Welcome back to the Oathbringer reread, where the questions of the hour are morality and just what the heck is going on with Nightblood? And Nightblood means Szeth, and Szeth means Skybreakers, and Skybreakers mean… what the heck is going on up there by the Purelake?
Reminder: we’ll potentially be discussing spoilers for the ENTIRE NOVEL in each reread—if you haven’t read ALL of Oathbringer, best to wait to join us until you’re done.
In this week’s reread we also discuss some things from Warbreaker in the Squires & Sidekicks and Cosmere Connections sections, so if you haven’t read it, best to give those sections a pass.
WHERE: The Purelake
WHEN: 1184.108.40.206 (later the same day as Chapter 90)
Szeth arrives at a small town on the north shore of the Purelake along with the rest of the Skybreaker trainees and squires. They are charged with finding and executing a group of escaped prisoners. Szeth finds one and questions him, and based on the answers determines that the administrator of the prison is also at fault. He draws Nightblood and executes the administrator, then Ki takes him as her squire and he swears the Second Ideal.
Title: Water Warm as Blood
Szeth lowered the knife, but that gave the man an opening to twist and pull them both down into the Purelake.
Szeth splashed into water warm as blood.
A: It’s kind of a creepy title, but it’s pretty funny when you realize that it’s just the pleasantly warm Purelake.
Nale: Judge, Herald of Justice, patron of Skybreakers, attributes Just & Confident, essence Vapor, soulcasting properties of opaque gas, smoke, fog.
Shalash (Ash): Artist, Herald of Beauty, patron of Lightweavers, attributes Creative & Honest, essence Blood, soulcasting properties of blood, all non-oil liquids.
L: Well, it’s pretty obvious why Nale is here, as this is a Skybreaker-intensive chapter. As for Shalash… she’s mentioned once, but I wonder if she’s actually here because of the executions? Her essence is blood, after all. Maybe there’s some sort of link here to Nightblood, as well…
A: Oooooo. I hadn’t thought of a possible connection between Nightblood and Shalash. I hope that turns out to be true—it’s got all sorts of potential! The only other thing I can come up with for her presence (and I don’t think it works this way) is that Szeth displays some pretty creative thinking when he considers his convict and investigates the prison on the strength of his suspicions.
Assassin, for a Szeth POV
The most important point I wish to make is that the Unmade are still among us. I realize this will be contentious, as much of the lore surrounding them is intertwined with theology. However, it is clear to me that some of their effects are common in the world — and we simply treat them as we would the manifestations of other spren.
— From Hessi’s Mythica, page 12
A: This one reads really differently if you think about Hessi as a Herald in disguise. (Isilel, you’ve almost got me convinced by now!) If she’s just an ordinary modern scholar, it’s just … scholarly. People should probably worry a little, but there’s not a lot of urgency—not if they’ve been active for thousands of years and are just part of “normality.” If she’s a Herald, though, knowing that increased activity by the Unmade was one of the signs that the barriers of Damnation were weakening, it seems a desperate plea for people to not believe what the Heralds told them (that they won at Aharietiam). Which is of course foundational to their current religious beliefs, and no one wants to believe that. “No, we lied! They aren’t all trapped or destroyed! Their effects now are telling you that a new Desolation is coming!” But of course she couldn’t say that…
Bruised & Broken
“I knew a voice like yours once, sword-nimi.
“No. A single one, in my mind, when I was young. … I hope things go better this time.”
A: Whether from lack of curiosity or lack of understanding, Nightblood doesn’t question this. AHEM. Allow me:
What. The. Damnation. …? Did Szeth have the beginnings of a spren bond, years ago? Was that why he knew the Radiants were returning, and with them presumably the Voidbringers? Was he declared Truthless because of what his spren told him? And if so, what happened to it?
L: This was my immediate thought. That he’d been in the process of bonding a spren early on.
A: Now, I have to point out that “when I was young” doesn’t match very well with being named Truthless at 27 years of age, so perhaps the two aren’t related. Or… perhaps the events of the intervening nine years make his previous life feel like “when I was young.” Either way, this really does sound like a spren bond, and I can’t help wondering what family it belonged to. Would he have been a Skybreaker even back then? Somehow, I think not. Did he do something to destroy the bond, or did the spren change its mind? More questions for Szeth’s book, I suppose.
Squires & Sidekicks
A: Does Nightblood qualify as a Sidekick? He’s so funny—right up until he’s not.
L: I think he does. He’s certainly not a main character, either here or in Warbreaker! So that puts him firmly in the sidekick/foil camp for me anyway.
“Sword-nimi, do you know why you were given to me?”
Because you needed help. I’m good at helping.
A: Oh, yes, indeed. So good at helping!
Honestly, Szeth, I have to be frank. You aren’t good at slaying evil. We haven’t killed anyone while you held me.
A: Okay, I guess I can’t quote everything… but this really made me laugh.
A rushing sound, like a thousand screams.
A wave of power, like the beating of a terrible, stunning wind.
Colors changed around him. They deepened, growing darker and more vibrant. The city nobleman’s cloak became a stunning array of deep oranges and blood reds.
The hair on Szeth’s arms stood on end and his skin spiked with a sudden incredible pain.
Liquid darkness flowed from the Blade, then melted to smoke as it fell.
A: … And then it’s not funny any more at all, and you remember that Nightblood is nobody’s joke. (I love that colors are affected by Nightblood on Roshar just like they were on Nalthis.) The description, while it could be expected by anyone who’s read Warbreaker, is nonetheless a bit of a stunner. If there’s anyone here who hadn’t read Warbreaker first, was this as shocking as I think it ought to have been? I mean, an absurdly cheerful sword is odd anyway, though not inconceivable since we now know that spren become swords here on Roshar, but this sudden personality change… Wow! And just as suddenly, it changes back.
Hey! The sword said as Szeth sat on a low wall alongside the city. Hey, did you draw me?
“I did, sword-nimi.”
Great job! Did we… did we destroy lots of evil?
“A great and corrupt evil.”
L: Interesting that he seems to lose all sense of everything when he’s drawn. He sort of reminds me of my friend who has seizures… after she has one, she acts like this. She can’t recall what happened during the episode at all.
Wow! I’m impressed. You know, Vivenna never drew me even once? She carried me for a long time too. Maybe a couple of days even?
“And how long have I been carrying you?”
At least an hour, the sword said, satisfied. One, or two, or ten thousand. Something like that.
L: So time moves differently for Nightblood… or at least, he perceives it as such.
A: Apparently Nightblood has very little sense of time; one hour or ten thousand hours are indistinguishable to him. He seems to remember people, but he doesn’t remember the passage of time, nor anything that happens when he’s unsheathed. Which, come to think of it, is probably why he doesn’t remember being used to kill Shashara, and why he keeps thinking she’s still alive.
Flora & Fauna
A: This crazy world with its crazy plants… did you notice how Szeth used the leaves to find his criminal?
L: I really loved that little touch. It makes perfect sense that someone who is used to the behavior would pick up on little things like that!
Places & Peoples
“How did this man know to send for us?” Szeth asked.
“We have been expanding our influence, following the advent of the new storm,” she replied. “The local monarchs have accepted us as a unifying martial force, and have given us legal authority. The city’s high minister wrote to us via spanreed, pleading for help.”
A: I… have a hard time accepting this at face value. They’ve become an acknowledged and accepted force of law in a matter of 75 days or so? Really? I don’t know whether to think the locals are really that pathetic, or the Skybreaker is lying about it all being so recent.
L: I have to wonder if they already had the paperwork lined up for just such an eventuality…
A: Right. Paperwork. They probably did!
It seems odd that the people here would be so open to the return of the Radiants. Without the Vorin Heirocracy to mess with their history, it might not be such a big issue for them, but at the same time, this isn’t all that far from Feverstone Keep, a principal location for the Recreance. I can’t help thinking there’s something fishy here—and it’s not the magic critters in the Purelake.
In light of later events, there’s something else that’s bugging me. Here, we’re seeing that the Skybreakers have a lot of influence over the nearby kingdoms. In Chapter 117, Nale tells Szeth that the Skybreakers will be following the laws of the Singers. In Chapter 122, we’re told that the entire northwest segment of the continent is held by the Voidbringers, including this area. Are those related? Does the Skybreaker influence push these areas toward the Voidbringers? Or does their involvement with those nations push them toward accepting the same rule? Is it correlation, causation, or coincidence?
“If these men are murderers, why were they not executed before?”
“This area is populated by Reshi idealists … They have a strange non-violent attitude, even toward criminals. … Now that the murderers have escaped, mercy is withdrawn. They are to be executed.”
A: Well then. As we see later, “mercy” might not be the right word for this particular prison, or at least not for everyone. Why would the locals suddenly agree to execute all the inmates, as well as the corrupt administrator? Do I detect some influence by a certain group who claims to be interested only in fulfilling law? Does local law allow for the death penalty, and they just don’t like to enforce it, or are the Skybreakers pressuring the leaders into allowing them to administer justice according to their own (i.e. Skybreakers) standard of justice?
“You walk on stone. Why is this? Each Shin I have known calls stone holy, and refuses to set foot on it.”
“It cannot be holy. If it truly were, Master Ki, it would have burned me away long ago.”
A: I wonder if we’ll ever learn the background of this “holy stone” business. I expect that will come in Szeth’s book.
L: I rather like the theory that stone is tied to the Third Sibling, which they worship.
A: I like that idea too—but then I like almost anything that might tie to the Sibling!! Meanwhile, his response is fascinating. It would seem that he considers himself so tainted that anything truly holy would destroy him… but it doesn’t seem to cross his mind that 95% of the population of Roshar walks on stone all the time. Does he really think he’s so much worse than everyone else that holiness should destroy him more than anyone else? It could be, of course.
To be fair, I think he mentioned it a few times in The Way of Kings, at least, that all these pagans were walking on stone without regard to its holiness. But this is the first time he thinks that the stone should destroy him, rather than thinking how awful he (and everyone else) is for walking on it. Huh.
L: Maybe it’s only especially profane for followers of the religion to break it?
A: Could be. After all, you don’t really expect the heathens to know right and wrong!
“… I won’t be surprised if it takes you mere months before you achieve the Third Ideal.”
Months. No, he would not take months.
A: Heh. Yeah, Szeth is going to blow their “normal” timetable to smithereens. He’ll get to the Third in 22 days.
“I swear to seek justice, to let it guide me, until I find a more perfect Ideal.”
L: Very interesting. A more perfect ideal… like a perfect understanding of ethics/morality? Can any interpretation of ethics be completely correct? An interesting philosophical question indeed…
A: Oddly enough, Nale seems to agree with you. He says later that even laws can’t be perfect, since they are written by people, but he seems to believe that codified law is better than the individual opinion. Which, generally, is quite true. But even laws must be interpreted, and … well, no. I don’t believe anyone (except God) can claim to have a perfectly correct understanding of good and evil.
In this context, though, I suppose it makes for a reasonable Second Ideal. The Radiant Ideals seem to be more “it means what it means to you” than “it means what it means.”
A: So there’s a bunch of trivial stuff about the Skybreakers in this chapter, and I’m tucking it in here. Like, when the prison-master tells them to go find the convicts and kill them…
The masters turned to the squires and hopefuls; some of the more eager among them immediately went running toward the water. Several that could Lash took to the sky.
A: Blood-thirsty, much? Okay, we can pretend they’re just eager to see justice served, but seriously, you know they’re all just hoping to bring back dead-body prizes so they can move up the ladder. “Justice” my eye.
L: I can see why they’d be eager to jump right in… I recall an episode of Stan Lee’s reality TV show So You Want to be a Superhero in which he was “testing” people to be superheroes. He told them their mission was to go and change into their superhero outfits, when in reality they passed by a bunch of people who needed help. Most of the “heroes” were too focused on the task and hence didn’t even notice the calls for help around them, which was, of course, the real test. But Alice, you make a good point about the fact that passing this test requires them to kill someone. You’d think that at least some of them would be a little squicked out by this!
A: Or at least they ought to blink at the thought. Some kind of reaction. Have they been trained to believe that the death penalty is the only thing they do? “You only call in the Skybreakers for capital crimes!!”
Anyway, most of them took off at this juncture. Four, besides Szeth, stayed behind to be sure the convicts were guilty and this was a legitimate effort of justice. With that confirmed, two more leave. When told about the local viewpoints and that “mercy is withdrawn” the last two (besides Szeth) are off and
running uhh… flying uhh… falling. So at least there are a few who wait to be sure it’s the “right” thing to do, I guess? Except Szeth. This chapter, I like him more than I did last time. He’s beginning to think.
L: It makes sense that it takes him awhile to retrain his mind to think about orders. He’s gotten so used to just doing whatever his master told him that I imagine that he’s rusty at taking the time to think over the morality.
A: Sort of… Sometimes he seemed to think about the morality—or lack thereof!—in what he was doing, but he did it anyway because, as Nightblood says, “magic rock.” Now, he’s taking responsibility for what he thinks, and acting on it. This is, I think, good.
These are Skybreakers, he thought. They wouldn’t knowingly send us after innocents. He could have taken their implied approval at the start. Yet… something bothered him. This was a test, but of what? Was it merely about the speed with which they could dispatch the guilty?
A: Good question, Szeth. Good question. And I’m glad to learn that there is more to it—at the same time I’m irritated that most of the hopefuls and squires don’t seem to have a clue. They’re just off to kill the killers. (Uh-oh. That fits way too well with a certain song… that I will now have stuck in my head… Oz FTW?)
Szeth turned from him to Ki. “Do you have a writ of execution for this man?”
“It is the first we obtained.”
A: So… clearly they intended to execute the prison-master in the end. Apparently they were waiting to see if any of their hopefuls thought beyond “escaped convict” to evaluate the prison itself, and its management. Good, I guess?
L: Yeah, I mean… they know he’s not going anywhere, they’ve got him under tabs, so why not wait and see if any of their hopefuls are quick enough to figure it out?
A: As quoted up in Squires & Sidekicks, Nightblood states that Vivenna never drew it, in all the time she carried it. Of course, we have no way of knowing how long that was; we don’t know whether Nightblood is just thinking of the short time we saw her carrying it in Warbreaker, or whether she carried it for months or years, after that. On a bet, she carried it for a while in the sequel, but it seems probable that she gave it back to Vasher in the end.
Liquid darkness flowed from the Blade, then melted to smoke as it fell. Szeth screamed at the pain in his arm even as he slammed the weapon through the chest of the blubbering nobleman.
Flesh and blood puffed instantly into black smoke. Ordinary Shardblades burned only the eyes, but this sword somehow consumed the entire body. It seemed to sear away even the man’s soul.
L: Whooboy. Now, it’s been awhile since I read Warbreaker, but I don’t remember Nightblood reacting like this during it! Alice, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t he just leave bodies like a normal sword did?
A: Hmm. After a bit of a prowl through Warbreaker… Most of the time, no one got farther than pulling him an inch or two out of the scabbard, and many times people died by being stabbed with the sheathed sword. The only time that anyone actually drew Nightblood all the way out of the scabbard was when Vasher was fighting a bunch of Lifeless during the Avalanche. In that case, the end result was pretty close:
Each creature he struck with the blade immediately ﬂashed and became smoke. A single scratch and the bodies dissolved like paper being consumed by an invisible fire, leaving behind only a large stain of blackness in the air.
(Warbreaker p. 621, Kindle edition).
A: He also dissolved a few walls and part of a ceiling with the sword, pretty much the same way—stone puffed away in smoke. I think the big difference is that Nightblood kills and maims whenever the scabbard’s clasp is undone, but there are still dead bodies around. When it’s truly unsheathed, there’s no body left. The odd thing is that Jewels insists Vasher couldn’t have used Nightblood to kill Arsteel, because “there was no blackness to Arsteel’s wounds.” Either it would work differently on a Returned and she knows it, or she has no idea what happens when Nightblood is drawn, because she knows where Arsteel’s body is.
L: Once again, my faulty memory betrays me! I think I must have been thinking of times that people were stabbed with the scabbard. Anyway, this is all pretty terrifying. The thing I find most fascinating is that either Nightblood is actively breaking the law of conservation of mass (matter cannot be created or destroyed) or he’s… sending it somewhere else. Now, I know we’re dealing with Magic here, HOWEVER Sanderson is usually pretty good about couching his magic within the realm of science, so…
A: Hmm. We know that Nightblood destroys in all three Realms at once, but… I’m not sure. Is there enough smoke for an entire body? It’s a lot like Jasnah Soulcasting that big boulder to smoke. That should have created an incredible amount of smoke in order to account for the mass of the boulder. Or the Soulcasters who make stone out of air—it should suck all the air out of the whole warcamp to get enough mass to make a small stone, let alone a big wall. I’m inclined to think that it’s going to/coming from somewhere else, somehow—either that, or the Rule of Cool outweighs the laws of physics.
Slowly, the blackness evaporated from his flesh, the awful pain easing. The skin of his hand, which had already been pale, had been bleached to grey-white.
L: Permanently, or is this temporary? What the heck is going on here? I could see Nightblood consuming Breath if Szeth didn’t have enough Stormlight to feed it, but… Breath wouldn’t leave just part of his skin grey, would it? I’m so confused.
A: Well, after doing a little research, I’m confused too. On the one occasion when Vasher draws Nightblood, he does get black veins growing up his arm, but once he drops the sword, the blackness evaporates. It doesn’t, however, leave any bleaching behind. I don’t have any way to make an educated guess as to whether it’s the difference between Breath and Stormlight, the difference between Nalthis and Roshar, or the difference between a Returned and an ordinary(ish) mortal.
L: My guess would be that Vasher had enough Breaths to keep it from happening (whereas Szeth states that he would need a LOT more Stormlight before trying again), but that still doesn’t answer the question of just what Nightblood was feeding off of, if not Breath or Stormlight… and whether this is permanent!
A: I’m pretty sure it was feeding off a combination of the Stormlight in Szeth’s spheres and Szeth’s life force, but there was no sense in Warbreaker of it pulling color from things. So… yeah, I dunno.
“And what is evil, sword-nimi?”
I’m sure you can spot it. You seem smart. If increasingly kind of boring.
* * *
Vivenna used to tell me that cruelty is only for men, as is mercy. Only we can choose one or the other, and beasts cannot.
Well, that’s what we’ve got on the Assassin, the Awakened Sword, and the Skybreakers. Join us in the comments, and be sure to come back next week for Chapters 93, 94, and 95. We’ll rejoin our intrepid Shadesmar Explorers, then jump back in time for a very short but significant scene from Dalinar’s past, and visit with Kaladin briefly.
Alice is gearing up for the beginning of school. Also volleyball. Woot! (This is what happens when you have high school kids, apparently.)
Lyndsey is beginning her run at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, and as such is preparing to speak in a silly British accent and sleep outdoors every weekend for the next seven weeks. If you’re an aspiring author, a cosplayer, or just like geeky content, follow her work on Facebook or Instagram.