The Darkness That Comes Before, by R. Scott Bakker
One of my personal favorites, this is a fantasy story heavily influenced by philosophy, science fiction and apocolypse. The main character, Kellhus, has been raised at the frozen edge of the godless northern wastes by a secretive cult pursuing the complete perfection of body and mind. One day, the elders all receive a sorcerous message in their dreams from Kellhus’ exiled father, Moenghus, to send his son to him. Kellhus agrees to the demand and sets out on a quest of discovery, but quickly finds that his godlike father has left tests of person and place for him to overcome along the way.
Cnaiür is a savage Scylvendi chieftan who agrees to lead Kellhus through his people’s deadly lands in a bid to help find Moenghus and kill him. But what the savage man fears in the all-knowing father he also finds living in the unnatural son…
At some point, they crossed the spine of the Hethantas, and the trail began to fall. The Scylvendi forbade them from making fires, but the nights began to warm. Before them spread the Kyranae Plain, dark in the waxy distance, like the skin of an overripe plum.
Kellhus paused at the promontory’s lip and looked over jumbled ravines and ancient forests. Kuniuri had looked much the same from the roof of the Demua, he supposed, but while Kuniuri was dead, this land was alive. The Three Seas. The last great civilization of Men. At long last he had arrived.
I draw near, Father.
“We cannot continue like this,” the Scylvendi called out from behind him.
He’s decided it must be now. Kellhus had been anticipating this moment ever since they’d broken camp hours before.
“What do you mean, Scylvendi?”
“There’s no way two men such as us could cross Fanim lands during a Holy War. We would be gutted as spies long before reaching Shimeh.”
“But this is why we’ve crossed the mountains, isn’t it? To travel through the Empire instead…”
“No,” the Scylvendi said sullenly. “We cannot travel through the Empire… I brought you here to kill you.”
“Or,” Kellhus replied, still speaking to the vista before him, “to be killed by me.”
Kellhus turned his back to the Empire, toward Cnaiür. Surfaces of rock, sunbathed and soaring, framed the man. Serwë stood nearby. There was blood, he noted, on her fingernails.
“That is what you’ve been thinking, isn’t it?”
The Scylvendi wet his lips. “You tell me.”
Kellhus cupped the barbarian within his scrutiny the way a child might imprison a bird within tingling palms — alive to every tremor, to the pulse of a pea-sized heart, to the small heat of panicked respiration.
Should he give the man a glimpse, show him just how transparent he was? For days now, ever since Cnaiür had learned the truth of the Holy War from Serwë, he had refused to discuss anything regarding it or his plans. But his intentions had been clear: he had led them into the Hethantas to play for time, the way Kellhus had witnessed others do when they were too weak to surrender their obsessions. Cnaiür needed to continue hunting Moenghus, even when he knew the hunt to be a farce.
But now they were about to enter the Empire, a land where Scylvendi were flayed alive. Before, as they neared the Hethantas, Cnaiür had simply feared that Kellhus would kill him. Now, sure that his mere presence was about to become a mortal threat, he was certain. Kellhus had glimpsed the resolution over the course of the morning, in the man’s words and his wary glances. If he could not use the son to kill the father, Cnaiür urs Skiotha would kill the son.
Even though he knew this to be impossible.
So much torment.
Hatred, tidal in its scope and strength, enough to murder endless thousands, enough to murder self or even truth. A most potent tool.
“What would you have me say?” Kellhus asked. “That now we’ve reached the Empire, I no longer need you? That now I no longer need you, I intend to kill you? After all, one does not cross the Empire in the company of a Scylvendi.”
“You said it yourself, Dûnyain. Back when you were chained in my yaksh. For your kind there is only mission.”
Such penetration. Hatred, but pleated by an almost preternatural cunning. Cnaiür urs Skiötha was dangerous… Why should he suffer his company?
Because Cnaiür still knew this world better than he. And more important, he knew war. He was bred to it.
I have use for him still.
If the pilgrim routes to Shimeh were closed, Kellhus had no alternative but to join the gathering Holy War. Yet the prospect of war presented a near insuperable dilemma. He’d spent hours in the probability trance, trying to draft models of war, but he lacked the principles he needed. The variables were too many and too fickle. War… Could any circumstance be more capricious? More perilous?
Is this the path you’ve chosen for me, Father? Is this your test?
“And what is my mission, Scylvendi?”
“And after thirty years among world-born men, what kind of power do you think my father, a Dûnyain possessing all the gifts I possess, wields?”
The Scylvendi looked stunned. “I had not thought —”
“I have. You think that I have no need of you? That I have no need of Cnaiür urs Skiötha the many-blooded? The breaker-of-horses-and-men? A man who can strike down three in the space of as many heartbeats? A man who is immune to my methods, and therefore to those of my father as well? Whoever my father is, Scylvendi, he will be powerful. Far too powerful for any one man to kill.”
Kellhus could hear Cnaiür’s heart thunder beneath his breast, see his thoughts roil through his eyes, and smell the numbness that spread through his limbs. Oddly, the man glanced for a beseeching moment at Serwë, who had started trembling in terror.
“You say this to deceive me,” Cnaiür murmured. “To lull me…” Again the wall of his distrust, blunt and stubborn. He must be shown.
Kellhus drew his blade and lunged forward. The Scylvendi reacted instantly, though in the wooden manner of reflexes dulled by disbelief. He parried the first sweep easily but fell back before the ringing combination that followed. With each impact, Kellhus could see his anger brighten, feel it awaken and grab hold his limbs. Soon the Scylvendi was countering with blinding speed and bone-jarring power. Only once had Kellhus seen Scylvendi children practicing the bagaratta, the “sweeping way” of Scylvendi sword fighting. At the time it had seemed excessively ornate, freighted with dubious flourishes.
Not so when combined with strength. Twice Cnaiür’s great sweeps almost struck him to his heels. Kellhus retreated, affecting fatigue, planting the false scent of an impending kill. He could hear Serwë screaming. “Kill him, Kellhus! Kill him!”
Grunting, the barbarian redoubled his fury. Kellhus parted a hammering rain of blows, feigning desperation. He reached out and clamped Cnaiür’s right wrist, yanked him forward. Somehow, impossibly, Cnaiür managed to bring his free hand up, seemingly through Kellhus’s sword arm. He pounded his palm into Kellhus’s face. Kellhus fell backward, kicking Cnaiür twice in the ribs. He rolled into a handstand, effortlessly vaulted back into stance. He tasted his own blood. How? The Scylvendi stumbled, clutching his side. He’d misjudged the man’s reflexes, Kellhus realized, as he had so many other things.
Kellhus cast his sword aside and strode toward the man. Cnaiür howled, lunged, struck. Kellhus watched the sword-point arc through flashing sunlight, across hanging escarpments and scudding clouds. He caught it in his palms, as one might a lover’s face or a fly. He twisted the blade about, wrenching the pommel from Cnaiür’s hand. He stepped within his reach and struck him in the face. As the man pedaled backward, he bounced low and swept his legs from beneath him.
Rather than scramble out of reach, Cnaiür rolled to his feet and leapt at him. Kellhus leaned back, caught the Scylvendi by the back of his girdle and his neck, then heaved him back the way he came, closer to the ledge. When Cnaiür tried to stand, Kellhus struck him backward even farther.
Further blows, until the Scylvendi was more a rabid beast than a man, sucking shuddering breaths, swinging arms that were punished with senselessness. Kellhus struck him hard, and he fell slack, cracking his skull on the edge of the promontory.
Heaving him up, Kellhus thrust the barbarian out over the precipice and, with one arm, held him dangling over the distant Empire. The wind swept his jet hair across the abyss.
“Do it.” Cnaiür gasped through snot and spittle. His feet swayed over nothingness.
So much hatred.
“But I spoke true, Cnaiür. I do need you.”
The Scylvendi’s eyes rounded in horror. Let go, his expression said. For that way lies peace.
And Kellhus realized he’d misjudged the Scylvendi yet again. He’d thought him immune to the trauma of physical violence when he was not. Kellhus had beaten him the way a husband beats his wife or a father his child. This moment would dwell within him forever, in the way of both memories and involuntary cringes. Yet more degradation for him to heap on the fire.
Kellhus hoisted him to safety and let him drop. Another trespass.
Serwë crouched beneath her horse, weeping — not because he had saved the Scylvendi but because he had not killed him. “Iglitha sun tamatha!” she wailed in her father’s tongue. “Iglitha sun tamatheaaa!”
If you loved me.
“Do you believe me?” he demanded of the Scylvendi.
The Scylvendi stared at him with dull shock, as though bewildered by the absence of his wrath. He pushed himself to unsteady feet.
“Shut up,” he said to Serwë, though he could not look away from Kellhus.
Serwë continued wailing, crying out to Kellhus. Cnaiür’s eyes clicked from Kellhus to his prize. He strode toward her, struck her silent with an open palm. “I said shut up!”
“Do you believe me?” Kellhus asked again. Serwë whimpered, struggled to swallow her sobs. So much sorrow.
“I believe you,” Cnaiür said, momentarily unable to match his gaze. He stared at Serwë instead.
Kellhus had already known this would be his answer, but there was a great difference between knowing an admission and exacting it.
Yet when the Scylvendi at last looked at him, the old fury animated his eyes, burning with almost carnal intensity. If Kellhus had assumed as much earlier, he now knew with utter certainty: the Scylvendi was insane.
“I believe you think you need me, Dûnyain. For now.”
“What do you mean?” Kellhus asked, genuinely perplexed. He’s becoming more erratic.
“You plan on joining this Holy War. On using it to travel to Shimeh.”
“I see no other way.”
“But for all your talk of needing, you forget I’m a heathen to the Inrithi,” Cnaiür said, “little removed from the Fanim they hope to slaughter.”
“Then you’re a heathen no more.”
“A convert?” Cnaiür snorted incredulously.
“No. A man who’s awakened from his barbarity. A survivor of Kiyuth who’s lost faith in the ways of his kinsmen. Remember, like all peoples, the Inrithi think they are the chosen ones, the pinnacle of what it means to be upright men. Lies that flatter are rarely disbelieved.”
The extent of his knowledge, Kellhus could see, alarmed the Scylvendi. The man had tried to secure his position by keeping him ignorant of the Three Seas. Kellhus tracked the inferences that animated his scowl, watched him glance at Serwë… But there were more pressing matters.
“The Nansur will care nothing for such stories,” Cnaiür said. “They’ll see only the scars upon my arms.”
The sources of this resistance eluded Kellhus. Did the man not want to find and kill Moenghus?
How can he still be a mystery to me?
Kellhus nodded, but in a shrugging manner that dismissed even as it acknowledged objections. “Serwë says peoples from across the Three Seas gather in the Empire. We’ll join them and avoid the Nansur.”
“Perhaps…” Cnaiür said slowly. “If we can make it to Momemn without being challenged.” But then he shook his head. “No. Scylvendi don’t wander. The sight of me will provoke too many questions, too much outrage. You have no inkling of how much they despise us, Dûnyain.”
There was no mistaking the despair. Some part of the man, Kellhus realized, had abandoned hope of finding Moenghus. How could he have missed this?
But the more important question was whether the Scylvendi spoke true. Would it be impossible to cross the Empire with Cnaiür? If so, he would have to —
No. Everything depended on the domination of circumstance. He would not join the Holy War, he would seize it, wield it as his instrument. But as with any new weapon, he needed instruction, training. And the chances of finding another with as much experience and insight as Cnaiür urs Skiötha were negligible. They call him the most violent of all men.
If the man knew too much, Kellhus did not know enough — at least not yet. Whatever the dangers of crossing the Empire, it was worth the attempt. If the difficulties proved insurmountable, then he would reassess.
“When they ask,” Kellhus replied, “the disaster at Kiyuth will be your explanation. Those few Utemot who survived Ikurei Conphas were overcome by their neighbors. You’ll be the last of your tribe. A dispossessed man, driven from his country by woe and misfortune.”
“And who will you be, Dûnyain?”
Kellhus had spent many hours wrestling with this question.
“I’ll be your reason for joining the Holy War. I’ll be a prince you encountered traveling south over your lost lands. A prince who’s dreamed of Shimeh from the far side of the world. The men of the Three Seas know little of Atrithau, save that it survived their mythic Apocalypse. We shall come to them out of the darkness, Scylvendi. We’ll be whoever we say we are.”
“A prince…” Cnaiür repeated dubiously. “From where?”
“A prince of Atrithau, whom you found traveling the northern wastes.”
Though Cnaiür now understood, even appreciated, the path laid for him, Kellhus knew that the debate raged within him still. How much would the man bear to see his father’s death avenged?
The Utemot chieftain wiped a bare forearm across his mouth and nose. He spat blood. “A prince of nothing,” he said.