Maryam woke up halfway through the hall, which helped a lot.
Even groggy as she was she could stumble forward while leaning on his side, which was a distinct improvement from carrying her on his back. Tristan had been worried about her, as being knocked unconscious was rarely the end of one’s troubles, but though she had a hard time focusing her eyes her mind seemed all there. Enough to insult him, anyway, which he took as a good sign.
“You carried me,” Maryam doubtfully repeated. “Did you happen have a cart at hand?”
Tristan glared. He was not that skinny.
“I can still leave you behind,” he threatened.
“But then who will catch you when you leap off a cliff for the third time?” she shot back.
“It was really more of a fall this time,” he argued. “And not, by the strictest definition, a-”
“If you have breath enough to talk,” Yong bit out from ahead, “then run faster.”
The older man was not doing well. He was barely ahead of them even though Tristan was helping someone. There was a hole in the back of his coat where Vasanti had shot him, perhaps an inch to the side of the spine – it was a ragged, red thing. The thief could not easily tell with the coat on, but he thought it might be high enough a lung would be a at risk.
Gods, let it not have pierced a lung. That was an ugly way to die.
The ground shook beneath their feet again, a reminder that Yong’s anger was not senseless. A glance behind told him that the cavernous room at the top of the pillar was still there, but for how long? Sooner or later the weight would drag the whole thing down like a spear into the Red Maw’s heart. Cutting out the chatter, the pair followed after Yong as best they could.
It was a close thing, but when the hall behind them snapped like a twig they did not fall with it. They’d pulled ahead enough, though Tristan knew better than to stop. He’d glimpsed the parting gift of the devils and it was not going to stop at the pillar spearing down: without that structure serving as support, the entire mountaintop was going to crumble inwards.
It would be best if they were not there to crumble with it.
It was a strange thing, their race to the end of the hall. On the one hand fear – and the cloud of dust behind them – kept them wide awake and attentive, death looming ever close. On the other, the length of the hallway was aggressively monotonous. It was all bare stone in a dim light of no clear source, perfectly symmetrical and utterly empty. The kind of sight that made you fall asleep.
Thrice the thief found his gaze drifting, seeking corners and angles, and he thought he might have been tiring until he realized what he truly was doing: looking for Fortuna. There was no trace of her, not leaning against a wall and smirking or even effortlessly keeping pace with him in her red dress. She was just gone. Tristan felt his breath shortening, a dim fear seizing him by the throat.
What if she never came back? What if the way he’d pulled on the contract had killed her? She was a small god, near forgotten, and if he’d taken too much from her she might have…
“Tristan,” Maryam hissed. “Focus, we’re nearly there. We’re going to be fine.”
The thief came back to himself, his back covered in cold sweat, and bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. The pain centered him, kept him in there and now. He could not think about this, about how he might have lost the only person who’d never left, who could not die – he could not think about this.
Maryam was right, they were nearly at the end of the hall. All around them stone shuddered, the distant hallway falling apart as dust and dirt clouded sight but not the cacophonous noise. Ahead of them waited a smooth iron gate, and Tristan could but pray that it was not locked for if it was then they might well be dead. Yong was the one to reach it, and though there was no handle for him to push when he touched it the gate began opening on its own, sliding into the wall.
It was an unsettling sight, though not unsettling enough to stop him from taking refuge in the room past the gate.
The room was, he found when following after Maryam, little more than a glorified antechamber. There were racks on the wall from which nothing hung and two doorways on the sides leading into other halls. More importantly, though, was the broad gate – twice as long as it was tall – covering the entire back wall of the room. There were broad stripes of cryptoglyphs on the ground before it, beyond their understanding now that Francho was dead. Tristan’s teeth clenched.
It had been a quick death, he told himself.
“It must lead outside,” Yong said, eyeing the wall-gate as his breath came in pants. “There was nothing at the end of the hall in the projection we saw.”
The ceiling above them rumbled, softly lapping away at the silence.
“We cannot go through so long as there is a landslide,” Tristan said. “We’ll have to wait.”
The Tianxi grimaced.
“And if the landslide blocked the door?”
“Then we will try one of the other halls,” Maryam said. “We are not yet out of options, Yong.”
The veteran looked away.
“I suppose not,” he said.
Tristan cleared his throat.
“If we are to wait, then I would have a look at your wound,” he said.
The Tianxi turned, eyes cool.
“I can move just fine,” he said. “That is not necessary.”
Yong had never declined that offer before. The thief knew why he now had – though much had happened since, their conversation at the summit of the pillar was still fresh in his mind. Irritation rose.
“Disdain won’t stop your bleeding,” he coldly replied. “But if sanctimony is the hill you want to die on, by all means spare me the waste of bandages.”
He almost winced after saying it, seeing the way the other man’s face tightened, but he did not look away. It had not been the right way to handle that, and were he less tired he might have finessed his way into something better, but Tristan had been brutalized enough by his day he wasn’t sure he cared. Worse, he was pretty sure that the poppy was beginning to fade.
The dull ache in his everything was something of a hint.
“Would you have preferred picking out the hill for me?” Yong replied just as coldly. “That does seem to be your favorite racket.”
“All right, that’s enough of that,” Maryam said, stepping in between them with a tired look on her face. “Tristan, you left everyone in the dark as to your actual plan until the last moment. He’s got a right to be angry.”
A pause, then her eyes met his.
“I am too,” she frankly said. “This just isn’t the time or place for us to have that talk.”
His lips thinned. If Francho hadn’t been killed, would either of them even… Maryam turned to Yong with a smidgeon more sympathy, but only that.
“You know he’s never turned it on any of us,” she flatly said. “It’s childish to pretend he’s trying to do anything but keeping you from bleeding out. You can still be angry after he’s helped you – I am.”
“You don’t understand,” Yong said.
“Neither will the bullet in your back,” she brutally replied. “You need to get that seen to, and there’s only one of us who knows how.”
It was hard to argue with that, even though Yong looked like he wanted to. It was in a slightly sullen silence that they set about the examination. Yong laid out his coat and clothes on the ground, stripped down to the waist, and laid down with his belly on the coat. Kneeling by the older man, Tristan rinsed his hands in booze and leaned close. The Tianxi shivered when a droplet of drink fell onto his back.
“Cold,” Yong muttered.
Tristan did not answer, his face pulling into a frown. He wasn’t as familiar with gun wounds as those from knives or cudgels – he’d worked as a cutter’s assistant, not under a military surgeon – but he knew he wasn’t looking at the good kind of wound. If it had been a musket instead of a pistol he was shot with, Yong would have died. Reaching for a rag from his bag, he soaked it in alcohol and after cleaning the wound set about checking how deep the ball had penetrated. Yong’s shivering moan of pain went ignored.
The thief stopped almost immediately, letting out a noise of surprise.
“Tristan?” Yong croaked out. “What is it?”
The grey-eyed man grimaced.
“I’m going to have to feel out your ribs,” he said. “It’s going to hurt.”
The Tianxi cursed.
“Give me the bottle,” he said. “I-”
“You’re already drunk,” Tristan sharply said. “I’m not letting you thin your blood any further, you’ll kill yourself.”
“Fuck,” Yong quietly muttered, then breathed in. “Do it.”
He forced himself not to hear the man’s groans as he felt out the ribs, pressing the flesh enough to feel the lack of give beneath and – Yong let out a scream. Tristan’s fingers pulled away. He’d learned what he needed to anyway.
“You have been,” Tristan said, “extremely lucky. It may yet kill you.”
Maryam cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Well,” she said, “I guess there’s a reason you’re not in charge of morale around here.”
“I’m not convinced he should be in charge of medicine either,” Yong groaned from the ground, laying his forehead against his coat.
He stayed like that for a few breaths, mastering himself, then raised his head again.
“All right,” the Tianxi said. “Tell me.”
“When Vasanti shot you from behind, she hit your rib,” Tristan said. “It’s the reason why there’s currently not a hole in your lung.”
“We may need to work on your definition of lucky,” Maryam noted.
“No,” Yong quietly disagreed. “He’s right. I’ve seen men get shot in the lung, this was fine luck. Now give me the bad news.”
“The impact shattered your rib and broke off at least one large piece,” the thief said. “I’d need to open you up to be sure – and that might well kill you even if I was a real physician – but I think that right now the bullet is what’s keeping that piece from stabbing into your lung.”
Maryam had nothing pithy to add to that. Yong swallowed.
“What can I do?”
“Nothing,” Tristan honestly said. “If we get you to a Watch surgeon in Three Pines they can remove the bullet and the broken off piece, but trying the same here with a knife would be like…”
The only words that came to him were too light, too teasing.
“It would be kinder to use the knife to slit your throat, let’s leave it at that.”
The veteran slowly nodded.
“How long do I have?”
The calm, Tristan thought, was the worst part of it. Yong had an almost serene look on his face, like the thought of dying didn’t move him at all. Like all he was wondering about was the schedule, the details of the marching orders to his grave. Maybe it was about knowing death, Tristan thought. That old friend walked with all the children of the Murk, but none of them knew it the way a soldier would. Someone who’d seen a hundred lives be snuffed out in a heartbeat, washed away by a wave of smoke and lead. Maybe it wasn’t so scary when you’d seen so much of it.
Somehow, he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that.
“I can’t tell,” Tristan admitted. “Depending on how the rib broke that piece could be wedged tight in place or it could be on the edge of coming loose. Could be hours, could be days, could be a year.”
The thief licked his lips.
“Avoid moving too fast and getting hit in the torso, that’s the best advice I can give you.”
His gaze broke away from the Tianxi’s as he reached for his bag.
“I’ll bandage it,” he added. “It might help some, and we need to keep that wound from getting infected as long as possible.”
The wound going bad might kill the other man before the rib piece did. Yong’s forehead went back down and he did not say anything after that.
None of them did, waiting in silence until the last of the rumbling above passed.
The last iron gate parted open at a touch, both sides fleeing into the wall – though one got stuck halfway through, some unseen metal gear letting out a strident cry as it tried to force the matter and ended up breaking for it.
Wary as that sound had made them, they still hurried out into the small natural cave past the gate. The iron wall closed behind them, save for the part that’d got stuck. Yong’s lantern showed there was a worn fire pit in here and some coal drawing on the walls along with words in a language Tristan did not know. At least one of them was a name, he figured, written above a pretty obscene drawing of a man thrusting his phallus at an airavatan’s buttocks.
“Charming,” Maryam drily said.
“It hasn’t been used recently,” Yong said, eyes on the pit. “Still, it looks like hollows know of this place.”
Tristan drew back to lay his hand on the iron gate, who confirmed his suspicions by not moving an inch. It only opened from the inside, then. The hollows had never gotten into the pillar. By the time he returned the other two had moved on, leaving the cave and stopping on a ledge right outside of it. Tristan joined them, inhaling the faint breeze with a smile as he pressed down his tricorn. Above them the veiled lights of firmament shone, cold and unmoving stars. They had made it out.
For a long moment they stayed there, savoring the simple truth of that.
Tristan was the first to stir. His gaze turned below, where a great dark forest spread out – through there was a ring of light nestled in its heart, to the northeast. The glow was pale enough it must have Glare to it. Some kind of Watch outpost? He was not the only one who had begun looking around, as Yong made clear when he let out a soft curse in Cathayan.
“It looks like we won’t be getting to sanctuary,” the Tianxi said.
Their gate out of the mountain was facing the Watch fort on the other side, but it did not need to when even from where they stood they could see the aftermath of a massive landslide gone down that slope. The blackcloak fort had been on that same side, they all knew, which was less than promising. Feeling Yong’s gaze grown colder when it moved back to him, Tristan held his hands up in protest.
“We don’t know that the place got buried,” he said. “And even if it did, Wen told me they have a vault below. Odds are it has a hidden passage they can use to get out of the mess.”
“You had best hope they do,” Yong said. “Else they might shoot you for this at Three Pines.”
Tristan was not the one who had caused the collapse, but he was disinclined to pass the blame onto Maryam.
“Vasanti caused all this,” he said instead. “She forced us at gunpoint to trigger the trap the devils left behind because of her obsession with controlling the Antediluvian device.”
Yong looked unconvinced and he felt Maryam’s blue eyes on him. She said nothing, tacitly agreeing to his take on events. Since the Tianxi had been down during most of the confrontation with Vasanti, potentially unconscious, he was in no position to argue the tale.
“It doesn’t matter,” Yong said. “Even if they get out we won’t be finding them out in the dark. They’ll be headed to Three Pines, at a guess.”
The port at the northern end of the island, Tristan thought, and likely where the Trial of Weeds ended.
“Or that place,” he said, pointing at the distant ring of lights in the woods. “Sarai, what did the map say about it?”
“Sarai?” Yong mildly said. “And here I thought her name was Maryam.”
Tristan grimaced. Shit, he’d let that slip during the mess inside hadn’t he? He sent his friend an apologetic look, which she dismissed with a hand.
“You can call me Maryam too,” she told the Tianxi. “Though I would ask you both to use Sarai in front of others.”
She got the nods she was seeking, then sighed.
“And the map did not say anything about what that place is,” she said. “It was marked, however, and a road through the woods that ultimately leads to the port goes through it. We have nothing to lose by taking a look.”
“If it’s a Watch outpost they might have surgeon,” Tristan told Yong. “Given how far the port is, it seems our best chance at keeping your ribs out of your lung.”
A little explicit for his tastes, but that ought to remind the man of how much danger he was in with every step he took.
“It does seem the wisest course,” Yong said. “If there are blackcloaks there, we may also learn what the Trial of Weeds is meant to be.”
“It’s settled, then,” Maryam said. “Let us get moving before the rest of this mountain comes down on our heads.”
“Or worse,” Tristan fervently agreed. “Lieutenant Wen warned me about cultists out here, they’re the worst of the lot.”
It’d be a stroke of luck if the landslide had taken care of that for them, so he felt safe betting on the opposite.
There were remains of what the Antediluvians must have used to get up and down mountain once upon a time, some kind of half-buried machine whose sharp glittering spikes rose out of the dirt. None of them would have any idea how to get such a thing working – if it still worked at all – so instead they went down the old-fashioned way. Hollows clearly camped in the cave on occasion, so it was just a matter of finding the path they used to come here.
It turned out to be a glorified goat trail snaking down the mountainside, narrow and made even steeper when the earlier collapse had shaken off loose rocks. Tristan was no stranger to heights but he still stepped warily, for a single slip here would likely be enough to kill him. For the better part of an hour they descended, the path widening as they got closer to the bottom, until finally they were able to leave the narrow trail for a bit.
They’d heard the waterfall long before they saw it. Tucked away in the mountainside, it spat out the end of some river from the maze onto the rest of the island. There was a crossing through the water, a loose path of jutting stones that the wet had turned dangerously slippery. They took their time moving across, which was the reason Tristan even noticed something was amiss. Frowning, he clutched the side of the stone he was standing on and went fishing in the foamy water.
What he got for his trouble was a ripped doublet.
“Found something,” he told Maryam.
He held up the dripping doublet into the lantern light, catching blood on the edge of the rips. The thief let out a low whistle when he realized it wasn’t a simple case of the doublet having been torn: it was the same hole on both sides, more or less, so it was the remains of an impalement he was looking at.
“Old clothes?” Maryam said, taking a closer look. “Didn’t think you were that hard up.”
“I’ve seen that doublet before,” he said. “So have you.”
“The colors,” she slowly said.
“House Cerdan,” he confirmed. “It belonged to the elder brother, I believe.”
“So there’s a half-naked infanzon corpse somewhere in the maze,” Maryam said. “This has not been a good year for the Cerdan.”
Tristan smoothed away his smile. Yong had not disapproved of his taking revenge earlier, for all that the man had not known the details, but that had been before their disagreements. It was best kept under wraps now. Besides, he thought, what was Yong actually-
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” the Tianxi called out.
Yong had crossed all the way to the other side of the waterfall, at the edge of the lantern light, and was standing by a dead tree. The thief couldn’t make it out well, so he tossed the doublet back into the water and set about catching up. A waste – it was good fabric, might have fetched silver in the right shop – but he did not want carry any more weight than he had to. Maryam let out a startled noise within moments of reaching the other shore and Tristan soon saw why: there were footprints in the mud.
Someone had crawled out of the water onto the shore. The real surprise, though, was by the tree Yong was still closely studying. It was not dead the way Tristan had first thought. While he was no woodsman, he knew what a dead tree looked like. Dry wood, bark gone grey and dry if there was still any at all. The tree instead looked like it’d been scourged: there were slight furrows, as if a thin cutting whip had been wielded at it, and only around these marks was the tree dead. The rest of it looked fine, untouched.
“Contract,” Yong said.
“Contract,” Maryam agreed.
“Contract,” Tristan concluded.
And it did not look like the pleasant kind.
“Augusto Cerdan got impaled by something large, if his doublet is any indication,” the thief said. “It seems to me he might have struck a pact – any pact at all – to live through that.”
“If it truly was a bargain with the Red Maw, the Watch will kill him for it,” Maryam noted.
Tristan had been hoping the champion of the downtrodden would take care of this for him – really, Tredegar, how hard could it possibly be to off someone you’d publicly sworn to kill in a duel? – but he’d settle for the Watch instead if that was on the table.
“They might have,” Yong said, “if they were not under several tons of rock.”
Tristan grimaced. A fair point, even if its tone was slightly accusing.
“The only way off this island is the port at Three Pines,” he said. “They would check before letting him onto the boat, surely.”
“Our ship should stay until all the trial-takers are arrived or believed dead, anyway,” Maryam said. “We’ll have time to tell the blackcloaks of our suspicions”
“If we live to inform them,” Yong said.
“That is the plan,” Tristan reminded him.
“You always do have one of those, don’t you?” the Tianxi said.
Though the man was smiling, it was not a compliment. Irritation could wait until they were in a safer place, Tristan reminded himself.
“The path to the outpost won’t walk itself,” Maryam said. “Still, let’s keep an eye out for the Cerdan as we go. I doubt anything capable of that-”
She pointed at the mangled tree.
“- is going to be all that friendly,” she finished.
“We cannot know for sure it is a Red Maw contract,” he said.
I would want to kill him even if it isn’t, Tristan thought. The more diplomatic ‘that contract seems dangerous regardless’ was on the tip of his tongue, but he was not so blind as to be unaware that if it came out of his mouth Yong was unlikely to agree. Best let Maryam take care of it instead.
“Yong, it’s a maze full of starved and half-mad gods,” the blue-eyed woman said. “The Maw was the worst, sure, but there were plenty of things in there almost as bad.”
Tristan saw in the muscles of the neck that the veteran was about to glance his way, so he looked away first. A moment passed, then Yong sighed.
“Fair enough,” he conceded. “I won’t shoot on sight, Maryam, but neither will I approach him if we find him.”
An awkward silence stretched on after that, until Tristan cleared his throat.
“We should fill our waterskins before moving on,” he said. “We might not get another occasion any time soon.”
A few minutes for that and then they were back on the trail.
They found no further traces of Augusto Cerdan on the way down, not for lack of looking.
There was no telling if he had made it off the mountain, though Tristan’s instincts whispered that he had. The man would not have made it this far if he was the kind to lay down and die. The thief could respect that kind of mettle, in truth, so as a gesture of goodwill he would try to kill Augusto standing instead. So long as it was not particularly inconvenient, anyway.
The woods below were no easier to navigate than those in the Trial of Lines had been, though at least the thief had gotten used to such journeys. Their pace remained slow. Tristan had not noticed on the mountain, where the prospect of taking a tumble down the cliff had kept all their movements sedate, but Yong was at the edge of his rope. His breath was labored and his hair drenched with sweat. By unspoken agreement he and Maryam let the man take the lead so he could set the pace. She held the lantern, though, to relieve him of the weight.
The thief fiddled with his hat, adjusting it unnecessarily as he debated calling for a halt so the Tianxi might rest. It might be better to wait a little longer, he thought, perhaps until they reached the road. Maryam had guided them in what was the right direction according to the map stored in her head, but a direction was the most she had been able to provide: until they hit the supposed road through the forest, they would have no real notion of where they actually were.
“Lights,” Yong suddenly rasped out. “Maryam, kill the lantern.”
She snuffed it out in a moment and they huddled together behind a bush, peering through the leaves to watch the approaching lights Yong had picked out. And no wonder he had, the thief thought: there were a great many of them. At least ten torches were being held up, though not a single one of them burned pale. Hollows, he thought. Cultists. So much for his half-formed hope they had run into the other group of trial-takers.
Assuming they had lived through the mountain’s collapse.
His suspicions were confirmed when the torches came closer, all their shoulders tensing as a warband of pale-skinned cultist began gathering in a small clearing slightly ahead of them. There was a great deal of talk going on, and though they were not close enough to hear the words being spoken they were close enough to see the situation unfold. Two silhouettes in chain mail coats, both armed with long swords, were squaring off in an argument. One kept gesturing further in the woods, as if insisting they go off, while the other refused.
Both looked close to drawing blades, and though they kept flicking looks at the black-robed priest watching them from the back she said not a word. Tristan had flinched when he first saw her face in the torchlight: it was a ruin of red scars, near every inch of it covered by hungry maws. All the other cultists, of which there must be at least two dozen, were very careful around her – as if the slightest of gestures might bring about her ire.
“They have muskets,” Yong murmured. “At least ten of them.”
“There might be more,” Tristan replied just as quietly. “Wen told me they take them from Watch patrols.”
None of them were comfortable staying so close to the enemy but there was little choice. Had they bolted earlier maybe they might have had a chance to sneak away, but it was too late now. They would not slip away unseen when trying to shake off the cultists in their own favorite hunting grounds.
“I think one of them is saying they need to pursue people,” Maryam said. “They might have found the others.”
“Or the Watch garrison from the other fort,” Tristan said.
“Could be either,” Yong muttered. “And they like their sacrifices, the Red Maw, so why is the other one arguing against it?”
It took half an hour before they got an answer. A smaller band of five or so cultists joined the rest, two of them carrying a pair of wooden poles to which someone was bound. Though they were far and the torchlight flickering, Tristan would have recognized that mangled face even if the colored undershirt hadn’t given the game away.
“Oh, that poor bastard,” Yong said.
Unlike the older man, Tristan did not find it in him to muster pity as he watched Augusto Cerdan get carried into the crowd. Instead his eyes were on the ripped undershirt, which was still stained with blood and revealed the flesh beneath. And there was something… off about that flesh. It looked like a wound, only it was nowhere as deep as it should be – the infanzon had been impaled – and the wounded flesh looked oddly stringy. Like strung-out pieces of red yarn.
The cultists cheered the captured, the triumphant hunters earning much praise and backslapping from the rest. The only sullen face was the armored man who had been arguing to leave in pursuit, and the moment his dark eyes lingered on Augusto the thief knew what would happen. He wanted to vent his anger and there was a designated victim at hand. The cultists strolled up with a sneer and kicked the Cerdan in the ribs, the infanzon letting out a groan of pain.
Those boots were simple leather, lacking armor, but the thief imagined that would be of little comfort to Augusto. Some cultists cheered the blow, acclaim that the sneering armored man wasted no time in chasing again. Two more kicks, the noble wriggling in pain, until the man turned to face the crowd and speak in some hollow cant. Whatever he’d said prompted laughter.
Then Augusto Cerdan’s hand struck out like a viper, fingers sliding inside the cultists’ boot, and the laughter went away.
The hollow let out a terrible scream, bloody furrows forming across every visible inch of skin and digging deep. After two heartbeats he fell, twitching and bleeding, and as the rest of the cultists drew their arms in an uproar the infanzon began laughing on the ground. He was, Tristan realized, no longer wounded. Not on his face, not where he’d been impaled. It was all smooth and healthy skin, though still caked in blood. His companions went still at the sight, having noticed it as well. Does he feed on the living?
The thief bit his lip. Whatever the Cerdan had gotten out of the tree he’d fed on, it had not healed him in full. Only now that a man had been turned into a bloody mess did he look untouched. What he feeds on must shape what he gets from it, Tristan thought. It sounded like a powerful contract, for all that flesh to flesh contract seemed to be required, which likely meant there was more to it. No god would grant such power without thorns and a steep price to swallow.
The cultists swarmed angrily, several hitting a still-laughing Augusto with the bottom of their spear or the flat of their sword, but they would not kill him. He was a sacrifice. Some seemed to be arguing for mutilation, however, and blades were bared.
Then the priest came out of the shadows, stepping fully into the torchlight, and silence fell over the clearing.
The young woman spoke softly, cultists hurrying to obey. Augusto was cut free of the poles and dragged upright, the infanzon grinning wildly as the priest stepped closer. She leaned forward, face so close to the man she must have been able to smell his breath, before suddenly smiling. She pressed a soft kiss against his cheek, almost girlishly, and Tristan breathed in. Only she did not fall screaming, to the Cerdan’s visible surprise.
The priest raised up his hand, announcing something in the hollow cant, and after a heartbeat of utter surprise the cultists hurried to kneel before them.
“Well,” Maryam quietly said. “I think we can now safely assume our friend Augusto has a Red Maw contract, can’t we?”
It took another half hour for the warband to move on after that distressing bit of theatre.
Augusto obviously did not understand the hollow cant, but several of the cultists appeared to know some Antigua. There was a lot of gesticulation accompanying the words, but some kind of understanding was eventually reached. The infanzon stole the sword and cloak of the armored man he’d mutilated to the protest of no one, sticking close to the priest and talking animatedly as the hollows headed deeper into the woods. The three of them remained in hiding for minutes more after the last was gone, just in case.
“That,” Tristan mildly said, “is going to be a problem.”
“He probably can’t heal from a bullet to the head,” Yong opined. “I’d just need to get close enough.”
“That would mean getting close to the hollows,” Maryam said. “Best we leave him to the Watch, I think.”
“I won’t argue that,” Tristan grunted. “I’m not sold on following them too closely, though.”
“Best we give them a head start,” Yong agreed.
“Can’t be too much of one,” Maryam warned, “else we risk running into them while they’re on their way back.”
That was a risk, Tristan acknowledged.
“Any idea where they’re headed?” he asked.
“Same way we are,” she grimly replied. “It’s safe bet they are also aiming for the road through the woods.”
“Then we go around them,” Yong said. “Circle past their position and then take the path the rest of the way to the outpost.”
It seemed a reasonable plan, so they settled on that. Giving the cultists an hour to pull further ahead was what was decided on, and Tristan volunteered to keep watch if the others wanted to rest. Maryam did not waste a heartbeat accepting, using her pack as a pillow and cocooning in the bush. Yong did too, after some hesitation. The thief settled against a tree, blackjack close to his hand, and leant his back against the bark. The last of the poppy was fading, so at least he was at no risk of falling asleep: it was hard to contemplate lying down when your body and soul were as a single giant bruise.
It was boring, looking out into the dark and staring at every shaking leaf, but it needed doing anyway. He checked Vanesa’s watch regularly, more than he needed to in truth. It was less risky than letting his thoughts drift. It was when he was having a look for then tenth time that the silence was broken by a croaking whisper.
“How long?” Yong asked.
“Twenty-three minutes,” Tristan said. “Over half left, you can go back to sleep.”
“Can’t,” the Tianxi admitted. “The pain keeps waking me up.”
Going by the loud snoring, Maryam was having no such trouble.
“I don’t have anything left to take the edge off,” the thief said. “If you have a hard time moving, we may have to risk the drink.”
Risky, given that Yong was likely still bleeding inside, but less risky than moving at a slug’s pace in a forest full of Red Maw fanatics armed to the teeth. The older man breathed out.
“I can still take it,” he said. “I’ll make it to the outpost, at least.”
Tristan nodded, though he was not sure if the Tianxi saw him in the dark. He said nothing more.
“You don’t regret it at all, do you?” Yong suddenly said. “Sending the watchmen into a trap.”
Half a dozen replies were on the tip of his tongue, ways to wiggle out of the growing enmity between them. I also warned them about the trap, he could have said, or Vasanti was going to kill me otherwise, I had no choice, or Wen forced my hand in exchange for his protection. Degrees of truths, degrees of lies. Only Yong had saved his life. More than once. And that would only have weighed so much, if honesty was likely to get him killed, but it wasn’t.
So he told the truth.
“No,” Tristan said. “I regret letting down my guard at the end, not thinking to keep a watch on the second lift, but nothing else of how things unfolded.”
He could almost feel Yong’s jaw clench.
“You made those men into a distraction,” the Tianxi said. “Good as sacrificed them.”
“This isn’t Diecai, Yong,” he tiredly said. “I’m not your gloryhound general throwing away conscripts for a victory: I did it this way because I thought that plan had the best chance of us living through it.”
“No, Tristan,” Yong quietly replied. “You know that is untrue. It is why you kept me in the dark until it was too late. You chose that plan because it had the best chance of you surviving. There were other options, options I might have chosen had I known. They were simply more dangerous for you.”
And that was the truth, Tristan knew. He’d forced Wen’s hand by telling Boria because he did not trust the lieutenant to protect him against Vasanti otherwise. And he knew he could have tried to sell out Wen’s demand – the destruction of the device – to Vasanti in exchange for safe passage through the pillar. It would have put him at risk, but the old woman had never shown hostility against the rest of his crew so they likely would have been safe. The danger would have been all on him.
There’d been other plays, other tricks to attempt, but he had not truly considered them because Yong was right. They had been more dangerous for him.
“The hungry bite, the beggared snatch, the cornered fight,” Tristan softly quoted, looking up at the dark canopy above. “I am what I am, Yong.”
And he would make no apology for that. There was a long silence.
“Fear I can forgive,” Yong finally said. “We all own some of that devil’s hide. But you put me on their side, Tristan.”
He did not need to ask who they were. They, the thief knew, was not a name or a place or a title. It was an idea: the people who make the plans that send other people to die, that send you to march across a plain to your death and it meant nothing at all. They was what Yong had really wanted to kill back in the Republics, when he’d killed that general.
“There are no sides, Yong,” Tristan simply replied. “At end of the day, a grave will only fit one.”
Good men, bad men, kind men, cruel men – that was just paint, pretty color you slapped over the truth. There were the living and the dead, that was the whole of it. You kept out of the grave however you could until your luck ran out.
“That’s not a way to live,” Yong said. “That’s just a way not to die.”
“I’m not an ambitious man,” Tristan replied. “I’ll settle for that.”
The veteran said nothing, but the silence was not an empty one. It felt, Tristan thought, like a door closing. He resisted the urge to fill the void, stilled his tongue.
“One day,” Yong said, “you’ll look back on your life. And on that day I hope you’ll find more than corpses lying in your wake.”
The soldier sighed.
“We can leave it at that,” he said. “All of it.”
The thief closed his eyes, breathing out. He had known from the start that it was sheer greed to try to keep too many of his companions. Survival had costs, sometimes in coin less obvious. To feel disappointment here, to feel regret, it would have been a kind of vanity.
Tristan was vainer than he’d thought.
When the hour passed they began to take the long way around.
Opening the lantern’s shutters all the way was too risky so it was with only a thin slice of light to guide them that they ventured into the dark. And Maryam, despite her best efforts, could only guide them so much: she had a map tucked away in her memory, not a compass, and in these damn woods everything looked the same. Without any landmarks to rely on they found a curving path was not so easy to maintain. Twice they got turned around, the first time doubling back to cross a shallow river and the second getting stuck walking around the edge of a steep hill for twenty minutes.
They pushed on for three hours before finally slowing down when they came in sight of old ruins: three large worn pillars atop a platform, crowned by a circle of stone that was more than half gone.
“I don’t suppose that was on the map?” Tristan asked.
“No,” Maryam grunted. “Most of the ruins we encountered weren’t. This island has too many to count, I expect.”
“Maryam,” Yong softly said. “Shutter the lights.”
She did so without batting an eye, pulling close to him, and as the Tianxi took cover behind a tree the thief mirrored him behind another. Moments later a pair of cultists came out of the thicker woods ahead – both armed with spears and wearing leather, long hair going down their backs. They were talking rather loudly, ambling around until they both leaned against pillars and started what Tristan just knew was complaining even if he could not understand the language. That intonation was universal.
“Trouble,” he whispered. “Go around?”
“I think we’re at the edge of their guard picket,” Yong whispered back. “If we get them quietly, we can press on straight to the road.”
Tristan mulled on that, hesitating. Their attempted curve around where they thought the cultists might be had probably ended up closer to the outline of some demented ziggurat, but he agreed with Yong’s assumption that theirs had broadly been the right path. It was tempting, the knowledge that instead of risking another hour going around this pair or waiting them out they might instead solve the problem and press on before their foes caught on.
“Maryam?” he asked.
“They’ll know we’re out here if we kill any of them,” she whispered. “But I think the risk is worth it – they’re obviously waiting on something, if they are posting guards. It might be they’re making camp.”
Tristan was not so sure a camp was being made – hollows often kept odd hours, unmoored from the Glare as they were – but it was true that guards being about meant the cultists were no longer on the move.
“All right,” the thief conceded. “We drop them quiet, then.”
The pair might not be paying much attention, but they weren’t blind and whatever friends they had out there would not be deaf. Tristan circled around their back, using the trees as cover until the angle of the pillars covered his approach. He crept out of the trees then, steps excruciatingly careful, and saw Yong follow close behind – sword already out, tucked under his arm. Controlling his breath, the thief reached for his blackjack and palmed it as he pressed himself against the pillar. He turned to meet Yong’s eyes, raising a hand and then beginning to pull down one finger after another.
Four, three, two, one-
They sprung out from behind the pillar just as one of the cultists snorted out a laugh at what her companion had said. Eyes widened, mouths opened and Tristan cracked his blackjack across the woman’s temple as hard as he could. She dropped and he rushed forward to catch her even as the other hollow’s attempted cry turned into a wet gurgle, Yong slitting his throat. The thief lowered the unconscious cultists, tucked away his blackjack and cleanly snapped her neck the way Abuela had taught him.
The two of them stayed there a moment, breathing under the starlight, and traded a nod. Cleanly done all around. Tristan went riffling around the corpses and found a sheathed knife that fit his palm well tucked away on the woman’s belt, claiming it to replace the one he’d lost. Yong gestured for Maryam to join them and Tristan rose, rolling his shoulder. The bruises from Vasanti’s beating – beatings, really – had him wincing, but it wasn’t as bad as when it had been fresh. Another day or two and he’d be fine.
“That was bracing,” Maryam said, catching up to them. “Shall we-”
A call came out of the woods, to their left, and it all went to shit when a cultist walked out from behind the trees – he was calling out, a laugh on his lips, but froze when he saw them. Yong went for his pistol but the hollow was quicker, screaming out a warning, and three more of his friends came storming in.
“Run,” Tristan hissed.
They fled, the cultists baying after them.
A shot went wide, whizzing into the dark. Trees flashed on both sides at they ran, the shouts of cultists close behind. Were they even heading in the right direction? He had no idea, and there was no time to stop and ask. There were torches behind them soon, close on their trail. The thief could only guess at how many hollows had joined the hunting party, but it was too many to fight. Would have been too many even if they were all hale instead of wounded and exhausted.
Then Yong tripped.
The Tianxi had been slowing for a while, his breath coming in rough pants, but he still hit the root at running speed and fell right into a tree. Swallowing a hoarse shout, Yong rolled on the ground as Tristan cursed and doubled back to help him up.
“Come on,” the thief hissed, offering his hand. “They’re getting-”
Yong took the hand, let himself be hoisted, but almost immediately collapsed. He cursed in Cathayan.
“My ankle,” he said. “It’s sprained.”
Maryam joined them, warily eyeing the approaching torches.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
The older man’s face was calm, the same way it had been up in the hall when he had learned his life was on a knife’s edge.
“I can’t run,” he said, then breathed out. “Get moving, I’ll draw them to me. It will buy you a chance.”
The shouts were getting closer.
“Yong,” he said. “I-”
“We have said,” Yong replied, “all there is to say. Run.”
And he wanted to argue, to insist, but the shouts were getting close. The torches burned bright in the dark, heralds of death. Maryam took his arm.
“Tristan,” she whispered.
Shame, the rat told himself, was a luxury. He swallowed, nodding jerkily at the Tianxi, and broke for it. He saw Yong loading his musket with steady hands before running out in the dark, the last he would ever see of the man. Maryam stuck close to him as they ran for a minute, then two. Tristan swallowed, forcing his eyes to stay peeled ahead. Else he would trip as well, and be left behind just like-
“Fuck,” Tristan snarled, and turned around.
Greedy, Abuela’s voice chided. It would get him killed. But even as Maryam called out from behind, cursing as well before he heard her running after him, he found someone waiting for him in the gloom. Sitting on a branch above, long red dress trailing like a curtain of blood, Fortuna smiled an impossibly perfect smile. He almost sobbed in relief.
“You,” he croaked.
“You took a chance,” the Lady of Long Odds simply said. “Now ride your prayer to the end, Tristan.”
He swallowed and nodded, Maryam catching up with him as he did.
“We are going to die,” she told him.
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”
“I’ll abandon you if it looks bad,” she frankly said.
“I’m lucky you came at all,” he replied just as frankly.
“You are,” Maryam said, then muttered. “And I thought Song had picked the idiot.”
She peeled ahead anyway.
“Come on, he hasn’t fired yet so they don’t know where he is.”
The torches were close, terrifyingly close. When they found Yong he was but a few feet away from where they’d left him, standing with his back against a tree as he held his musket. He saw them coming, his face twisting into something that was both hope and anger and not quite either.
“Shut up,” Tristan cut in. “You’ll draw them. Maryam-”
She grunted, taking up one of the Tianxi’s arms while he reached for the other. They hoisted him up between them, dragging him away brusquely enough he would have had to fight them to stop it.
“It won’t work,” he got out, voice sounding raw. “They’re-”
In the distance, shots sounded.
Their pursuers hesitated. They dragged Yong, forging forward as quick as they could. The opportunity was not to be wasted. The pursuers began arguing, at least until shots sounded again – at least a dozen, continued. A real fight. The others or the Watch garrison? Either way, under Tristan’s disbelieving stare the pursuers slowed, stopped and then turned around.
Towards the fight.
The thief choked out an incredulous laugh as he watched the torches get further and further away. Only then did he notice they had gotten back to the branch where Fortuna was perched, having not moved an inch since he last passed her by. A spinning golden coin drew his eye, the goddess snatching it out of the air. She met his eyes, golden eyes alight.
“Lucky you,” the Lady of Long Odds grinned.
They made it to the path from the map, stumbling like children, and then followed down the beaten earth. They saw not a soul on the way.
The supposed outpost turned out to be a small town, ringed in lamplights and waiting square in the middle of path. That should have been a relief, only there was a slight complication.
“Well,” Tristan said, eyeing the impaled corpses. “I’m willing to go on a limb and call this a bad sign.”
Yong snorted from his place between them.
“Those lamplights give off Glare,” Maryam said. “It shouldn’t be hollows inside, at least.”
“Plenty of wolves hunt by pale light,” Yong replied. “Let me off, you two. I think I can hobble and we’ll look weaker if you’re holding me up.”
And there were people to look weak to, as the Tianxi had seen. A pair of guards came their way, bearing muskets and steel breastplates over padded tunics. Their helms were old-fashioned, going down the back of their necks, but it was hardly comparable to the old relics that the cultists bore. The three of them tensed as the guards approached, though the two men were still holding their muskets up instead of pointing them.
“You with the Watch?” the shorter one called out.
They shared looks, then Maryam shrugged.
“We are,” she called back.
“Come on, then,” the same man said. “The others are inside and we’re closing the gates for night.”
“Trap?” Yong murmured.
“If it is, I’d rather have Tredegar doing my fighting for me,” Tristan opined. “She is much better at it.”
Assuming the mirror-dancer still lived, which was hardly certain.
“Agreed,” Maryam snickered, then sobered. “Besides, they might have a town physician.”
Yong grunted his doubt but did not argue. They met the guards halfway, getting eyed back just as much as they eyed the pair while they walked together to the gate.
“Rough year, the way your friends tell it,” the chatty one said.
“You could say that,” Tristan easily replied. “Seen a few, have you?”
The man snorted, his smile never showing his teeth.
“You don’t need to be cagey, the others already told us you don’t know shit about the Trial of Weeds,” he said. “This town is called Cantica. We’re a colony under the auspices of the Watch and your last stop before the final trial.”
“We’ll be getting an explanation, then?” Yong asked.
The guard shrugged.
“The mayor will tell you everything there is to know,” he said. “Most of us don’t know the details.”
The guards slowed when they came near the gates, which had the three tensing up again.
“While inside Cantica,” the chatty man said, “there is to be no violence against trial-takers or our folk. We won’t have our town to be the pissing match for maze grudges. Understood?”
“Understood,” Tristan agreed, and the others echoed him.
Twenty more feet had them past the gates, which the guards stayed behind to pull closed as they were ushered on. The destination was obvious: there was a crowd gathered in the street, but not of townsfolk. The survivors of the Bluebell stood before a hard-faced man in neat clothes that must be the mayor. There were fewer survivors than Tristan would have thought, and at least one of those present to the thief as a surprise.
Smiling insolently in the face of Angharad Tredegar dark’s glare, Augusto Cerdan toyed with the hilt of the sword he’d taken from a cultist.
This, Tristan thought, was going to get messy.
38 thoughts on “Chapter 39”
Doesn’t this basically make Cerdan the leader of the Red Maw cults? So he now possesses an army right?
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Augusto, recurring nemesis that lasts all the way to the end of the series or final boss of Book 1?
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Imo he has Red Maw Sainthood written all over him
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The fight that the cultists went back to toward the end, when Maryam and Tristan were carrying Yong, had to have been against the remnant of the watch? In which case, some of the watch survived that long.
My guess is that we will see Lieutenant Wen again.
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Ad I understood it, after rescuing Vasanti’s people Wen planned on exiting the entrance to the Trial, back the way they came. Not go through the Maze and wind up on this side of the mountain. And he should have made it long before the collapse. The shots probably were Watch survivors, but Watch from the bunker under the destroyed Sanctuary. Nothing to do with Wen or his people.
I do think we will see Wen again, but probably not until the very end of the Trials or after they are over.
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Might be, though I disagree about the Watch not being out yet. They have no food/water, supplies, or defences in a location the Cultists know and have overrun before. There are also likely injured.
I would put money on them heading out for ‘safety’ immediately instead of waiting for their supplies to dwindle and injuries to fester.
Which would be the same direction everyone else is headed.
“They know they can melt back into the mountain paths after, so they’ve even attacked the fort that serves as sanctuary on the other side. It got overrun about a decade ago, all hands lost. The higher-ups ordered a vault built underneath so there’d be somewhere to retreat to if it happened again.”
Maybe. We just don’t have enough information. But an underground vault as a final retreat implies to me a secure sealed bunker, presumably with a decent amount of emergency supplies and water while they wait for relief from a larger contingent from the town. Of course as an underground vault, any survivors could also be buried under the landslide/ ruined fort and be stuck waiting to get dug out.
I don’t think it’s any of the Watch. Wen planned on taking the Maze watch out through the southern exit of the mountain, out to the path of the Trial of Lines. The destroyed watch fort with the vault was on the north/north eastern side of the mountain. While it’s possible for there to be Watch survivors in the ruins, I doubt they’d be forging out immediately.
I’m pretty sure the shots are from the fight in the last chapter. A few initial shots from the scouting party. Then an extended battle as Tredegar and Co begin their fight. The sounds of fighting draws the pursuing band away. The hollow scouting party breaks, running to meet the rest of warband company. That whole warband hunts for Tredegar’s group who run through the woods to make it to the town, avoiding the road because they’re afraid of hollows tracking them on it. Tristan and co make slower progress through the woods before finding the road and they take the road to the town. They arrive last, but it’s not clear who arrived first between Augusto and Tredegar.
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Just realized my reply attached to the wrong post.
Anyway, the last post I made was supposed to be a reply to PendanticCounter, not myself.
Just realized my reply attached to the wrong post. My last comment was supposed to be a reply to PendanticCounter, not myself.
Yea, WordPress can do that occasionally. Combined with the inability to edit or even delete a post it can be frustrating.
Chapter 39 visual overview fanart
I had to move Augusto out of the dead section. *mumble grumble*
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He got better!
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It’s just a flesh wound
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Calling them “Cantica Tourists” cracked me up
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So I honestly was expecting Yong to die in some sort of heroic sacrifice and am now pleasantly surprised to see that subverted. Nice try buddy you’re going to have to reconcile with Tristan and you’re going to like it.
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I mean… is there *anything* stopping Tristan from ratting (heh) about the Red Maw contract?
Ratting to who? Not sure whoever the mayor of Cantica is is in the know – or should be let in the know – about Vieja Perdida’s many secrets, and there doesn’t seem to be any Watch survivors around.
Anyways, interesting chapter all around, the inter-personal drama was excellent for this one. It’s weird when I remember that through all of this, Maryam is missing several fingers and she doesn’t even complain about it.
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He should absolutely tell Angharad, at the very least. Probably in a private discussion, so as not to set off a murderous Augusto in the middle of a crowd.
Since he knows Angharad has sworn to kill him in a duel whenever honor permits, he knows she’ll be fighting him, and should be told about the contract.
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I hadn’t seen it before, but the conflict in ideology between Tristan and Fortuna is an interesting one.
Fortuna is luck. Good, bad, something between, she feeds on the taking of chances no matter the outcome. Risk is its own reward, and all the worship she seems to need.
Meanwhile, the Law of Rats is the minimization of risk. The expectation that everyone is out for themself alone, that there can be no betrayal because there is no faith to keep. That the first and only imperative is survival, and all else must fall away. Rats, as Tristan wrongly concieves them, make no friends because they take no chances on others.
Such an ideology should not appeal to the Lady of Long Odds. But she chose Tristan anyway. Maybe it was just because his life is inherently risky. No ideology of risk minimization was going to prevent him from repeatedly taking chances when every day was a struggle for survival. But maybe she saw something else in him. Maybe she thought he was the kind of person who would, no matter the words he preached, take chances on others if only he was given the opportunity.
The truth is, Tristan is absolutely a rat. Clever, and willing to cooperate and share with others. Capable of surviving through deprivation, but always seeking the abundance that can only come with connection. Perhaps that is what she saw in him all along.
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This may be the first thing you’ve written that I actually both could follow and agree with.
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It’s commitment to the bit, man.
I’m amazed it’s gone on for this long.
Her went back for Yong exactly because he realized his prior thinking was flawed. His big gamble isn’t just about saving Yong from the cultists, it’s the gamble of prioritizing friends over his own safety. I’d say he made a big character development in this chapter.
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Oops, this should have been in reply to vuthuha912 below.
This is the first time I am kind of disappointed in Tristan. I know that his lack of trust and his tendency toward thinking only with himself in mind will become a problem. I can’t say that he is born a horrible person because he obviously cares for people in his group and has done many things just to keep them alive. He obviously can include people in his plan and use cooperation to get what he wants. It is just that he never reveals everything about his plan to others Another point is that he has a tendency toward plans that will completely alienate him from his enemies sometimes unnecessarily. Either they died or they survived and would hold a grudge against him for the rest of their lives. Was this a result of him only ever planning against his mortal enemies like the Cerdan, thus either success or death is the expected outcome?
Tristan was just using the way of thinking that has kept him alive from who knows when. He can’t choose the environment he grew up in and new experiences until now aren’t enough to through change his mindset. Hoping that his character development can arrive in the next Trial.
And somehow, I saw a glimpse of Alaya in Tristan that I can’t seem to pinpoint. There is just something about Tristan that remind me of Alaya. They can’t be more different in terms of … everything, but there is this nagging thought behind my head.
Initially, I feel he was kind of similar to Black and Cat in a certain surface way but after this chapter, I can clearly see how different they are at the core and how it can create this superficial similarity. It is kind of funny how I am currently re-reading APGTE and I read about one of Black advice to Cat regarding grand schemes like the one Tristan pulled (on the same day as each other). His advice: Don’t do it. Having a big plan that relied on timing too many moving parts just right would guarantee that the plan failed spectacularly and mostly on the Villain’s face. I wish that Tristan could hear this advice before making his plans
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“I trust people to act according to their nature. Anything more is sentimentality.”
I always wonder what she believes a person’s nature is. Like, does she believe in humans’ better nature or their selfish desire? Because human is capable of both good and evil. It is impossible to accurately predict someone’s action because sometimes, you don’t even know yourself.
He went back for Yong exactly because he realized his prior thinking was flawed. His big gamble isn’t just about saving Yong from the cultists, it’s the gamble of prioritizing friends over his own safety. I’d say he made a big character development in this chapter.
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A whole chapter without a death? EE, you’re going soft!
It’s worse than that! Augusto is back… we had a negative death!
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Of course he’s back! He fell off a cliff and then people talked about that being the last they’d see of him. Angharad used the same trick shortly before reaching the maze, and Tupoc saw through it.
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I’m still thinking in Practical Guide terms, I thought that would only work for heroes.
I have to admit that I’m a bit confused about how the watch has managed to maintain its numbers.
We’ve seen more watchmen die on this island alone than normally get inducted in a year. Now sure, this is a bad year. But they seem to lead dangerous, uncomfortable lives, and the average watchman seems to be moderately competent at best.
With the lives they lead, losses are going to be massive. The test to join the watch is dangerous and hard, so there aren’t going to be swarms of new recruits.
High losses and little replenishment = a rapidly vanishing watch. Where do they all come from?
The Trials aren’t the only recruitment method. There is a more standard method of joining. From Chapter 3:
““The better question, boy,” the sailor replied, whittling away at the potato skin, “is why you’re on this ship when last month one full of recommended from Sacromonte sailed straight for the Rookery.”
His brow furrowed even deeper. The Rookery was the common name for the great island-fortress that was the seat of the Watch, said to be as a city of blackcloaks. Watchmen were trained there in a great war camp.”
And from chapter 10:
“Those who joined the Watch through the trials of were not sent to training camps, he’d heard, not drilled and lectured and pampered.
They were inducted straight into the ranks, a black cloak set on their shoulders, and Tristan was beginning to understand why”
The standard recruitment method is to be recommend or otherwise recruited and sent to the Rookery for basic training and evaluation before being inducted. Heck, some recruits might even come from this colony. But the majority of the recruits seem to go through this basic process while the Trials are a shortcut to direct membership.
Except the recruitment aspect of the Trials is a shell game, it produced some high end irregular recruits but mostly served as a way to contain/ kill the Red Maw. It fed the red game contestants and some stray nobles to the shrine gods. If they got a promising candidate out of it, the more the better. But the primary purpose is to contain the Red Maw.
The Watch seemed to believe that if they kept strengthening the shrine gods, the gods would eventually kill the Maw. Even if the gods could not kill it, the process at least let the Watch keep a closer eye on the Maw in the meantime, instead of simple quarantine as Francho suggested. It doesn’t add up because it’s a loose cover story designed to keep people from looking too closely. Additionally, it’s possible that the Trials confer some kind of extra status on the participants. We know from Maryam and Song that this year’s Trails in particular are being used to select candidates for some special purpose.
Side note: I honestly think Tupoc is also in the know about the post Trial opportunity. He knew to contact the hollows in advance and had the bracelets for the bargain. He also seemed to know nature of the second trial when he taunts Angharad about working together.
Convinced atm that the Watch is just all about killing people. Other people first, either directly or through passive-aggressive means, but they don’t have a lot of care for their own either. Because while their mission is ostensibly protecting humanity from supernatural threats. A lot of those threats seem to come FROM humans. So really they don’t have any real incentive to preserve individual human lives so long as it doesn’t collapse society.
It’s confirmed that people are formally trained to be Watch and that these trials are an exuse to get people to feed to the maze gods. Recruitment is not the purpose here.
Pleasantly surprised to see the return of Fortuna, here. She may not be a Good character but she is a good Character, if that makes sense. That parting line of ‘all or nothing’, just before the lift fell with Boria the Hungry and she disappeared from view, to me had a ring of finality about it – as if the price for taking one God off the board could only be paid in the same coin.