Beloved of the Dead Ch1-2

The dead man sat up from the stone slab upon which he had been laid out, and groped for something sharp, which he might then plunge into his right eye.

What a great opening! Look at all the stuff happening. Who is this dead man? Why does he want to stab out his eye?

It was perhaps an hour after sundown when he rose, and even the youngest apprentices and most dedicated artisans in the city of Sijan had long since departed to their cheerless homes.

And already the setting is getting sketchy! Sure, paying close attention to the sun is a wise idea when the dead are involved, but Sijan is a place that doesn’t make good decisions in that respect. Why would the people of a necropolis that’s got close ties to the deathlords finish their day well before the sun goes down? I could see a place that was scared of the dead making sure to only do anything death-related in the sun, but here?

And this can’t be explained by canon not being there yet, because the Prince of Shadows, our superbyssal from last book, specifically has the backstory of dying while sitting through the night for funeral rites as an apprentice.

He’s there to be embalmed, but as luck would have it this is the most recent body brought in and they’ve done nothing to it yet (thus illustrating precisely why Sijan does not follow a sunlight-only schedule, Sijan is all about tending to the dead even to the detriment of the living), including even the usual incantation to prevent an evil spirit from entering into the cadaver. Here as before, this seems like D&D light – Exalted doesn’t have alignment or abilities related to that. (Admittedly, it’s been drifting slowly in that direction by the end of 2nd edition, but generally, spirits are spirits and humans are humans and heroin-pissing dinosaurs are heroin-pissing dinosaurs. You can’t block only the bad people from your sanctuary.)

His right hand is twitching and not really in control, for whatever reason, so he keeps hold of it with his other. He examines himself to find he’s tan, hairless, no sign of hard work or weapons training, looks like he did a lot of writing for a living, and he can tell he died of injested poison.

Because they’re corpses, the room is kept cold and with mild disinterest the dead man saw gooseflesh form on his bare arms. That, certainly is odd. Perhaps with the body so newly dead and his own memories of life, he can still show psychosomatic responses to things like temperature. (Though really…if he’s dead, he’s no longer generating heat, so even a warm room would feel extremely cold. A chilled one should be painfully so.)

He manages to conclude this isn’t his body, and gets a few flashes of his life before, including a man clad in black whom he both loved and hated. “My …p rince?“ he said, startled. ‘That seems right, somehow.” That this is about as gay as the books get is a huge disappointment given Exalted is meant to be really queer friendly.

So yeah, this guy is Ratcatcher. I’m not sure how soon that’s obvious because before I read the series people were talking about how the books really seemed to be really confused about the difference between nemissaries and Abyssals, because Ratcatcher dies and then possesses a corpse for a new body. Exalts can’t do that because the exaltation leaves the host upon death, possibly just because ghosts didn’t actually exist after exalts were made and broke the world. And strictly speaking, Abyssals can’t even become ghosts properly due to their connection to the all-devouring Void.

On the other hand, Ratcatcher’s a semibyssal who seems to be weaker than a nemissary, which is solidly mortal territory, so maybe his death works like any other mortal’s.

One of the lamps gave out a small spark, causing his shadow to rise monstrously across the far wall for a brief instant. He grinned, humorlessly, and watched himself shrink back into darkness.
“That’s death, you see,” he mumbled. “Rise up for a moment, labor until you rot, and then wait for the next spark of hate to send you up again. No rest, though. They lied about that.”

They certainly did not! The Abyssal platform does not include rest.

There is no resting in Exalted. Souls are cogs in the machinery of the world. When you die, your soul is washed free of everything that’s you and goes into a new body to labor, suffer, and pray desperately to uncaring gods all over again. The Exalts changed that, but only in the sense they fucked up reincarnation so that souls can occasionally clutch at existence and linger on longer than they should.

Even staying dead doesn’t save you from suffering! At any moment someone might torture and beat you into an ever-howling piece of metal whose existence is endless agony. They should know, that’s what all their stuff is made of.

The Void is the answer. The Void frees you from the cycle of suffering. To exist is to feel pain. Embrace nonexistence. Let the Void devour you and find true peace as it obliterates you.

…Anyway. Ratcatcher then regards some ugly faces carved in the wood meant to scare foul spirits or the unquiet dead despite those being actual things in the setting and the people, therefore, needing actual things that work to deal with them. The actual wards against ghosts are salt lines, if you were wondering.

Then Ratcatcher gets all upset over the fact he’s been carrying a metal spike and yells about why the hell is he doing that? it’s like he’s getting pissed off at the author. He decides to deal with it by stabbing the metal into the door while screaming. This also tears up his hand.

He then remembers being killed, as we saw last book. And this lets him remember everything.

“I know my name,” he said, softly, astonished.

We’ve been over this, you don’t have a name, you gave it to the Void. You are the worst Abyssal.

He looked up, and his face bore a smile. It was a smile no sane man could ever wear, the smile of a man who has gazed upon hell and deemed himself not satisfied with one lifetime’s worth of sinning.

Despite the fact he’s the buttmonkey of the series, I get the chance the author really does like him and think he’s super cool.

Anyway, apparently screaming and banging are not super subtle, so some guards are coming to check it out.

They’d be looking for some minor disturbance; a rat, perhaps.

Yeah, I’m sure when the specially sealed rooms of dead bodies has the sounds of something banging and screaming inside, they all figure it’s a rat.

On to chapter two and our obligatory POV change. Now we’re with Wren the boring.

When last we met Wren, he’d exalted as probably a zenith, run the wrong way in an Abyssal/Deathlord’s castle, then decided it would be a great idea to escape through a malevolent door he found at the bottom of an already evil castle. He jumped through into the void.

Interestingly there actually is some flavor text about how you make one of these castles by piling evil offerings until the might of the neverborn reaches up for them, so at the heart of each one is an empty pit leading down into oblivion. Unfortunately, he does not fall right into it, so we have to hear about his life more.

When Wren awoke, pain was waiting for him. If he lay still, he could feel smooth, cool stone beneath him, as if he lay on a polished slab intended for some unholy god’s forgotten altar. Hardly an unreasonable hypothesis, actually.

Remarkably accurate for someone who supposedly doesn’t know what any of this is, in fact.

Unholy altar or no, though, he’s kind of in agony from the fall. And he’s not sure why he’s alive at all.

He’d seen what happened to men who fell from great heights; he’d even been responsible for more than a few of those falls. The results of those instances had made a tremendous impression upon him, instilling in him a strong resolution never to fall from any height greater than his knees, and even then only onto a soft cushion or a softer woman.

This is as clever as it is nonsensical for a character who spends his life running around and getting into trouble. Characters all sharing the same voice is a common complaint made against authors, but this is worse – the author thought up a witticism that’d fit the reluctant hero type who’s had an easy life up until now, looked around and realized he didn’t write any character who even slightly fit that, then grabbed one and random and crammed it down their throat.

We then get another depiction of the difference between mortal and exalt – he doesn’t feel hunger or thirst or like he actually needs to breathe. That is totally a thing you can do and priests specialize in it…BUT it requires essence. In Creation, that’s not a problem because you naturally take the stuff in. But the underworld is not a service provider for living exalts. You don’t respire essence, you don’t regain your glowy superpower fuel, you just slowly weaken and die. Going into the underworld should be a shock of a different kind, where having just gotten used to the fact that as an exalt they’re above such concerns, they’re kicked back to the status of slightly tougher mortals.

The area is also static – the stone is chilled but stays exactly that chill, and the air is perfectly still. Despite this, there’s plenty of sound suggesting activity:

a symphony of screams, howls of challenge and other, less identifiable noises. Sometimes he could hear the din of clashing arms, or the crisp sounds of killing magic, and at those moments he feared lest he be found by one of the warring parties. At others, he heard the crack of whips, and was thankful that he could not move, lest he give himself away by doing so.

Which is kind of meh. The labyrinth, which I’m pretty sure is where he’s fallen, should be much creepier than this. More sobbing and cackling rather than understandable sounds of understandable violence.

There are also serpents he can hear slithering around. For some reason they just slither without doing anything, and then after days they start whispering.

Mechanically, “whispers” are neverborn insanity. Ghosts who start to hear them learn necromancy powers and the will of the neverborn at the cost of going insane. Abyssals get whispers as a perk, where they can use it to know important things.

The book goes the forbidden creepy wisdom route, which reminds me of Conan’s way of handling magic.

He learned things that ghosts had whispered in the dark about the missing Empress, and war-poem that the last of the Lunar Exalted had chanted as they went into battle. He learned nineteen ways to make poison from a dead man’s bones, and six from the eyes, and five from the fingernails, and discovered the magical properties that can be obtained if one makes powder from a corpse’s soles and palm.
Most of all, though, he learned about the dead gods. The serpents whispered to him of from whence they had come and of their ultimate destiny. They sang songs of praise, softly, so as not to wake those gods as they slumbered. And they told him of the rites by which one foreswore the Unconquered Sun and swore fealty to the lords of endless night.

Hearing about dead gods and corpse eye poison is one thing, but this last one annoys Wren into standing despite his wounds. The snakes coo about how the Sun has forsaken him so forsake the guy back, and Wren does not listen to their completely accurate statements.

Also, he finds out the snakes feel like they’re made of cool metal, and soulsteel talking snakes would actually be pretty great.

Wren then has a quick flashback to how once, his buddy Ketchup Carjack took him down to the dungeons to see people being tortured.

One prisoner in particular had impressed him with the awfulness of her situation; the interrogator had in his hand a wand of bottled lightning, and every so often he would brush it lightly against the soles of her feet. The released energies were visible as they climbed along her flesh, twitching and dancing along even as they left trails of scorched meat behind them. She’d screamed once, and then pain had robbed her of the ability to do even that much.

You might be thinking this is leading to something that has to do with the fact Wren works for terrible people, but actually it’s just so he can say he’s sure walking with his current injuries is just as bad.

As a sidenote, while Exalted is grimdark and stuffed to the gills with misery, it’s actually pretty low on torture. It’s only times like this I realize how much I appreciate that. This is an inauspicious start to the breather book.

Wren says this is exactly like that, except for the part where he’s capable of walking and talking to himself. He staggers off toward the sound of something weeping. I would have gone with a more silent direction but sure, go toward the enormous unknown thing.

The narration then informs us there are two snakes, who are giant, and they’re following.

One Comment

  1. Whispering Vault says:

    I have solved the mystery of Ratcatcher the semibyssal:

    Hazudiknap, the Anathema Beetles
    Demon of the First Circle
    Progeny of the Night Hare

    A hero arises, wreathed in yellow-gold flame. A golden symbol glistens on their brow. They display inhuman skill. Alas, there are few Solar Exaltations indeed, and Lelabet long ago devised the hazudiknap to muddy the waters. When she heard the Immaculates’ tales of the Anathema, she found those tales greatly amusing, and decided to make them a reality.

    These demons are small golden beetles that burrow into a mortal’s brow below the skin. When they spread their vast immaterial wings, cool yellow flame surrounds their host and burns on their brow. Their ichor flows into the bloodstream of the mortal, giving their features a demonic twist and moderately increasing their speed and strength. And their voice echoes in the skull of the mortal, giving them hallucinations and visions and a feeling of disassociation from their own flesh. None of this gives them the capacity to fight even a single Immaculate on an even footing, though.

    Hazudiknap speak many languages and sing sweetly. They are brave beyond foolhardiness and fragile, however, so their numbers are few. In the Demon City they are prey for anything that can catch them, for they are physically weak and taste delicious. When the Night Hare would send them out into the world, she lies to Malfean gold, telling it that it is orichalcum chosen by the Unconquered Sun and the foolish metal believes her, spitting out a new anathema beetle.

    Obscurity (1 / 5): Many know about the hazudiknap, but their nature is veiled by the untruths of the Immaculate Faith. Veterans of the Wyld Hunt are aware sometimes that Anathematical power enters the body in the form of a tiny golden demon, but these demons are personally responsible for the considerably inflated kill counts of some members of the Hunt. Those sorcerers who do know of their true nature use them just as Lelabet would see them used – as false Solars that serve as decoys or to lure the Wyld Hunt into a false state of readiness. A peripheral benefit that Lelabet takes glee in is that sometimes Dragonblooded sorcerers will try to banish the demon within a real Solar, which leaves her no end of merriment when she hears of such a tale.

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