. The ancient amputees had been arrayed across a platform of some kind–one rendered of the same unearthly metal as the Ark. Soggomant, foul and impenetrable. He saw golden reliefs through the scuffs in the offal beneath him, warring figures, leering and inhuman. And the form, opposing S’s hooked about the arms of a V...
A shape no Son of the House Anasûrimbor could fail to recognize: the Shield of Sil.
They floated upward through some kind of shaft, one impossibly vast, a gullet broad enough to house the King-Temple whole. The Horns, Nau-Cayûti realized...
“A marvel...” one of the wretches croaked, a momentary light flaring and fading in his eyes.
“Is it not?”
They ascended what Siqu called the Abskinis, the Groundless Grave...
“They made this...”
“To be their...”
The vast well that plumbed Golgotterath’s Upright Horn.
“It belongs to me...”
They climbed to the world’s most wicked summit, where none but the dead and the damned descended.
Rage, delirious and titanic, seized the old Wizard’s limbs and voice. He howled. He cast his naked body whole, wrenched and heaved with the strength that had made him unconquerable on so many fields of battle.
But the Wretches only drooled and laughed, one after the other.
He drew his feet beneath him, squatted, strained roaring, until his limbs flushed and quivered. He hurled all his being...
The iron links creaked, but did not yield.
“You hath returned...”
“To the house...”
“From which you hath stolen...”
He slumped in dismay, gazed sneering at the wretches. Different faces worn into the same face by decrepitude. Different voices throttled into the same voice by senescence and age-old hatred. Ten Wretches, one ancient and malevolent soul.
“Damnation awaits you!” the Great Prince roared. “Eternal torment!”
“Are naught but kindling...”
“For the Lust...”
“Of the Derived...”
The Great Prince’s thoughts raced through the old Wizard’s soul.
“They shall glory...”
“In your misery...”
Rising... rising through stench and darkness. A vast throat, ribbed in gold, descending. “Damnation!” Nau-Cayûti bellowed. “How long can you cling, wicked old fool?”
“Shall be put out...”
“Shall be cut from you...”
“And I shall give you over...”
“To my children...”
“To their rutting fervour...”
And Nau-Cayûti laughed, for fear was all but unknown to him. “How long before Hell has its say?”
“You will be shattered...”
“Beaten and degraded...”
“Your wounds will bleed...”
“The black of my children’s seed...”
“Your honour will be cast...”
“To the high winds...”
“Where the Gods shall gather it!” the Great Prince boomed. “The very Gods you flee!”
“And you will weep...”
“At the last...”
The Shield of Sil climbed high into the dark, toward a gold-shining aperture. Chained within a mightier frame, the old Wizard screamed with lunatic defiance, roared with a strength not his own.
“And when all is done...”
“You will tell me...”
“Where your accurshed tutor...”
“The Heron Spe–”
Then brightness, blinking and chill.
The cough of too-cold air too sharply drawn.
Night had fallen quickly once they had descended the far side of the glacier, forcing them to camp just below the frosted heights. They had settled upon a ledge that was lifeless save for the tattooing of lichens across the sunward faces. They had fallen asleep clutching each other–for hope as much as for warmth.
Now, rubbing his eyes, the old Wizard saw Mimara hugging her knees on the mounded lip, staring out across the distance, toward the ruined talisman of Ishuäl. She was draped in rotted furs, the same as he, but where he had elected to wear his looted nimil corselet beneath his pelts, she wore the gold-scaled hauberk she had retrieved from the Coffers over hers. She spared him a curious glance, nothing more. She looked boyish for her hair, he thought.
“I dr-dreamed...” he said, hugging his arms against a shiver. “Dreamed of him.”
He had no need of explanations. Shauriatas was the curse-name of Sheönanra, the cunning Grandmaster of the Mangaecca, the intellect who discovered the last surviving Inchoroi and resurrected their World-breaking design.
Shauriatas. The Lord of the Unholy Consult.
The surprise in her eyes was fleeting. “How’s he doing?”
The old Wizard screwed his face into a scowl, then coughed in laughter.
“Not quite himself.”
The vale plummeted and piled across the morning distance, gullies and ravines pinned one to the other on tumbling angles, ramps matted with conifers, shouldering scarps that climbed to the clouds.
Ishuäl perched over the lowland creases, its towers and walls overthrown, little more than a socket where a jewel was supposed to be.
Ishuäl... The ancient sanctuary of the Kûniüric High Kings, hidden from the world for an entire age.
He had not known what to expect when he and Mimara had crested the glacier the previous day. He had some understanding of time, of the mad way the past formed an invisible rind about the present. When life was monotonous–safe–what happened and what had happened formed a kind of slurry, and the paradoxes of time seemed little more than a philosopher’s fancy. But when life became momentous... nothing seemed more absurd, more precarious, than the now. One ate, as one always ate, one loved and hoped and hated the same as before–and it all seemed impossible.
For twenty years he had cloistered himself with his Dreams, marking progress in the slow accumulation of nocturnal variance and permutation. The growth of his slave’s children became his only calendar. His old pains evaporated, to be sure, and yet everyday had seemed to be that day, the day he cursed Anasûrimbor Kellhus and began his bloody-footed trek into exile, so little had happened since.
Then Mimara, bearing long-dead torment and news of the Great Ordeal...
Then the Skin Eaters with their evil and blood-crazed Captain...
Then Cil-Aujas and the first Sranc, who had driven them into the precincts of Hell...
Then the madness of the Mop and the long, manic trail across the Istyuli Plains...
Then the Library of Sauglish and the Father of Dragons...
Then Nil’giccas, the death of the Last Nonman King...
So he had wheezed and huffed to the glacier’s summit in the calamitous shadow of these things, not knowing what to think, too numb and bewildered to rejoice. For so long the very World had been the mountain between them, and his limbs and heart trembled for climbing...
Then, there it lay: Ishuäl, the sum of labourious years and how many lives; Ishuäl, the birthplace of the Holy Aspect-Emperor...
Blasted to its foundations.
For a time he simply blinked and blinked. The air was too chill, his eyes too old. The sun was too bright, dazzling the icy heights. No matter how hard he squinted, he could not see...
Then he felt Mimara’s smaller, warmer hands enclose his own. She was standing before him, gazing up into his face.
“There’s no cause to weep,” she had said.
But there was.
More than enough.
His laughter forgotten, he now gazed at the wrecked fortress, his eyes clicking from detail to detail. The great blocks, scorched and fractured, spilling down the encircling slopes. The heaped debris...
Dawn silence thundered in his ears. He found himself swallowing against a hollow pinned to the back of his throat. So much... was all he could think, but whether he meant toil or suffering or sacrifice, he could not say.
The despair, when it came, crashed through him, bubbled through his bowel. He looked away in an effort to master his eyes. Fool! he cursed himself, worried that he had outgrown his old weaknesses only to inherit the frailties of old age. How could he falter at such a time?
“I know,” he croaked, hoping to recover himself by speaking of his Dream.
“What do you know?”
“How Shauriatas survived all these years. How he managed to cheat Death...”
He explained how the Consult sorcerer had been ancient even in Far Antique days, little more than a dread legend to Seswatha and the School of Sohonc. He described a hate-rotted soul, forever falling into hell, forever deflected by ancient and arcane magicks, caught in the sack-cloth of souls too near death to resist his clutching tumble, too devoid of animating passion.
A pit bent into a circle, the most perfect of the Conserving Forms...
“But isn’t trapping souls an ancient art?” she asked.
“It is...” Achamian replied. He thought of the Wathi doll he once owned–and used to save himself from the Scarlet Spires when everyone, including Esmenet, had thought him dead. He had been reluctant, then, to think of the proxy that had been trapped within it. Had it suffered? Was it yet another of his multitudinous sins?
One more blemish for Mimara to glimpse with her Judging Eye?
“But souls are exceedingly complicated,” he continued. “Far more so than the crude sorceries used to trap them. The intricacies of identity are always sheared away. Memory. Faculty. Character. These are cast into the pit... Only the most base urges survive in proxies.”
Which was what made them such useful slaves.
“So to have your soul caught...” She trailed, frowning.
“Is to be twice-damned...” he said, trailing at the behest of a queer reluctance. Few understood the monstrosity of sorcery better than he. “To have your hungers enslaved in the World, while your thoughts are tormented in the Outside.”
This seemed to trouble her. She turned back to the vista, her brow furrowed. He followed her gaze, yet again felt his heart slump at the sight of Ishuäl’s cracked foundations rising above the black carpet of pine and spruce.
“What does it mean?” she asked of the wind.
“No.” She glanced at him over her shoulder. “The timing.”
Now it was his turn to fall silent.
He thought, as he always did when he became agitated, of the Qirri. A querulous part of him groused, wondering why Mimara should bear the Nonman King’s pouch, when he was the leader of their piteous company–their Slog of slogs. But like an old dog caught in the rain yet one more time, he shook away these peevish thoughts. He had come to understand the narcotic ash over the months of his addiction, at least enough to distinguish its thoughts from his own.
Mimara was right. To dream such a thing now...
What could it mean?
To suffer this Dream the very day he would at last set foot in Ishuäl. To not only see Shauriatas, but to learn the true fate of Nau-Cayûti–or something of it. What could it mean to learn the truth of one great Anasûrimbor’s death, just before discovering the truth of another, even greater Anasûrimbor’s birth?
What was happening?
He sat rigid, his breath pinched by the sense of things converging...
Origin to ending.
What came after to what came before.
“Come,” Mimara called, standing, brushing grit from her ragged trousers. The sickle of her belly caught an errant lance of sunlight... The old Wizard momentarily forgot how to breathe.
A chevron of geese soared above, barking southward.
“We have bones to inspect,” she said with the weariness and resolve of a long-suffering mother.
They pick their way down through the remains of an ancient moraine, climbing between boulders that chance had arrayed in descending barricades. Mimara follows the old Wizard, her eyes keen for any glimpse of the ruined fastness through the raggish trees. Ishuäl had been raised on the low hip of a mountain to the southwest, forcing them to descend into the very basement of the vale, before resuming their climbing approach. Periodically, she sees decapitated towers and sections of truncated wall rising between the dark crowns. The teetering stone looks ancient and wind-blasted, bleached sterile for countless ages of exposure. An eerie silence permeates the surrounding forest.
“What will we do now?” she asks with a vague air of surprise. With the Qirri, it seems only the merest whim separates what is spoken from what is merely thought. More and more she finds herself verbalizing ill-considered things.
“What we are doing!” the old Wizard snaps without so much as glancing at her.
It’s okay, little one...
She understands his dismay. For him, finding the map in the ruined Library had been a kind of irrefutable sign, divine indication that he had not acted in vain. But when he had finally crested the glacier, when he finally peered across the vale and found the destination he had hunted in his Dreams for twenty years ruined, his newfound conviction had tumbled from him, whipped away on the high mountain wind.
Papa had a scary dream.
Drusas Achamian knew the cruelty of Fate–perhaps more profoundly than she. Perhaps they had been lured here simply to be broken–a punishment for vanity perhaps, or for nothing at all. The Holy Sagas were literally filled with such stories of divine treachery. “The Whore,” she once read in Casidas, “will carry you through wars and famine in glory, only to drown you for tripping in a ditch.” She remembers smiling at the passage, taking heart in the laying low of the high and mighty, as if the punishment of the exalted was at once the vengeance of the weak.
What if the Dûnyain were extinct? What if they had travelled all this way, ushered all those men–those scalpers–to their deaths for nothing at all?
The thought almost makes her laugh, not out of any callousness, but out of exhaustion. Toil, harsh and relentless, has a way of twisting hope into self-consuming circles. Battle peril long enough, she has learned, and you will come to see salvation in your doom.
The quiet seems to intensify as they near the broken sanctuary. A ringing seeps into her ears. Out of some reflex, they close the space between them, so that they continually bump and brush each other. They begin measuring their steps, leaning and ducking as much to remain hidden as to avoid dead branches. They begin creeping as though approaching an enemy camp, their footfalls inaudible save for the smothered pop of twigs beneath the matted pine needles. They peer through the branching gloom.
After scaling cliffs, glaciers, and mountains, the slopes and defilades about the fortress should have seemed insignificant. They tower instead, pitched to angles that only their souls can perceive. Squinting up the broken incline, she glimpses dead stone in sunlight, wind she cannot feel combing through thronging weeds and sapling trees. It seems they climb a burial mound.
She thinks of the Qirri, the pinch of bitter bliss, and her mouth begins watering.
They come to the debris robed about the foundations. The trees yield to mountain sunlight... Dazzling sheets.
And they find themselves in the wind, standing on the ruined perimeter, staring across a sight she can scarce believe.
Ishuäl... She is breathless for thinking it.
Ishuäl... An empty name spoken from the far side of the world.
Ishuäl... Here. Now. About her eyes. Beneath her feet.
The birthplace of the Aspect-Emperor...
Of the Dûnyain.
She turns to the old Wizard and sees Drusas Achamian, the hallowed Tutor, the infamous Exile, clad in rotting pelts, wild with the filth of endless escape. Sunlight flashes for glimpses of Nil’giccas’s nimil hauberk. Sunlight flashes from his wetted cheeks.
Fear stabs her breast, he looks so frail and wretched.
He is a prophet of the past. Mimara knows this now–and it terrifies her.
When she had made this declaration so many months ago–impossible months–she had spoken with the insincerity of those who speak to appease. She had answered the unaccountable instinct, one that all Men share, to brace wavering souls with vainglorious pictures of what might be. She had spoken out of haste and expedient greed, and yet somehow, she had spoken true. Dreams had summoned him to Ishuäl. Dreams had sent him to Sauglish for the means to find it. Dreams of the past had driven him, not visions of the future...
For the old Wizard knew nothing of the future, save that he feared.
When she paused to recollect their long-suffering journey, it seemed she possessed two sets of memories: the one embodied, where she had thrown heart and limbs at the world, and the other disembodied, where everything happened, not out of desperation or heroic effort, but out of necessity. She wondered that the same thing could possess such contradictory appearances. And with a kind of dismay, she realized that between the two, her experience of striving and overcoming were the more false.
Fate had her–had them. Anagkë, the Whore, would midwife her child...
She fairly weeps for thinking it.
No matter how fierce or cunning or deliberate her struggles, no matter how much it seems she cut trails of her own making, she follows tracks laid at the founding of the World... There can be no denying it.
One can sooner climb free the air than escape Fate.
And with this realization comes a peculiar kind of melancholy, a resignation that was at once a commission, a willingness to be used that troubled her with memories of the brothel. Everything, the prick at the bottom of her lungs, the mandible of mountains fencing the near distance, even the character of the light, carries the numb pinch of eternity. She would strive. She would spit and strain and fight... and she would know it was nothing more than a gratifying illusion. She would cast herself into the belly of her own inevitability.
What else is there?
Fight, little one, she whispers to the miracle that is her belly. Fight for me.
Breathless, wordless, they pick their way over a destroyed segment of wall. They pause, winded by things more profound than mourning or exhaustion. The old Wizard slumps to his knees.
The sanctuary had been all but razed. Berms of rubble are all that remain of the walls. Masonry ramps and carpets the interior, thrown like wrack by some surging sea. Even still, it seems she can see the place: the cyclopean scale in the width of the foundations, the craftsmanship in the polished faces, the design in the lay of the wreckage.
Citadel. Assembly yard. Dormitories. Even a grove of some kind.
The fractured stone is pale, almost white, throwing the black of soot and scorching into sharp relief. Pockets weeping ash. Surfaces scaled in charcoal. The itch of sorcerous residue stains everything in tones that cannot be seen–colours both impossible and foul.
“How?” she finally dares ask. “Do you think–”
She catches herself, suddenly hesitant to voice her wondering. She doesn’t so much distrust Achamian as his heartbreak.
Your father is reckless...
The wind whisks across the ruined expanses, pricks cheeks for grit.
The old Wizard hauls himself to his feet, totters for a moment. “I’m a fool...” he croaks.
He says that too often to mean it. You’ll learn.
Achamian curses and wipes at his eyes, tugs on his beard—more in fury than reflection. “He’s been one step ahead of me all along!” he cries.“Kellhus!” He claps his head, wags his beard in incredulity. “He wanted me here... He wanted me to see this!”
“Think,” he grates. “Kosoter. The Skin Eaters. He had to know, Mimara! He’s been leading me all along!”
“Akka, come,” she says. “How could such a thing be possible?”
For the first time she hears it in her voice, the tones of a mother–the mother she will soon be.
“My notes!” he cries in dawning horror. “The tower! He came to my tower! He read my notes, discovered I was hunting Ishuäl in my Dreams!”
She looks away, repelled by the violence of his self-pity, and resumes wandering between the mounds. She ponders the growth thronging from the ruin’s every seam: weeds drying with the season, scrub like wicker, even small twisted pines. How many years since ruin had come and gone? she wonders. Three? More?
“Are you saying he came here?” she called to the watching Wizard. “Destroyed his birthpla–?”
“Of course he did!” he snaps. “Of-course-of-course-of-course! To cover his tracks. To prevent me from discovering his origin–perhaps... But think. How could he rule in utter security so long as the Dûnyain still lived? He had to destroy Ishuäl, girl. He had to kick away the ladder that had raised him so high!”
She isn’t so sure. But then she never is.
“So Kellhus did this?”
The old Wizard spouts curses rather than reply–speaking some language she cannot fathom, and sounding all the more foul-humoured for it. He begins waving his arms and pacing as he shouts.
She spins on her heel to consider the ruined fortress in a single look...
Everything Achamian said bore the ring of truth, so why does she disagree?
She turns to encircling mountains, imagines what it would look like, seeing her step-father stride across the bleached heavens, bearing light and fury. She can almost hear his voice crack across the firmament, calling on his Dûnyain brothers...
She looks back to the razed foundations–to Ishuäl.
Spite, she realizes. Brute hatred destroyed this place.
The old Wizard has fallen silent behind her. She turns, sees him sitting with his back against a great block of stone, staring at nothing, clutching at his forehead, combing his scalp with his fingers. And somehow she knows: Anasûrimbor Kellhus has long ceased being a man for Drusas Achamian–or even a devil for that matter. He has become a labyrinth, something that misleads every breath, mazes every direction. Something that can never be escaped.
But there are other powers. Spiteful powers.
She smells it first... the ghost of rot. A waist-high section of wall conceals it, though she realizes she has seen it all along in the wandering arc of ruin heaped about its rim. A strange kind of astonishment trills through her, like finding a horrible scar on a new lover.
“Akka...” she calls weakly.
The old Wizard glances up in alarm. She expects him to either ignore or rebuke her, but something in her tone, perhaps, hooks his concern.
“What is it?”
He is quick in trotting to her side–almost too quick. She has never grown accustomed to the nimble alacrity that the Qirri has lent his old bones. All such reminders trouble her... in a vague way.
So reckless with his heart, little one.
They stand side-by-side, gazing into the maw of a great pit.
The hole falls at a steep angle rather than straight down, with the ruin piled like a cowl about its ceiling edge, and the floor descending like a tongue opposite. It resembles a gigantic burrow, not unlike the one leading to the Coffers in the Library. Blackness fills its throat, almost tangible for the surrounding brightness, viscous with threat.
Achamian stands stupefied. She is not sure what draws her to climb the far side. Perhaps she has lost her stomach for deep and dark places. Regardless, she picks her way to the crest, which overlooks the far limit of the fortress, and finds herself staring down a vast incline of branches–only they are not branches...
Bones, she realizes.
Innumerable. So many that their sum has eclipsed the scale of manufactured things and become one with the mountain’s foundations. An enormous ramp, broad and shallow enough to bear a wain near the peak, dropping scores of feet, flaring out like a skirt, spilling into the forests.
She turns voiceless to the old Wizard, who scrambles to join her on the summit of the pitch.
He stares as she stares, trying to comprehend...
The mountain wind tousles his beard and hair, twisting and wagging its iron-grey tails.
“The Consult,” he murmurs from her side, his voice thin with dread. “The Consult did this.”
What was going on?
“This was where they pitched the fallen...” he continues.
In her soul’s eye she sees Ishuäl as it must have been: cold walls climbing from vast heaps of dead. But even as the image rises, she dismisses it as impossible. They found no bones among the ruined fortifications, which suggests the walls were destroyed before any mass assault.
She looks at him sharply. “And the battle?” Even as she speaks, her fingers are working to release the pouch from her belt...
The Wizard glances toward the great pit, shrugs without sincerity.
“Beneath our feet.”
She has the premonition of rotted ground, and a dread fills her. The ruined fortress merely barks the surface, she realizes. The tracts buried beneath are riddled with far-flung veins and hollows, like termite-infested wood.
The hole runs deep, she realizes. Cil-Aujas deep.
A shudder rocks her balance from her. She stumbles, catches herself.
“Ishuäl...” she begins, only to trail in indecision.
“Is but the gate,” the old Wizard says, his eagerness outrunning his apprehension.
She turns to him with a beseeching look, but he is already clambering back the way he came, his eyes bright with rekindled hope.
“Of course...” he mutters. “Of course! This is a Dûnyain stronghold!”
“So?” she calls down, standing welded upon the heaped rubble.
“So nothing is what it appears to be! Nothing!”
Within heartbeats he has rounded the wreckage and found his way back to the pit’s black maw. He pauses, looks up to her both frowning and squinting. The ruins radiate out about them, buzzing in the sunlight. They gaze at each other across the interval, exchanging unasked questions.
At last his eyes click to her waist, where her right hand pensively fingers the pouch.
“Yes-yes,” he says roughly. “Of course.”
Renewed, they creep into the darkness together.
She can still feel the panic, cold enough to prick, but her thoughts have become woolen with relief, as if she has found leisure at the end of some arduous task. The Qirri is forever dredging up inappropriate passions, it seems, moving her soul at angles to her circumstances. The tunnels they plumb are entirely unlike the ancient obsidian marvels they explored in Cil-Aujas, but they are the same nonetheless. Halls that flee the sun. Chutes into blackness. Graves.
And despite her terror, she finds that she does not care.
Blessed be the Nonman King... his residue...
They descend at a shallow angle. The old Wizard’s Surillic Point bleaches their surroundings with white detail. Detritus and scabbed ruin clot the floor. The walls are so scored she cannot but glimpse the shrieking legions of Sranc that had once trod them. Otherwise, the stonework is both meticulous and devoid of ornamentation.
They slip deeper into the earth, a bead of white in dungeon blackness. The air remains rank, the odour of dead things mouldering, rot drained to the dregs. Neither of them speak. The same questions move their souls, ones that only the black depths can answer. To speculate aloud, it seems, would be to waste precious wind. Who knew what air dwelt below? What foulness?
The light soundlessly shoulders away the dark, revealing a pocked and blasted region a cavity where everything tingles with sorcerous residue. Some kind of gate, she realizes, glimpsing the mangle that had once been an iron portal. They had happened upon an underworld bastion of some kind.
“They brought the ceilings down...” the old Wizard says, his eyes probing the cragged hollows above them. “All this has been excavated.”
“What do you think happened?”
“The Dûnyain,” he says, speaking in the airy way of someone describing images drawn from the Soul’s eye. “They fled the walls above when they realized they were overmatched. They sealed themselves in the tunnels below. I’m guessing they brought the ceilings down when the Consult assaulted this gate.”
Her eyes roam the pitted surfaces, confirming.
“To no avail,” she says.
A grim, beard-crushing nod. “To no avail.”
The tunnels complicate beyond the destroyed gate, chambers like nodes, opening onto further corridors. Mimara finds her earlier presentiment of immensity confirmed. Somehow she just knows that the tunnels go on and on, forking and twining, veining the mountain foundations with complexity and confusion. Somehow she knows they have been designed to defeat comprehension as much as courage...
That they stand at the threshold of a labyrinth.
“We must mark our way,” she tells the old Wizard.
He glances at her, frowning.
“This place is Dûnyain,” she explains.
They wander across littered floors, a bead of illumination bumping and shuffling through the black. An aging Wizard and a pregnant woman.
Cil-Aujas howls from some deep pit in her memory, rendering the silence that much more palpable, enough to squeeze her chest, freight her limbs. And it strikes her that she never truly surfaced, that the long mad flight through the Mop and across the Istyuli were but a different underworld, the endless skies a different ground, as crushing as any mountain. She tries guessing at the function of the chambers they pass through, recess after recess, walls scorched, floors chapped with desiccated gore. The spaces yield to the relentless light, lines firm and straight, reaching out with geometric perfection. Most are blasted, their contents stamped to ruin, kicked into corners. But one possesses iron racks, some kind of restraints for human forms, arranged in a radial arc. Another appears to be some kind of kitchen.
The Wizard marks every room with the charcoal nub of an abandoned torch. Crude chevrons tipped on their side, always pointing to the obscurity before them.
They pass through several more chambers, breathing cobweb-air. They clamber down a half-ruined stairwell, enter the throat of what seems a long corridor. Fragments of bone and debris gravel the floors.
She tries to imagine the Dûnyain. She has heard tales of her stepfather’s martial skill, how it dwarfed even that of the skin-spies, so she sees Soma in her soul’s eye, only in Dûnyain guise, battling through Sranc and blackness, his sword sketching impossible figures in the screeching dark. When the images fade she falls to pondering Koll, the final face worn by the thing called Soma, and the madness of Sauglish.
She wonders that a Consult abomination would save her.
“Nothing...” the old Wizard murmurs beside her.
She turns to him with a curiosity she feels only with her face.
“No ornament,” he explains, running a knobbed hand across the wall nearest to him. “No symbol. Nothing...”
She looks to the walls and ceiling, feels the surprise of considering things noticed but not pondered. The sorcerous light is crowded and bright about them, darkening in stages as her eyes stray into the near distance. Everything is bare and... perfect. Only the random marks of conflict score them–the mad quill of discord.
The contrast unnerves her. The descent into Cil-Aujas had been a descent into chaotic meaning, as if strife and loss and story had composed the heart of the mountain.
There is no story here. No reminders. No hopes or regrets or vain declarations.
Only blank assertion. The penetration of density by mazed space.
And she realizes...
They explore the bowel of a far different mansion. One less human.
Even before they enter, it seems that she knows this room. She–a child of the brothel.
It lies waiting, a square of pure black at the end of the corridor. The absence of resistance surprises her as she steps across the threshold, as if the hairs on her arms and cheeks had warned her of some invisible membrane.
The point of light slides effortlessly before them, gouging deep hollows from the blackness. They both stand breathing and staring. The ceiling is so low and broad as to seem a different floor. What seem to be lidless sarcophagi line the arc of the walls, dozens of large pedestals hewn from living rock, receding into the deeper gloom. But where the buried dead are typically lain with ankles bound, foot-to-foot, these sarcophagi flare outward: pinning their occupants spread-eagled, providing a space between...
She swallows against a nail in the back of her throat. Stepping across a shattered sword, she approaches the nearest pedestal to her right. Bones and dust, dimpled and ragged like sheets of rotted skin, crowd the interior. Jawless skulls tipped on their sides. Ribs like halved hoops, implying torsos far broader than her embrace. Femurs like clubs, still threading the iron straps that had once restrained them. Pelvises, rising like antlers from the detritus...
Whale bones she finds herself thinking...
Once, during her second year in the brothel, an Ainoni caste-noble named Mipharses had fallen in love with her–at least as much as any man could fall in love with a child-whore. He would lease her for days at a time, long enough for her to dare dream–despite the suffocating misery of his bed–of escaping the brothel and becoming a wife. Once he took her down the River Sayut on his pleasure barge, through the idyllic channels of the delta, to a cove filled with what he called Narwhales, fish that were not fish, white and ghostly beneath the lucid distortions of the surface. She had been frightened and enthralled in equal measure: the beasts periodically blasted from the surface, where they would seem to hang in an armless twist before crashing back into the window blue.
“This is where they come to mate,” Mipharses said, pressing as much as holding her to his lap. “And die...” he added, pointing to a swale of beach beneath the overgrown shore.
And there she saw the carcasses, some bloated and blackened like sausages, others little more than bones cast up like flotsam in a storm.
Bones like these bones.
“Does the Sea pitch them up after?” she had asked. She never fails to cringe when she recalls the tenderness of her look and manner during these years. She never fails to curse her mother.
“The Sea?” Mipharses had replied, smiling the way some men are prone when sharing vicious truths with coddled women. She would never forget the way his yellow teeth contradicted the ludicrous perfection of his oiled and pleated beard. “No. They swim here to die... Beasts can sense their ending, little dear. That is what makes them nobler than Men.”
And looking at him she had agreed. Far nobler.
She hears the Wizard’s boots scuff the floor behind her.
“What is this place?” he calls with a kind of querulous wonder.
A tingling horror stops her reply.
“These bones...” he continues. “Other than the skulls, they aren’t... human.”
The very air sparks. It seems that she sways, even though she stands as rigid as a shriving pole.
“Yes,” she hears herself say. “They are...”
As human as the Dûnyain could be.
In the war of light and shadow that is her periphery, she glimpses the old Wizard gazing at her in numb alarm.
She turns her back to him, cradles her abdomen in her hands.
The Eye opens...
A dizzying moment. Vision wars against vision, one world crisp with edge and grit, the other milky with warring angles, the budding of things long hidden...
And she sees it, Judgment, implacable and absolute, bleeding like dye through the sack-cloth of the mundane. She sees it, the world become a jurist’s scroll, and she cannot but read...
The shattered sword near the entrance: she sees the progression of hands that once clasped the pommel, the parting flesh, the plunging point, the mewling screams of its soulless victims, the glittering perfection of the lines it once sketched through pockets of subterranean gloom.
An invisible palm presses her cheek, forces her gaze across what she does not want to see...
The torment of the Whale-mothers.
Between women and men, women possess the lesser soul. Whenever the Eye opens, she glimpses the fact of this, the demand that women yield to the requirements of men, so long as those demands be righteous. To bear sons. To lower her gaze.. To provide succor. The place of the woman is to give. So it has always been, since Omrain first climbed nude from the dust and bathed in the wind. Since Esmenet made herself a crutch for stern Angeshraël.
But the horror the Eye reveals before her...
The insect obscenity of their innocent forms. Bulbous, their flesh little more than quivering cages. Women bred into monstrous instruments of procreation, until they had become little more than pouches slung about their wombs.
The misery. The huffing and moaning. The mewling screams. The inhuman men filing to their assignations, utterly heartless and insensate. The slapping of hip and genitalia. The animality of coupling stripped to its essential germ, to the milking pitch of insemination...
Sadism without desire. Cruelty–unimaginable cruelty–absent the least will to inflict suffering.
An evil that only the Inchoroi could surpass.
And when her gaze flinches, she sees that this crime is no aberration, but rather an inevitable and extreme implication of what rules the whole. Everywhere she looks she sees it with heart-scratching clarity, rising like bruises beneath the world’s tender skin. Craft. Cunning. The devious pitch of intellect, domineering, devoid of compassion or humility...
And the will–the blasphemous will most of all. The deranged hunger to become God.
She begins trembling. “Akka...” she hears herself gasp. “You-y-you...” She trails to recover her voice and her spit. Tears flood her cheeks.
“You were right.”
Even as she says this a part of her balks–the part that knows how desperately he has yearned to hear these words...
The Holy cares nothing for the designs of Men. And their appetites, it denies outright. The Holy, at all turns, demand the sacrifice of mortal projects, the carrying of burdens that slow, even kill. The Holy was the path of detours, even dead ends. The road that punished for following.
“What are you saying?” the old Wizard croaks.
She blinks, then blinks again, but the Eye refuses to close. She sees rolling heads, masticating mouths. The Whale-mothers, tongueless and screaming... The lean men arched like shitting dogs.
She sees the unspeakable evil that is the Shortest Path.
“This place... The Dûnyain... Th-they... They are evil...”
She turns to him, glimpses the horror rising behind his charred face.
“You-you...” he begins in a thin voice. “You see this wi–?”
A roaring crashes through her, a thunder beyond the reach of her ears. Her edges blacken, pursue her inward. Sensation shrinks... then blooms in proportions titanic and absurd. Suddenly she sees Him, her stepfather, Anasûrimbor Kellhus I, the Holy Aspect-Emperor, high on his throne, wreathed in darkness and fury, a malignant cancer cast across the far corners of the world...
Suddenly she sees the Truth of the old Wizard’s terror. A Dûnyain ruled the World–a Dûnyain!
She reels as if struck, so sudden, so absolute is the inversion of her understanding. Her Sheära corselet, which has always amazed her for its arcane weightlessness, suddenly drags as iron upon her shoulders.
For so long Momemn has been the luminous summit, the hub that ferried light to the more shadowy extremities of the Empire. Despite her hatred, it has always seemed both the source and the rule–for it is ever the want of the heart to make home its measure of measures. But now it pulsed with dread implication, glutinous with foul blackness, a leprous counterpoint to Golgotterath, another stain blotting the world’s mapped places.
“My mother!” she cries, seeing her flicker like a candle flame beneath the rising night. “Akka! We have to find her! Warn her!”
The old Wizard stands gaping, astounded–as well as blasted with the wages of his damnation in the Eye. Everywhere, all around them, torment and perdition, radiating like stones kicked from the Fire. Has the entire world been consigned to Hell?
She tries to blink away the Eye–to no avail. She finds herself fumbling with her own urgency, so long has it been since anything abstract has pierced the Qirri’s numbing swaddle.
The Wizard was right. The very World... The World already hangs from the gibbet...
One final swing and its neck is broken.
“Wha-what?” the damned soul before her stammers. “What are you saying?”
Then the Eye closes, and the judgment of things is rinsed into the outlines of vision, into nonexistence. The facts of Drusas Achamian blot the value, and she sees him bewildered, bent with age, cracked by a life of sorcerous insurrection. He holds her by the shoulders, close despite the proximity of her Chorae to his breast. Tears glaze his rutted cheeks.
“The Eye...” she gasps.
Then she glimpses it over his frayed shoulder.
A shadow flitting between stacked debris. Pale. Small.
She hisses in alarm. The old Wizard looks about frowning, his eyebrows pulled into a shaggy stoop above his gaze.
“There...” she whispers, pointing toward a slot between the bone-laden sarcophagi.
The old Wizard peers into the anxious gloom. With a flourish of his fingers he throws his Surillic Point into the chamber’s deeper regions. She leans against the vertigo of sweeping shadows. They both glimpse the figure, their hearts pounding to the same terror. They see the eyes glitter, the face squint with blank wonder.
Not a Sranc.
A boy... A boy with his head shaved in mockery of Nil’giccas.
“Hiera?” he calls, as if utterly unperturbed by his discovery. “Slaus ta heira’as?”
It torqued the old Wizard’s ears, so long had it been since he last heard the tongue outside his Dreams.
“Where?” the boy had asked. “Where is your lantern?”
Achamian even recognized the peculiar intonation–though from twenty, as opposed to two thousand, years past. The child spoke Kûniüric... but not in the ancient way, the way Anasûrimbor Kellhus had spoken it so long ago.
The child was Dûnyain.
Achamian swallowed. “C-come out,” he called, straining to speak about the bolt of horror and confusion in his throat. “You have nothing to fear from us.”
The child stood from his feckless crouch, stepped from behind the sarcophagus that obscured him. He wore a man’s woolen tunic, the grey fabric belted and cinched to fit. He was slender, and from the look of him, tall beyond his years. He gazed avidly at the Surillic Point above, held out his hands as though testing the light for raindrops. Three fingers had been lopped from his right hand, making a crab’s claw of his thumb and forefinger.
He turned to appraise the two interlopers.
“You speak our tongue,” he said mildly.
Achamian stood rigid, unblinking.
“No, child. You speak my tongue.”
Sit. This is the imperative of old men when the World besieges them. Retire from the confusion, consider it in dribs and drabs rather than grapple with it whole. Sit. Recover your wind while pondering.
Mimara had found his dread answer. In the space of heartbeats she had confirmed a lifetime of fears. But witless incomprehension seemed the most he could summon by way of reply. Stammering indecision where horror and dismay should have ruled.
This boy represented a different kind of confirmation–and conundrum.
So while Mimara remained rooted to where she stood, Achamian took a seat on a block of ruin, a perch that set his face a hand’s span below that of the standing child.
“You are Dûnyain?”
The boy seemed to search his gaze. “Yes.”
“How many of you remain?”
“Just me and one other. The Survivor.”
“And where is he?”
“Somewhere in the Halls beneath us.”
The floor now tingled beneath the old Wizard’s boots.
“Tell me... What happened here?”
He asked this even though he knew what had happened here, even though he could reconstruct its stages in his soul’s eye. But for the nonce he was old and he was terrified, and there was courage in the asking of questions—or at least the semblance of it.
“The Shriekers came,” the boy replied, his manner mild unto blank. “I was too young to remember... much...”
“So how do you know?”
“The Survivor told me.”
The old Wizard pursed his lips. “Tell us what he told you.”
There is always a dare in the eye of bold children, an arrogance that comes with lacking the weakness of more worried elders. The crab-handed boy’s fearlessness, however, was devoid of demonstration.
“They came and they came, until the whole valley seethed. The Shriekers threw themselves at our walls, and the slaughter was great. We heaped their corpses to the battlements. We threw them back!”
Mimara watched from his periphery, not comprehending, but from the keen cast of her gaze, understanding all the same. So little separates tales of woe.
“Then the Singers came,” the boy continued, “walking across empty air, shouting in voices that made lanterns of their mouths. They pulled down the walls and the bastions, and the surviving brethren withdrew into the Thousand Thousand Halls... They could not contend with the Singers.”
The “Shriekers” were obviously Sranc. The “Singers,” Achamian realized, had to be Nonmen Quya, Erratics who had turned to the Consult in the pursuit of murder and memory. He could see the battle unfold as the boy spoke: mad Quya, screaming light and fury as they walked over the high pines, endless mobs of Sranc surging below. It seemed mad and strange and tragic, that such a war could be waged so far from the knowledge of Men. It did not seem possible that so many unknown souls could die unknown deaths.
Without sorcery or Chorae, the Dûnyain, for all their preternatural ability, were helpless before the Erratics. So they fled into the labyrinth they had spent one hundred generations preparing, made a citadel of what the boy called the “Thousand Thousand Halls.” The Quya pursued them, he said, crashing through barricades, flooding the corridors with killing lights. But the brethren simply fell back and back, retreating ever deeper into the complexities of the maze.
“For all their might,” the boy continued in his monotone drawl, “the Singers were easily confused. They lost their way, wandered howling. Some perished for thirst. Others went mad, and brought the ceilings down upon themselves in their desperation to escape...”
It seemed Achamian could feel them, ancient lives ending in blindness and suffocation...
Explosions in the deep.
His diction flawless, the boy explained how the invaders mustered legion after legion of Sranc, poured them into the labyrinth, crazed and screaming, the way yeomen might try to drown rodents in their burrows.
“We lured them deep,” he said, his voice utterly devoid of the passions and hesitations that belong to childhood. “Left them to starve and thirst. We killed and we killed, but it was never enough. There was always more of them. Shrieking. Snarling...”
“We fought them for years.”
The Consult had made a screaming cistern of the Thousand Thousand Halls, filled the labyrinth until it could hold no more, and death spilled over. The boy could actually remember the latter stages of the underworld siege; corridors packed with listless and dying Sranc, where the brethren need only step and spear to move on; chutes and stairwells choked with carcasses; the flights and the assaults, wave after endless wave, ferocious and unrelenting, so much so that brother after brother would finally falter and succumb.
“And so we perished one by one.”
The old Wizard nodded in sympathy he knew the boy did not need.
“Everyone except you and the Survivor...”
The boy nodded.
“The Survivor carried me in,” he said. “The Survivor walked me out. The Logos has always burned brightest within him. None among the brethren stood so close to the Absolute as he.”
Mimara had stood rooted this whole time, her face blank, alternately studying the boy and peering out into the surrounding gloom.
“Akka...” she finally murmured, staring into the dark.
“And what is his name?” Achamian asked, ignoring her. The boy’s description of the Survivor troubled him for some reason.
“Anasûrimbor,” the boy replied. “Anasûrimbor Koringhus.”
This name seized Mimara’s attention as violently as it seized the old Wizard’s heart.
“Akka!” she fairly shouted.
“What is it?” he asked dully, his wits addled by stacking implications. Ishuäl destroyed. The Dûnyain evil. And now... another Anasûrimbor?
“He distracts you!” she cried in a strangely hooded voice.
“What?” he asked, leaping to his feet. “What are you saying?”
Her eyes pinned wide with fear, she pointed into the blackness draping the depths of the chamber before them. “Someone watches us!”
The old Wizard squinted, but could see nothing.
“Yes,” the boy said at his elbow, though there was no way he could have understood Mimara’s Sheyic. How had he let the child come so close?
Close enough to strike...
“The Survivor has come.”
Yesterday, Achamian had been but a son cringing beneath his father’s angry shadow. Yesterday, he had been a child sobbing in a mother’s anxious arms, looking into her eyes and seeing love–and helplessness. To be a weak child–cursed with an eye for the impractical, for the profound and the beautiful. To continually remind your father of what he despised in himself. To be a surrogate for paternal self-loathing.
Yesterday, he had been a Schoolman, begging and conniving, awakening to find himself strangled, his eyes clotted with two thousand years of grief. Yesterday, he had been the husband of a whore, loving against the pitch of circumstance and fanatical horror. To be a weak man, cursed with convictions that others could scarcely conceive, let alone consider. To be a laughingstock, a cuckold, counted treacherous among your brothers.
Yesterday, he had been a Wizard, measuring days with his resentments and ruminations, scrawling errant messages that not even fools would read. Yesterday, he had been a mad hermit, a prophet in the wilderness, lacking the heart to act on his own mad declarations. To have a question that was at once a hatred… To have a love that was at once a loss... and a cry for vengeance.
Yesterday, he had beheld Ishuäl.
The intruder’s shadow strode toward them, gathering substance and detail with every step.
Never had he felt so defeated... so old.
The crab-handed boy lingered close enough to murder.
His own wind rattled the cage of his lungs, bolted for escape.
The light seemed to seize the figure, hoist his terrifying visage from the gloom of the Thousand Thousand Halls. But he did not surface as he should according to swales of smooth skin and muscle. Illumination tripped across ridges of braided tissue, edged the crater of a missing cheek, gleamed across exposed gums and the remnants of teeth. Shadow inked innumerable hooks and gouges, the knotted scribble of children who had more time than papyrus.
The spoor of a thousand mortal battles, of a Dûnyain in extremis, pursuing the intangible lines of survival and triumph through countless threshing swords, playing the margins of his own flesh, ignoring all but the most lethal incisions, so that he might kill and kill and overcome... Endure.
They are evil... So said the Eye.
The Survivor was a grotesquery. Even still Achamian could see through the skein of hideous scarring: the lineage, the bones and blood of antique Kings.
“You know my father,” the Dûnyain said, his voice as deep and melodious as Truth. “Anasûrimbor Kellhus...”
Drusas Achamian retreated, his limbs moving without his volition. He stumbled, literally crashed onto his rump.
“Tell me...” the grotesquerie said.
Yesterday, the old Wizard had sought to deliver the World from destruction.