6 – 10

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From the outside, and even on a casual glance around its interior, the Tiraas lodge of the Huntsmen of Shaath looked modest, even humble. Situated in one of the city’s poorer districts, it was kept in shadow until late morning by the northeastern wall, which was appropriate as Shaathvar lay in that direction from Tiraas, deep in the snowy Stalrange. The lodge itself was designed after the pattern of a Stalweiss chieftain’s hall, a long building with massive oaken timbers exposed beneath an enormous thatched roof. Though it was one of the smaller of the major temples in the city, that still counted as a resource-intensive luxury, given how often thatch needed to be replaced. Despite the rough nature of its basic construction, the lodge was lavishly ornamented, the carvings adorning every part of its wooden surface a mix of intricate knotwork and crude animal pictograms.

Small and rough or no, it was actually one of the older temples in the city, hence the towering limestone foundation on which it sat, rising nearly a full story above street level. The lodge predated Tiraas’s magnificent sewer system, and had been designed to survive periodic flooding. Thus, Darling had to ascend a long flight of worn stone steps to reach the looming facade of the temple itself. Iron braziers glowed dimly with smoldering charcoal on both sides of the staircase; at the top, twin statues of wolves snarled down at those who dared approach the domain of the Huntsmen. It was a forbidding approach, and doubtless, deliberately so.

He had chosen his Universal Church robes for this visit, complete with neatly brushed hair, and wore a stately, calmly beneficent manner like a cloak. He didn’t really know what the Huntsmen thought of the Guild; Shaath’s cult wasn’t well-liked by most of the others, and it stood to reason the feeling would be mutual, but he hadn’t actually troubled to learn what the world looked like through their eyes. Regardless of interfaith tensions—or lack thereof—everything he did know about the Huntsmen suggested they wouldn’t respond warmly to a grinning, slightly scruffy city slicker like Sweet. Darling had heard from the Archpope, from Andros and from various third parties he used to keep tabs on both that the cult of Shaath was firmly behind the Church, so it seemed a safe bet that they wouldn’t turn away a Bishop who introduced himself as such.

A man in the traditional leather and fur stood at the top of the steps, in the shadow of the lodge’s overhanging eaves and partially hidden from the staircase by one of the wolf statues. He wore a short beard and had his hair tied back in a simple tail; a bristling stock of arrows bristled over his shoulder from a quiver, and he held a longbow.

“Welcome,” he said, nodding to Darling. That was all; no elaborate greeting, no inquiries after his business or the state of his spiritual health. Nothing unfriendly in the sentinel’s aspect, either, which was an improvement over the Huntsmen’s general reputation. Then again, Darling’s robes might have made a difference.

“Thank you,” he said, matching the man’s nod and adding a kind smile. The sentinel returned his gaze to the street below a hair before Darling was quite past him.

Inside, he paused for a moment to get his bearings, let his eyes adjust to the relative dimness and, in truth, take in the barbaric splendor of the place. To Tiraan sensibilities, the lodge of the Huntsmen was laughably rustic. Darling was certainly not versed in how things were done in the back country of the Stalrange, but even he could see the care and wealth that had gone into this temple.

It was all wood, stark iron braziers, thatch and various animal decorations, yes, but in each there was ample evidence of mastery and devotion. Racks of antlers and whole animal heads stared down from the upper reaches of the square wooden pillars holding up the roof, and enormous stuffed animals stood at their bases. The taxidermy was absolutely splendid; the creatures looked nearly alive in the smoky gloom. Enormous bears of several colors, multiple varieties of great cats, giant monitor lizards, serpents, and a few things to which Darling could place no name stood watch over the hall. What light there was came from torches and iron braziers, which added a light haze of smoke as well as a tangy smell of burning wood, yet he noted a lack of smoke damage, even above the sconces. Clearly, great care went into the maintenance of the place. Every inch of the wooden interior was heavily carved with Stalweiss glyphs, knots and geometric patterns; though the finer details were obscured by the dimness, every surface glowed faintly in the torchlight with lovingly buffed polish.

Not far from the door, some of the room’s constant maintenance was in progress, in the form of a handsome middle-aged woman sweeping the floor. She wore traditional attire—which, now that Darling saw it up close, looked a lot like traditional elvish attire with the addition of fur. Her dress was plain and of soft, dark-stained leather, with an animal pelt of some kind draped over her shoulders. She wore her long hair in a braid—meaning she was married, even he knew that much—but didn’t have a collar. Darling did not know enough about Shaathist customs to place a meaning to it, and resolved to keep his mouth shut on the subject.

“Excuse me,” he said politely to her. “Would you know where I can find Bishop Varanus?”

She paused in her sweeping to straighten up fully and look him in the eye. “Perhaps the Huntsmen can better help you, sir,” she replied quietly, tilting her head in the direction of a knot of men standing and talking quietly further into the great hall. The soft voice and respectful demeanor were at odds with the hard and distinctly challenging look she gave him.

“Thank you,” Darling said with a smile, nodding deeply to her. She made no reply; he broke eye contact first, and didn’t hear the sweeping resume until he had turned his back and proceeded a few steps away. All of this he filed away for further consideration. It wasn’t often someone outside the cult itself got to interact with Shaathist women, and the brief encounter had been…enlightening. The subservience he had expected, but not the aggression, and the combination thereof was intriguing.

Four Huntsmen stood about halfway down the length of the hall, talking quietly amongst themselves. Darling approached them at a moderate pace, unabashedly admiring the décor. At the far end from the door stood an enormous bronze statue of a wolf, staring impassively at all who came before it. There were no depictions of Shaath as such, but the bronze representation of his sacred animal was the only one of its kind. Belatedly, he noted that there were no stuffed wolves among the animals on display. Well, that made a certain amount of sense.

“Good day,” he said, drawing within conversational distance of the small knot of Huntsmen. They had shifted their group to face him as he approached, and now nodded in unison.

“Welcome, Bishop,” one said calmly. “What can we do for you?”

“I’m looking for Bishop Varanus,” he replied. “Is he available?”

Two of them exchanged glances. The details of their attire were different, but the overall theme was the same: skins, leather, hunting knives, hatchets and bows. Only one was visibly unique, in that he had no beard.

“Is Brother Andros expecting you?” the beardless one asked, and Darling had to deliberately still himself to avoid showing startlement. It was a woman—lean, strongly muscled and deep-voiced, but not so deep that her speech didn’t give it away. Now that he had noticed, it was obvious in the finer details of her face.

“I requested his presence at the Cathedral this morning via messenger,” Darling said. “His reply was that if it was so important I could come down here myself.” He grinned. “So…no, I rather suspect he is not.”

They all smiled along with him, the oldest-looking of the number going so far as to chuckle.

“Andros is meeting with the Grandmaster and has been all morning,” said the woman, “but they are not secluded. If it’s important, I can take you to him.”

“I would greatly appreciate that! My thanks, miss…?”

An instant stillness fell over them, and he realized he had missteped, somehow. The sudden silence had the unmistakable flavor of social awkwardness, though no one offered a hint as to the reason. The three bearded Huntsmen went impassive; the woman stared at him very flatly, her demeanor suddenly a lot less open but not quite hostile.

“You are an outsider,” she said after a terse few moments, “and by Andros’s description, rather a fool. As such, I’ll let that pass.”

“You would be amazed how often that very distinction has saved my life,” he said glibly, trying for his most charming smile.

She wasn’t having it. “Perhaps I would not. This way.”

The woman turned and walked away, toward the wolf statue. Darling had nothing to do but follow, nodding politely to the three Huntsmen. They just watched him go.

She led him to the right of the statue and through a door tucked away in the shadowed corner, making no attempt at conversation. Behind this a dark, narrow hall traced the rear of the main chamber, with doors and other hallways branching off it every few feet. They proceeded in silence about half the length of the hall, where she turned abruptly to ascend a wooden staircase set in what appeared to be a tower. The steps creaked softly as they ascended, but did not shift or give any sign of weakness. That was very reassuring, as the construction of the staircase was sparse and left a very open view of the increasingly distant floor between the wooden steps.

It grew colder as they climbed, the flickering light of torches giving way to the steadier illumination of windows. His taciturn guide finally came to a stop at a small landing and opened a door there, through which a cool breeze immediately entered, ruffling his robes. Beyond this was a wide platform neatly hidden behind the peaked roof of the main hall, affording it a decent view over the city—the buildings in this district weren’t notably tall—while remaining out of sight from the street below. She nodded once at the open door and stepped back from it.

“Thank you,” Darling said politely, wanting to assuage her clearly affronted feelings but wanting even more not to worsen them, which was likely to happen if he made further conversation; he still had no idea what he’d even done wrong. She just nodded once more, waited until he was through, and shut the door firmly behind him.

Two men stood at the far end of the platform, Andros and an older man who had to be Grandmaster Veisroi. The Grandmaster was aged enough that his beard and hair were nearly all gray with only residual streaks of brown, his face weathered and deeply lined, but he stood fully upright and had the wiry physique Darling had observed in the other Huntsmen below. In fact, despite the stereotype, he realized that most of these men were lean and angular in build, rather than bear-like. Andros himself was by far the most burly of them, and the imposing bulk of his massive chest was offset by his height.

They had broken off their conversation at the door’s opening, and now stood watching him approach.

“Gentlemen,” Darling said by way of greeting, strolling up to them. “I hope I’m not interrupting?”

“Nothing that cannot be delayed,” Andros rumbled. “Grandmaster, this is Bishop Darling, of the cult of Eserion. Antonio, you stand in the presence of Erik Veisroi, mortal leader of the Huntsmen of Shaath.”

“I’m impressed that you would come here,” said the Grandmaster, his voice rasping slightly with age, but still clear and strong. “Not many of our faith are welcoming to a thief-priest.”

“I am relieved to hear that, Grandmaster.”

“Oh?”

“Anyone who is pleased to meet a thief is either loony or up to something. It’s hard to predict which will end up being a bigger waste of my time.”

Veisroi grinned. “Well, you have your cult’s famous spirit. In truth, I’ve never found any quarrel with the Guild. I wouldn’t send an Eserite into the woods, but I’m also loath to send my Huntsmen to stalk prey in the city streets. We all hunt in the way our own wilds demand, eh?”

“Well put,” Darling said with an unforced smile.

“I am surprised to see you, Antonio,” said Andros. “I had not actually expected you to come to the lodge.”

“You did invite me,” Darling said innocently. “Anyhow, I always enjoy meeting new people. Though I seem to have offended the young lady who led me up here, somehow.”

The two Huntsmen exchanged a wry look. “Let me guess,” Andros said with a grimace. “You greeted Brother Ingvar as a woman?”

“Ingvar?” he said carefully. “Is that…incorrect?”

“We, of course, tend to assume a person would have the wit to see someone attired as a Huntsman and understand the situation,” Andros said pointedly, “but fortunately Ingvar has had enough contact with infidels not to be too disappointed. He is a dual soul.”

“Ah,” Darling said, nonplussed. “And…that is…?”

“A man’s spirit,” Andros clarified, “unfortunately born in a woman’s body.”

Darling stared.

“These things happen,” Andros continued, while Veisroi watched Darling’s face with a faint grin. “The wild does not presume to be without mistakes. It need not be perfect; it simply is. A dual soul in but one of many kinds of deformity that may be visited upon a person. Some cults see a god’s disfavor in these events. We see only the randomness of nature.”

“I am…surprised,” Darling said carefully, sticking to understatement for safety’s sake. “Knowing how your cult feels about women, and homosexuality.”

“That is behavior,” Veisroi said distastefully, “not nature.”

“It is reasonable to place expectations on how a man conducts himself,” Andros added, nodding. “There is no sense in arguing with what plainly is, however. Dual souls face enough hardship in coming to understand themselves, and in going through life without the possibility of having a mate. We accept them as their spirit befits. Needless cruelty is not the way of the wild.”

Darling decided that at some point, he had to goad Andros and Basra into a theological debate so he could watch. This was either the best or the worst idea he’d ever had; he couldn’t decide which.

“Well! While I always love learning new things, I actually did come here for a reason, and I don’t want to waste any of your time. His Holiness has tasked me with assembling a picture of what actually occurred yesterday, specifically among the four cults whose Bishops were attacked by the Wreath. It’s become clear those attacks were a ploy to goad our cults into making a misstep, which at least two have done. The Church hasn’t had a full report from the Huntsmen yet, though.”

“That is the very matter we were discussing,” said Veisroi, stroking his beard and peering hawkishly at Darling. “Not to evade the question, but…what missteps were made?”

Darling grimaced. “The Thieves’ Guild and the Sisters of Avei struck back at the Black Wreath, both in a manner that led to numerous uninvolved citizens being injured. It’s looking a great deal like both were manipulated from within, which leaves us the very difficult task of rooting out whatever agents the Wreath have placed in each cult. There are considerable difficulties in both cases…”

“Mm,” Andros grunted. “As I recall, the Avenist Bishop has some authority over the Legions in the city. Am I wrong to guess that rabid Syrinx woman is responsible for this debacle?”

“She was a contributing factor,” Darling said ruefully, “which makes it hard to spot any subtler influences at work. Basra…is Basra. A heavy-handed disregard for bystanders isn’t out of character for her, and doesn’t necessarily imply she has Wreath ties.”

“And there you have Avenists in a nutshell,” the Grandmaster said with a grin. “Women trying to take on tasks that are not suited to them always seem to end in witless thuggery. It’s impressive how many millennia they have gone, managing not to learn.”

Darling wasn’t about to touch that. “The issue with the Thieves’ Guild is different. We operate in the same general manner as the Wreath, which makes any of their activities in our own ranks damnably hard to spot.”

“Camouflage,” Andros said, nodding. “Makes sense.”

“Well,” Veisroi went on more briskly, “I fear the Huntsmen are in no position to mock other cults for having been infiltrated by the Wreath. We do, however, have some cause for pride this day.” He grinned savagely. “There was, indeed, an attempt to provoke individual Huntsmen to join the attack on the Black Wreath yesterday. It rather spectacularly backfired. The men of Shaath stayed their hands, and we now have a traitor in custody.”

“He has yet to yield useful information,” Andros said with grim satisfaction. “But all things in time.”

“Really,” Darling said, impressed in spite of himself. “Well done. This will make things tremendously easier. If it’s not sensitive information, can I ask what happened, and how?”

“You come in your capacity as an agent of the Church, plainly,” said Veisroi. “We stand with Archpope Justinian, particularly against Elilial and her pawns; we are one in this struggle. Several of the more hotheaded Huntsmen were agitating for us to strike back at the Wreath in the wake of their assault on Andros’s quarters in this lodge. That was only to be expected. Brother Angner was only one such voice, and did not particularly stand out.” The Grandmaster grinned again. “But I have been on a hunt or two in my life, and haven’t forgotten quite yet how to do it. Rarely does one bring down prey by charging at it headlong. While Andros was supposed to be tending to his family and interfacing with the Church in the wake of the attack, I had him discreetly prowling around those men who were shouting loudest for blood. Angner was the only one caught. He was the one who had a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in his room, and a brass syringe of poison on his person.”

“Naturally,” Andros growled, “he protested his innocence. Claimed these were trophies taken from a slain warlock, and that his only sin was in failing to share such valuable spoils with his brothers.”

“Sounds plausible enough,” Darling said slowly.

“Yes,” Veisroi replied, still grinning. “At least until we gathered together every light-wielding cleric amongst the Huntsmen in this city, as well as several other priests who were willing to help us, placed Angner in the center of a holy circle and inundated him with enough healing light to outshine the blessing on a paladin’s sword.”

“It is best to hunt like the wolf,” Andros added, “but sometimes it is useful to maul like the bear. He evinced no sign of infernal corruption when examined. So when such corruption was visibly burned from him under that onslaught, his guilt as proven. For such a devil’s mark to be hidden from our clerics’ eyes could only have been Wreath spellwork.”

“Unfortunately,” Veisroi added, scowing distastefully, “that is as much progress as we have made. It is difficult to get further; knowing his guilt is proven, Angner has clammed up and will tell us nothing. Wreath or not, he is a Huntsman, raised and trained. He does not fear pain or deprivation.”

“We are thwarted by our own discipline,” Andros said wryly. “This is the point we have been debating, Antonio. It is clear more measures must be taken than we are prepared for, but… If he is given to the Church…”

“The duty of interrogating prisoners is deemed a military one,” said Veisroi with a sneer, “and thus is generally given to the Avenists. There are some things to which I am reluctant to subject a man of my cult, traitor or no. We have been discussing whether we can place strictures on the manner in which the Archpope is allowed to interrogate Brother Angner…and indeed, whether we should.”

“The need is urgent,” Andros said gravely. “Aberrant as the Sisters of Avei may be, if they can get results, the sacrifice may be necessary.”

“Hmm…” Darling stroked his chin thoughtfully. “…mind if I have a go?”


 

Brother Angner, after a day of imprisonment and whatever stress it had laid upon him, more closely resembled the Shaathist stereotype than the calm and polite Huntsmen Darling had met in the lodge. His hair was matted and in need of washing, his deep-set eyes were shadowed from stress and lack of sleep, and the smell surrounding him clearly indicated that he had been denied the opportunity to bathe or change clothes for a while.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” Darling said brightly. Angner narrowed his eyes.

A plain wooden table separated them; the Huntsman’s hands were manacled to it, the chains attached to the table’s legs. He had some room to move, but could not stand or reach his own face unless he laid his head down, and he seemed much more determined to keep it held high. The room itself was intimidating and clearly meant to be so. Stark gray stone, lit only by a brazier of coals in the corner and containing no furniture but the table and the chairs in which the two men sat on either side. There was no window; the air was stifling.

Behind Darling stood Andros and another Huntsman, staring grimly down at Angner, who was doing his best to ignore them.

“Now, it seems you’ve gone and gotten mixed up with the Black Wreath,” Darling went on in a light, conversational tone. “People tend to make rather a fuss about that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Really, though, this is all more common than you may realize. That’s the beauty of being a whole cult devoted to a grievance with the gods, eh? Everybody’s got some kind of beef. All the Wreath has to do is work one fingernail into you, and before you know it you’re taking communion with… Okay, honestly, I have no idea what the actual rituals are. But you get my point, don’t you, Angner?”

Angner sneered so hard it was visible through his beard.

“I figured you would,” Darling said glibly. “You of all people. What I’m driving at is that you aren’t much of a catch. Just being a member of the Wreath isn’t a major crime. Well, not legally; different cults have different rules about apostasy. No, in the end, the reason for all this rigamarole is that you possess useful information.” He leaned back in the chair, smiling benignly. “And we will get that information from you. I assure you, Angner, that is a foregone conclusion. What you get to determine is how you’ll be treated when that’s done, but deciding how much trouble it’s going to be to get you talking.”

Angner glared at him.

Darling met his gaze in silence for nearly a full minute, then abruptly stood. “Andros, can I borrow your hunting knife, please?”

Andros raised an eyebrow fractionally, but bent to pull the blade from his boot and handed it over without comment. It was a hefty weapon, plain and serviceable with a ridged handle carved from horn.

“Thanks,” said Darling, strolling over to the corner and carefully arranging the knife on the brazier so that its blade was directly above the hottest coals he could find close enough to the edge. He positioned himself so that the prisoner could see the heating knife, then leaned back against the wall next to the brazier, folding his arms and smiling. “Now, Andros tells me that Huntsmen don’t break easily. I’m certainly willing to believe that. You’re trained not to fear pain, is that right?”

Angner snorted softly, speaking for the first time since Darling had entered the room. “Eserite poof.”

“Ah, you’ve heard of me!” Darling said, grinning hugely. “Smashing. So! Not impressed by pain. Also not…what was it the Grandmaster said, Andros? Ah, yes, deprivation. Well, that just stands to reason, I suppose. You’re out in the wilderness, hunting for your food… Or for sport or religious rites, whatever it is you guys do. I confess I’m not as well-read on comparative religion as I really ought to be. Busy busy, you know how it is, not enough hours in the day.” He cocked his head to one side, turning toward Andros. “What was I saying? Oh, right! Pain and deprivation. So, of course, the traditional way of dragging intelligence out of prisoners leans heavily on those two pillars. I understand your jailers anticipated you’d be resistant to such methods and haven’t bothered to try ’em. Yes?”

He glanced around the room, getting a curt nod from the other Huntsman, then turned back to Angner. “Well, that’s all well and good, but…and call me a naïve optimist if you want…I think a sharp-looking fellow like you deserves a chance to redeem yourself. I mean, that’s just basic fairness, right? We all make mistakes. The Wreath, as I was just saying, is very good at seducing people away from their common sense. Has anyone bothered to simply ask you, Angner, who your fellow Wreath agents are? Politely?”

Angner’s sneer deepened.

“I’m asking now,” Darling said more quietly. “Why don’t we just skip a bunch of rigamarole and get this over with?”

The chained Huntsman shifted in his chair, further straightening his spine, and stared haughtily at him.

Darling shrugged. “I’m not much of a fan of torture, myself. Oh, not on any moral grounds, I assure you. In the Guild we get very comfortable with the idea of breaking elbows when they need to get broken. It’s just that it’s not very effective sometimes. Folk like yourself, why…they’re just not impressed enough by pain to make it worth the time and effort. And, funnily enough, the more likely someone is to have useful information to extract, the more likely they’ll have had some training to prevent you from extracting it. The whole thing’s just a self-defeating mess, y’know what I mean?”

He lifted the knife from the brazier. Even the handle was almost uncomfortably hot; the blade glowed red. “Hey, buddy—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name—can you do me a favor and hold his left arm down hard on the table?”

The second Huntsman looked to Andros, who nodded at him. In silence he stepped up, grabbed Angner’s arm and pinned it down as directed. Darling paced slowly over to the table, holding the glowing knife.

“The key, Angner, is knowing what people do fear. You’re not afraid to hurt? That’s perfectly fine. You’re afraid of something, though. Let me test out a theory.”

It was hard to hold the knife properly for what he had in mind; pressing on the blade wasn’t really an option, hot as it was. It was a hefty weapon, though, and very well-tended; its weight and sharp edge, to say nothing of the heat of it, aided in the task. Angner tried to ball his fist upon seeing what Darling intended, but the Huntsman holding him punched him first across the jaw to daze him, then slammed his closed fist down on Angner’s hand, then again, until the prisoner’s fist opened, and leaned on it, holding his flat hand down against the table.

Darling had to work fast so as not to burn his assistant, but the blade cut quickly and cleanly. It hung for a moment on the bone, but it took only two slices to chop off Angner’s thumb.

Holding the knife out to the side, now, he held his own hand over the Huntsman’s maimed fist, calling up his seldom-touched reserve of magic. A blaze of divine light poured forth, and in seconds, the wound had scabbed over, raw new skin already beginning to form at its edges.

“Thanks,” Darling said brightly. “You can let him up, now.”

He returned to the brazier, setting the knife back in its place to re-heat, then strolled casually back to the table, pulled out the chair and sat down. Angner had been impressively silent during the brief ordeal, and now stared in open-mouthed horror at his severed thumb, lying on the table before him. The other Huntsman stepped back, staying close but out of the way, his face impassive.

“What you fear,” Darling said quietly, “is weakness. Am I right? So here’s what we’re going to do, Angner. I am going to ask you some questions. Every time I don’t get an answer…or have reason to think you’re lying to me… You will lose something. The good news is I’m in no hurry! No appointments; you have my undivided attention. I can afford to go in small bits. You’ve got ten fingers…two eyes…” He chuckled softly. “Two balls. Lots of teeth. You know, the little things. So you’re not going to fail this little test all at once. Hell, if you’ve got the stomach, you could conceivably outlast me. If we get to the point that I’ve carved and healed you so much there’s just nothing else I can work with…” He shrugged. “Then you’ll have won! And I’m sure you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment. Something you can hold up to Elilial when you meet her to gain your reward in Hell. Oh, but that won’t be any time soon, mind you. Your life is in no danger here. You will have many long years to savor your victory, being carefully tended to and kept in the best of health. Without hands, without eyes, or feet. Unable to walk, feed yourself or wipe your own ass… Unable to talk or chew, with no tongue or teeth. Living on a diet of gruel and broth, completely and utterly helpless. Forever.”

He leaned back, grinning faintly and meeting the man’s wild-eyed stare. “Oh, I should mention, too, that the Universal Church really doesn’t have the facilities to keep prisoners over the long term. That duty is handed over to the Sisters of Avei.”


 

“Of course, it remains to be seen how accurate his information is,” Andros said as he and Darling strolled down the length of the lodge’s main hall toward the front doors. “The names are a starting point, though. They will each be in custody before the night is out.”

“Fabulous!” Darling said airily. “Will you be needing my help in chatting them up, as well?”

The Huntman eyed him sidelong. “I must discuss that with the Grandmaster.”

“Of course, of course. Well, you know how to reach me.”

“Mm.” Andros cleared his throat. “I have misjudged you, Antonio. You do have an irritating predilection for frivolity, but I had taken that to mean you are weak-hearted. That…was in error.”

Darling looked at him for a moment, then smiled. “You think what I want you to think.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

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27 thoughts on “6 – 10

  1. If you support thwarted expectations, vote for The Gods are Bastards!

    This one’s up a little late again (sorry!) but hopefully makes up for the inconvenience by being longer than the last few. We’re starting to get into the real substance of Book 6!

    So there was general disinterest in the character Q&A idea, and I can’t say I particularly mourn that. It does seem a little contrived. I’m still shopping around for fun things to do that’ll bring a little more involvement from readers; I love getting feedback from you guys, and I think it’d be neat if people who are really enjoying the story have a chance to do more than just passively observe.

    What do you guys think? Am I completely off-the-wall here and you’d rather just read? Anyone have any ideas for some kind of participatory project? Don’t be shy about brainstorming!

    In any case, see y’all on Friday. Be good!

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    1. I’ve read most of it; it’s been years and I never got around to the last books. I HOPE this doesn’t turn into WoT. Jordan completely forgot how to do pacing toward the end there. Which part seems similar?

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      1. The interrogation, Perrin does the same thing with a captured Ariel. Otherwise there aren’t any assimilates. I agree on the pacing, entire books could have been cut.

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      2. Oh! Yes, actually I remember that now. I couldn’t swear that I wasn’t subconsciously influenced by the idea, but I never deliberately steal from other sources–except in a humorous “shout out” way, the point of which is to give credit, not to take it. Still, I think it works quite well in context here.

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      3. Eh, Wesley pulls the same general trick in The Princess Bride. “To the death!” “No! To the pain…”

        I suspect you’ll find similar approaches elsewhere as well, without that being a sign that it’s derivative.

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    2. There are a few similiarities to Wheel of Time, like the rather big cast spread out over several locations and the general fantasy theme.
      But overall TGaB has nothing to do with it and is very different in its core values.

      WoT had a distinct misogynistic flavour in its story telling which is completely absent in this story. WoT spent pages upon pages with descriptions of locations, outfits, customs etc and had entire books with no or little development, which is the opposite of what TGaB is doing. Considering that there were 14 books, there wasn’t really all that much character or story development in it. A better author could have told the same story in less than 10 books without losing anything important.

      I could go on but I do not feel there’s much WoT and TGaB have in common, at least not more than stories belonging to the same genre have.

      I might as well say that TGaB is similiar to Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind or Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera because both feature an academy for magic users and other talented people.

      @D.D. Webb: The WoT books written by Brandon Sanderson are much better than Jordan’s, mostly because he managed to put at little humour in them again. It didn’t help though, Jordan had Memory of Light written already and thus the story ends not on the high note that could have been…

      I do recommend reading the Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy by Patrick Rothfuss though, even if the third novel hasn’t been released yet. In my opinion it’s one of the best fantasy stories ever.

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      1. I actually have read the first two of the Kingkiller Chronicles and found them brilliant, aside from the “silence of three parts” nonsense at the beginning and end of each. That, in my view, was self-indulgent and unnecessary.

        I did read the first of Sanderson’s additions to the Wheel of Time. And possibly the second? I’d have to go refresh myself; as I said, it’s been years. I know I didn’t pick up the last one. Brandon Sanderson is, in my view, the best writer in the genre, but that might be because I share the specific interests he puts in all his work: strong female characters, in-depth analyses of religious systems and unique and well-constructed magical systems.

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      2. What really blew me away was that Kingkiller Chronicles is Patrick’s first published work. He’s already writing at a level that makes other established authors jealous. I am almost giddy with anticipation of what he’ll write next.

        I think the first books from Sanderson I read were the Mistborn trilogy and he only got better from there. I wish I had more time to read, I still haven’t started with The Way of Kings despite having it on my book shelf for years.

        Web serials are much easier in that regard, I can read them at work during lunch break or whenever I’ve got some time to spare.

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      3. Well, since you brought up favorite fantasy stories, I’ve embraced the realization that THIS story has become one of mine. I didn’t expect that when I first clicked over here from TWF. I do love Super Powereds and Leigion of Nothing and Twig, but I enjoy TGaB more because this world is actually alive, it’s complete and it functions on it’s own power, whether you’re looking atbit or not. The setting works independent of the specific plot and the specific characters we happen to be following, if that makes sense. It’s a world limited by your imagination and NOTHING else. The same applies to the cast. I think a story has to have at least a couple of realistically flawed (as well as realistically able) characters; here, that’s EVERY character! You don’t write fantasy personalities, you write regular personalities, as they would be if they happened to be born half-demon or half-elf into a world with Gods and magic. That’s what sets this story apart from pretty much everything.

        I wouldn’t call this a criticism, but this is possibly the first story I’ve read in years that I’m not constantly imagining how I would adapt it into a movie or TV show. Worm, for example, would be amazing as a TV serial a la Game of Thrones, which itself is better than the books ever were. I don’t even imagine TGaB working as an anime; no, I think you’re already telling the story in the best way possible!

        The only other fantasy serial I enjoy as much is Mother of Learning (if clicking the title doesn’t work, it’s https://m.fictionpress.com/s/2961893/1/Mother-of-Learning), about a kid who’s about to start his junior year at the mage academy. Much like TGaB, it’s at times hilarious, at times poignant, and always engaging. MoL isn’t on TWF and I’ve never heard anybody else mention it, but I’d imagine anyone who loves TGaB would love it as well.

        –WP

        Also, I emailed my parents (also cat people) the first two paragraphs of Ruda’s interlude, that was one of the best descriptions of cats I’ve ever read!

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  2. So, I have a former co-worker who is a woman trapped in a man’s body.

    She was still early in her medical transformation… and I didn’t know what to address her when we first met, because I had a hard time telling then. So I went with “Mister”.

    You describe THAT scene perfectly here, and I am still regretting it.😦

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  3. I find the idea of transsexual avenists fascinating. Assuming that there’s no in universe way of knowing at birth that someone’s a man in a woman’s body, I wonder how it works, getting the cult to recognize you as a man when they’ve been treating you all your life as a woman, and it makes such a huge difference.

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  4. Full commentary later, but there are two things that look like problems, although minor:

    1) Throwing a knife in a fire is a way to mess up the temper, if the fire is hot enough. The Shaathists have to be trained on blade care, so they would probably know this. The secondary point, that a brazier may not be hot enough to be a real problem, would probably only be known to the more blacksmith-inclined among them. My point is that Andros should have been noticeably unhappy with Darling’s action there, unless A) he knew better or B) he is significantly self-controlled and restrained in action. Note: My blacksmith abilities are basically zero, so I am basing this on what I believe are realistic readings (but they might not have been).

    2) In reference to “hot enough”, a brazier is probably not hot enough to get steel glowing in the very few minutes that Darling took to speak. (Same note as to limitations on knowledge.) If you are basing your ideas off of how fast stove and toaster units glow, which is the only metal that us modern humans see, that’s a different process (electrical resistance).

    Are there any readers with more practical experience who could confirm/contradict what I said?

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    1. A brazier is hot enough, if it uses coals. It’s basically the same as in a smithy… you shove the metal between the glowing coals and it only takes a few minutes to get hot enough to glow itself. Probably not hot enough to be worked (you want a bright yellow glow for that) but definitely hot enough to cauterize a wound.

      I doubt Andros cares so much about his knife that he’d interrupt Darling, getting the information was much more important. Chances are that the knife was damaged in the process but it probably can be fixed.

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    2. You may well be right, and if this were set in the real world I would have to grudgingly go back and change it. In a fantasy story, though, I place story above realism. Readers may justify it any way they like. Wizards. Fairies. Valyrian steel.

      As for the character considerations, you may have noticed that Andros isn’t perturbed by much, and he can always get a new knife.

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      1. Get a new knife? I would imagine he already has quite a few more of them! Maybe he wouldn’t trust Darling with his best / favorite in the first place, and handed over his “junk” knife (which still impressed Darling, despite being on the Andros’ level “B” maintaince priority schedule.

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    3. Oh wait. Stop.

      You are right, a brazier wouldn’t be hot enough. I forgot one important difference: In a blacksmith forge you’d have much more airflow, which means the temperature of the coals would be much higher.

      Although braziers are build to utilize airflow because you want them produce light and for that you need high temperatures, they are probably not in the same league as a forge where air is pumped in constantly.

      A very dull red glow along the thinner edges of the knife might be possible but it wouldn’t be visible against the glowing coals.

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    4. I did metal work for a quarter in college. A brazier probably won’t get hot enough to mess up the temper of a blade. At the same time it won’t get a knife hot enough to glow in a couple of minutes. It took me 5-10 with a gas forge to get a piece glowing. A faint red will require the metal to be about 500 C.

      At the same time if I had a nice knife and someone threw it in a fire I would be pissed.

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  5. Now, I’ve gone and gotten caught up. And here I was enjoying the story so much. Now I have to wait for updatesssss ;A;

    All that aside, I love the university theme/setting; it let’s you drop exposition and knowledge of the world on us. I love it!

    Favourite character: Antonio Darling
    Favourite scene: The torture by Darling Sweet ❤💙

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  6. I’m later than normal on comments.

    Typos:

    going so far as
    (my spell checker likes ‘as far as’)

    missteped
    misstepped

    scowing
    scowling

    rigamarole (2)
    rigmarole
    (that one gets me also, every time)

    Huntman
    Huntsman

    Reactions:

    My, my, some surprises from the Shaathists: recognition of mis-gendered people and competence in outing spies. I like the explanation of Shaathist philosophy.

    And Darling shows some of his hard-core side. Somehow I am not surprised.

    Antonio: “You think what I want you to think.”
    Hello, Branwen.

    The whole thing reminds me of a chapter-opening quote from A Practical Guide to Evil (https://practicalguidetoevil.wordpress.com), another web serial (quite good, BTW).

    Threats are useless unless you have previously committed the level of violence your are threatening to use. Make examples of the enemies you cannot control so those that you can will be cowed. This is the foundation of ruling.
    – Extract from the personal memoirs of Dread Emperor Terribilis II

    It is also a stark reminder that the cults and the Tiraan empire lack significant “modern” restrictions on behavior.

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  7. Despite the WoT similarities, I enjoyed this scene a lot. Darling walks in, chatters amiably for a bit, gives the guy an out, and then straight up deconstructs the man, figuratively and literally, smoothly and without dropping or significantly changing character. While anyone would be horrified to lose a thumb, the combination of that and his analysis of what the man fears (including the aside regarding the sisters) was frankly terrifying. He painted, in about a minute of chatter, a long torturous existence likely made of the guy’s nightmares. Brutal. And somehow still in character. Very well done.

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