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Authors: R. Scott Bakker

The Judging Eye

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ASPECT EMPEROR 01

THE JUDGING EYE

Scott R. Baker

 

 

Exalt-Minister, most
glorious, many be your days.

 

For the sin of apostasy, they
were buried up to their necks in the ancient way, and stones were cast into
their faces until their breathing was stopped. Three men and two women. The
child recanted, even cursed his parents in the name of our glorious
Aspect-Emperor. The World has lost five souls, but the Heavens have gained one,
praise be the God of Gods.

 

As for the text, I fear that
your prohibition has come too late. It was, as you suspected, an account of the
First Holy War as witnessed by the exiled Schoolman, Drusas Achamian. Verily,
my hand trembles at the prospect of reproducing his vile and abhorrent claims,
but as the original text has already been committed to the flames, I see no
other way to satisfy your request. You are quite correct: Heresy is rarely
singular in its essence or its effects. As with diseases, deviations must be
studied, curatives prepared, lest they erupt in more virulent form.

 

For the sake of brevity, I
will limit my review to those particulars that either directly or indirectly
contradict Doctrine and Scripture. In this text, Drusas Achamian claims:

 

I) To have had sexual
congress with our Holy Empress on the eve of the First Holy War's triumph over
the heathen Fanim at Shimeh.

 

II) To have learned certain
secrets regarding our Holy Aspect-Emperor, to whit: That He is not the
incarnation of the God of Gods but rather a son of the Dûnyain, a secret sect
devoted to the mastery of all things, body and spirit. That He transcends us not
as gods transcend men, but as adults transcend children. That His Zaudunyani
interpretation of Inrithism is nothing more than a tool, a means for the
manipulation of nations. That ignorance has rendered us His slaves.

 

(I admit to finding this most
unnerving, for though I have always known that words and events, no matter how
holy, always admit wicked interpretations, I have never before considered the
way beliefs command our actions. For as this Achamian asks, if all men lay
claim to righteousness, and they do, who is to say which man claims true? The
conviction, the belief unto death, of those I send from this world now troubles
me, such is the treachery of the idle intellect.)

 

III) That our Holy
Aspect-Emperor's war to prevent the resurrection of the No-God is false.
Granted, this is merely implied, since the text was plainly written before the
Great Ordeal. But the fact that Drusas Achamian was once a Mandate Schoolman,
and so cursed with dreams of the First Apocalypse, renders his suspicions
extraordinary. Should not such a man hail the coming of Anasûrimbor Kellhus and
his war to prevent the Second Apocalypse?

 

This is the sum of what I
remember.

 

Having suffered this
blasphemy, I understand the profundity of your concern. To hear that everything
we have endured and cherished these past twenty years of war and revelation has
been a lie is outrage enough. But to hear such from a man who not only walked
with our Master in the beginning, but taught him as well? I have already
ordered the execution of my body-slave, though I mourn him, for he only read
the text at my behest. As for myself, I await your summary judgment. I neither
beg nor expect your pardon: It is our doom to suffer the consequences of our
acts, regardless of the piety of our intentions.

 

Some pollution begs not the
cloth, but the knife; this I accept and understand.

 

Sin is sin.

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

When a man possesses the innocence

of a child, we call him a fool.

When a child possesses the cunning

of a man, we call him an abomination.

As with love, knowledge has its season.

 

—Ajencis,
The Third Analytic of Men

 

Autumn, 19 New Imperial Year (4131 Year-of-the-Tusk),
the "Long Side."

 

A horn pealed long and lonely
beneath the forest canopies. A human horn.

 

For a moment all was quiet. Limbs
arched across the imperious heights, and great trunks bullied the hollows
beneath. Shorn saplings thatched the intervening spaces. A squirrel screeched
warning from the gloom of interlocking branches. Starlings burst into the
squinting sky.

 

They came, flickering across
bands of sunlight and shadow.

 

Running with rutting fury,
howling with rutting fury, through the lashing undergrowth, into the tabernacle
deep. They swarmed over pitched slopes, kicking up leaves and humus. They
parted about the trunks, chopping at the bark with rust-pitted blades. They
sniffed the sky with slender noses. When they grimaced, their blank and
beautiful faces were clenched like crumpled silk, becoming the expressions of
ancient and inbred men.

 

Sranc. Bearing shields of lacquered
human leather. Wearing corselets scaled with human fingernails and necklaces of
human teeth.

 

The distant horn sounded again,
and they paused, a vicious milling rabble. Words were barked among them. A
number melted into the undergrowth, loping with the swiftness of wolves. The
others jerked at their groins in anticipation. Blood. They could smell mannish
blood.

 

Seed jetted black across the
forest floor. They stamped it into the muck. They exulted in the stink of it.

 

The scouts returned, and at
their jabbering the others shuddered and convulsed. It had been so long since
they had last glutted their rapacious hunger. So long since they knelt at the
altar of jerking limbs and mewling flesh. They could see the panicked faces.
They could see the gushing blood, the knife-made orifices.

 

They ran, weeping for joy.

 

Cresting a low ridge, they found
their prey hastening along the base of a back-broken cliff, trying to make
their way to the far side of a gorge that opened as though by miracle several
hundred paces away. The Sranc howled and chattered their teeth, raced in wild
files down the slope, skidding across leaves, their legs kicking in long leaps.
They hit the ground where it flattened, scrambling, running, burning hard in
their rotten breeches, watching the soft Men turning mere paces before them,
their faces as enticing as thighs, coming closer and closer, almost within the
circle of wild-swinging swords—

 

But the ground! The ground!
Collapsing beneath them, like leaves thrown across sky!

 

Dozens of them were sucked
shrieking into the black. The others clutched and jostled, tried to stop, only
to be bumped screeching by their crazed kin. Their screams trailed as they
plummeted into the concealed gorge, popped into silence one by one. Suddenly
all was uncertain, all was threat. The war-party yammered in fear and
frustration. None dared move. Eyes rolling, they stared in lust and
apprehension...

 

Men.

 

A hard-bitten handful, running
as though by magic across the false forest floor. They lunged into the Sranc's
midst, their heavy swords high and pitching. Shields cracked. Mouldered iron
was bent and broken. Limbs and heads were thrown on arcs of glittering blood.

 

The Men roared and bellowed,
hammered them to earth, hacked them to twitching ruin.

 

***

 

"Scalper!" the lone
traveller cried out. His voice possessed the gravel of an old officer's bawl.
It boomed through the gorge, easily audible over the white roar of water. As
one, the men upriver stood and stared in his direction.

 

Just like animals
, he
thought.

 

Indifferent to their gaze, he
continued picking his way along the treacherous stones, sloshing through water
every several steps. He passed a Sranc, white as a drowned fish, floating face
down in a pool of translucent red.

 

The traveller glanced up to
where the gorge walls pinched the sky into a wandering slot. Trees had been
felled across the opening, forming the rafters for an improvised ceiling of
saplings and sticks, covered over with leaves. The sky glared bright through
numerous holes. Leaves still twittered down in a steady cascade. If the numbers
of inert forms scattered and heaped about the rocks were any indication, it had
been a very effective trap. In places, the river's foam spouted pink and
violet.

 

Most of the men had returned to
their work, but three continued to watch him warily. He had no doubt that the
one he sought was among them.

 

The traveller tramped into their
midst. The smell of burst entrails soured that of water and scoured stone. Most
of the party sorted through the dead Sranc. Bodies were kicked off bodies.
Broken heads were pulled from the water. Knives flashed. It was the same each
time: pinch, saw, swipe, then on to the next one. Pinch, saw, swipe—again and
again. A flap of skin cut from the crown of every one.

 

Nearby, a young Galeoth
swordsman washed a small hoard of scalps. He rinsed them, then laid them out,
glistening and fatty white across dry stone. He handled each swatch with
ludicrous care, the way a halfwit might handle gold—which scalps had pretty
much become in the High Middle-North. Though the Aspect-Emperor had lowered the
Hallow Bounty, a scalp still fetched a full silver kellic from honest brokers.

 

They were all extremely
conscious of his arrival, the traveller knew. They simply pretended to be
indifferent. Usually, they encountered outsiders only when they trekked south
to the brokers, flush with hundreds of tanned scalps, bound and dangling from
lengths of leather string. This work, the work of collecting and counting, was
the least manly portion of their trade. It was their menial secret.

 

It was also the point.

 

Nearly eleven years had passed
since the Aspect-Emperor had declared his bounty on Sranc scalps, before the
last of the Unification Wars had ended. He placed the bounty on Sranc because
of their vast numbers. He placed the bounty on scalps because their
hairlessness made them distinctive to Sranc. Men such as these, the traveller
supposed, would be far happier poaching something less inclined to kill
back—like women and children.

 

So began the Scalping Years.
Over that time, countless thousands had trudged into the northern wilderness,
expedition after expedition, come to make their fortune as Scalpoi. Most died
in a matter of weeks. But those who learned, who were wily and every bit as
ruthless as their foe, prospered.

 

And some—a few—became legendary.

 

The man the traveller sought
stood upon a rounded stone, watching the others work. He knew him from his
dogged devotion to the traditional costume of his caste and race: the pleated
war-skirt, stained grey and black and shot through with holes; the corselet
with rusty scales stitched into rotting leather; the conical helm, bent back
like a single ram's horn. He looked a wraith from another age. A second man,
his face concealed by a black cowl, sat three paces behind him, leaning forward
as though straining to hear something in the water's ambient rush. The
traveller peered at him for a moment, as though trying to judge some
peculiarity, then returned his gaze to the first man.

 

"I'm looking for the
Ainoni," he said. "The one they call Ironsoul."

 

"That would be me,"
the standing man replied. His face had been tattooed with the cosmetics
favoured by his countrymen. Black lines about his eyes. Purpled lips. His look
neither accused nor questioned but remained mild in the manner of bored
assassins. Incurious.

 

"Veteran," the
traveller said, bowing his head in due respect. Failing to properly acknowledge
and venerate a survivor of the First Holy War was no small offence.

 

"How did you find us?"
the man asked in his native tongue. From the cadence of his voice, it was
obvious that he despised speaking, that he was as jealous of his voice as he
was of his women or his blood.

 

The traveller did not care. Men
prized what they would.

 

"We find everyone."

 

A barely perceptible nod.
"What do you want?"

 

"You, Scalper. We want
you."

 

The Ainoni glanced back toward
his cowled companion. No words were exchanged, only an inscrutable look.

 

***

 

Late Autumn, 19 New Imperial Year (4131
Year-of-the-Tusk), Momemn.

 

Ever do Men seek to hide what is
base and mean in their natures. This is why they talked of wolves or lions or
even dragons when they likened themselves to animals. But it was the lowly beetle,
the young boy decided, whom they most resembled. Belly to the ground. Back
hunched against the world. Eyes blind to everything save the small circle
before them.

 

His Whelming complete,
Anasûrimbor Kelmomas crouched in the granite shadows, leaning between his knees
to better watch the insect scuttle across the ancient floor. One of the great
iron candle-wheels hung soundless between the pillars above, but its light was
little more than a dull gleam across the beetle's wagging back. Holding his
knees, Kelmomas shuffled forward, absorbed by the insect's tiny terrestrial
struggles. Despite the gloomy forest of columns behind him, the choral voices
sounded as close as his many shadows, singing hymns to frame the more fulsome
reverberations of the Temple Prayer.

BOOK: The Judging Eye
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