Chapter 5: What Has Passed

Excerpted from A Warrior’s Penance Copyright © 2016 by Davis Ashura
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter 5: What Has Passed

Before the patient man’s hardened heart, even the finest of warriors must quail.

The Warrior and the Servant (author unknown)

The training grounds of the House of Fire and Mirrors were a broad quadrangle of trampled fields that resisted the finest efforts of the Muran groundskeepers to keep them green and vibrant. The memory of generations of warriors had been beaten into the hard-packed dirt, and for some, the continually torn grass was the House’s truest sigil. North of the grounds loomed the bulk of the main building of the House of Fire and Mirrors, while to the south rested an array of barracks and barns. East and west, a hedge of ligustrum softened a tall, brick wall upon which were mounted regularly spaced firefly lamps.

With the early spring weather, the scent of cut grass, azalea, and dew mingled in the air while the ground reverberated with the shouts of Martial Masters barking out instructions and critiques to their senior cadets. From a distance, the din and movement of the two hundred or so young men pushed through another round of drills might have seemed purposeless and without pattern, but such was not the case. To the discerning eye, it quickly became clear that the movements of the warriors did have purpose. They did have a pattern. Their sliding motions were supple, smooth, and focused, informed by years of training and discipline. Today, though, those same fluid movements seemed somewhat forced and frenetic, even frayed. Technique appeared traded for speed, and a few students found themselves slipping head over heels on the slick grass. They cursed loudly before rising to their feet and resuming their matches.

This was the final months-long push for the Trims—the senior cadets—of the House of Fire and Mirrors. This was the training meant to hone them to Ashokan sharpness, to the keen edge needed—not just for their upcoming Trials—but also for something else. It was something seemingly trivial, and yet it was also something the Trims feared to fail. A few months from now would come Hellfire Week. It was held every spring and was the annual competitions and exhibitions in which all the military academies took part.

Hellfire Week began with the Wrath, the competition pitting the finest seniors of the House of Fire and Mirrors against those from their brother Kumma academy, the Fort and the Sword. No one wanted to lose, and it went without saying that the Wrath was bitterly contested. Whoever won the contest would invariably lord their victory over the defeated academy for the entirety of the following year, and for many in Caste Kumma, it was one of the most important competitions of the year.

However, for the rest of the city, the more anticipated contest was what followed after: the Advent Trial. Other than the Tournament of Hume, there was no other event in Ashoka that was more eagerly anticipated. All the Trims from the four military academies: the House of Fire and Mirrors, the Fort and the Sword, the Sarath, and the Shir’Fen—the latter two were the schools in which Rahails and Murans trained as warriors—would take part.

In some ways, the Advent Trial was even more popular than the Tournament of Hume. Since Kummas were utterly dominant in matters of the sword, most martial competitions never had any other entrants other than those from the warrior Caste. Such wasn’t the case with the Advent Trial. This wider involvement of other Castes was a large reason for its popularity.

In addition, since the goal of the competition was simple and obvious, it was easy to follow. Two armies, each containing a mix of cadets and commanders from the four military academies, would battle against one another. Their straightforward goal: capture the opposing team’s flag and bring it back safely to their own ‘Oasis’.

The competition always took place just outside the borders of Ashoka’s Outer Wall, and as a result, there were plenty of vantage points by which to view it. But given the contest’s popularity, the best places to watch the tournament had already long since been reserved, and a few months from now, the Outer Wall would be thronged with Ashokans cheering on whichever of the two armies caught their fancy.

But first would come the Wrath—and the Prank.

Rukh smiled as he remembered his own participation in the Prank several years ago. In the few short years since, it had already achieved the status of legend. What a fine joke he, Keemo, Farn, and Jaresh had managed to carry out. Keemo had been the instigator and planner while the other three had merely added on some final flourishes to make the Prank come off without a hitch.

His smile became wistful as he remembered the beloved friend he had lost, a man who had been akin to a brother. In a more just world, Keemo should still be with those who loved him. He should be walking the streets of Ashoka, wearing his easy smile and offering his infectious laughter. He should be living out the life he so obviously found so vivacious. In his presence, even Farn hadn’t been able to remain dour for long.

Rukh shook his head in sorrow before returning his attention to the here and now. After his return to Ashoka, it had been decided that he had survived six Trials: the failed journey to Nestle, the journey to and from the Chimera caverns, the trip to Hammer and back where he and Jessira had retrieved The Book of First Movement, and finally, the return to Ashoka from Stronghold. Therefore, according to the judgment of the Chamber of Lords, Rukh had fulfilled his obligations to his Caste and would never again have to leave Ashoka if he so chose—which he wouldn’t. He was a married man after all.

The one obstacle he had yet to overcome, though, was what to do with the rest of his life, and how he would be able to afford it. He had no money. Kummas were given shares in the caravans in which they participated, and through this investment, those with three Trials to their names were generally quite wealthy by that point. However, Rukh was the exception that tested the rule. The Trial to Nestle had ended in disaster with all the men and material destroyed. The expedition to the Chimera caverns had not been for monetary gain, and the journey to Hammer had resulted in the recovery of The Book of First Movement, but had yielded nothing in the way of saleable items. And, of course, the return to Ashoka from Stronghold had been due to genocide.

All this meant that Rukh had needed to find a means to earn a living. As a result, he’d applied to become a Martial Master at his alma mater, the House of Fire and Mirrors. He was grateful to Master Sinngin, the Dean of the academy, for hiring him on, but it was still a challenge finding a balance in his work situation. He was expected to offer instruction and reprimand warriors who he had first known as fellow cadets, and it wasn’t easy to make the transition to judging Master.

Farn, however, seemed to have little trouble making just that transition. Farn, like Rukh, had also been deemed to have survived enough Trials to remain in Ashoka with his honor intact. In his case, it was four Trials—to Nestle, the return from Stronghold, and the Trial to and from the OutCaste city. And also like Rukh, he had no wealth to his name, which meant he, too, was an instructor at the House of Fire and Mirrors.

Right now, Farn was working nearby with his own group of seniors, and his voice rose when he saw one of them make a first year error.

Rukh smiled when he saw the chagrined student redden with embarrassment. At least the Trim wouldn’t be making that same mistake again.

Rukh turned his attention back to the seniors he’d been tasked to oversee. There were six of them, and he’d split them into two teams of three: the Reds and the Golds. He thought them well-matched, which meant that victory would be achieved by whoever was best able to maintain unit discipline and cohesion since Annexes weren’t allowed.

Rukh reckoned he’d given each team enough time to map out their tactics. “Begin!” he shouted.

Immediately, the two teams closed with one another. Rukh measured the placement of each team’s warriors. He frowned. Unless there was an unexpected accident, the Reds would lose badly.

Before he’d even finished the thought, a member of the Reds was down. The teams fought with shokes and the cadet fell to the ground, grunting in pain. He’d taken a figurative disemboweling thrust. With his demise, another of the Reds also fell, and seconds later, it was over. The Golds were the victors, and they stood proudly as they surveyed their handiwork.

Rukh went to the first member of Red Team who had fallen, Lince Chopil, their nominal lieutenant.

The Trim had his jaw clenched in pain, and his hands clutched over his abdomen. He had to be hurting, and while Rukh could have called over one of the Shiyen physicians to Heal the cadet, there was no need. He drew Jivatma from his Well and stretched it out as thin as a silken thread before placing his hands on the Trim’s abdomen. He let his Jivatma empty down into Cadet Chopil, Healing him and removing the senior’s pain.

Soon enough, the Trim was breathing easily, and Rukh turned to the other members of the Red Team. He Healed them as well until all of them were moving about without evidence of discomfort. None of them mentioned Rukh’s non-Kumma Talents or looked askance or fearful while he had Healed them.

It hadn’t always been the case. The first time the members of the House of Fire and Mirrors had witnessed Rukh Healing, an uneasy hush had fallen upon them. The silence had included both his fellow Martial Masters and the cadets who had been involved. All of them had heard the stories about Rukh’s non-Kumma Talents, but hearing wasn’t the same as experiencing. Thankfully, their discomfiture had faded over time, and now, it was gone entirely. Any who required Rukh’s help simply accepted it without comment or concern.

“Why did your unit perform so poorly?” Rukh asked Cadet Chopil.

The Trim stood at attention. “It was my fault, sir! I shouldn’t have engaged with Cadet Prind,” he replied.

“At ease,” Rukh ordered. “Why should you not have engaged Cadet Prind?”

“I underestimated him, sir!” Chopil shouted.

Rukh’s lips thinned. It wasn’t the answer he had been looking for. He stepped closer to the Trim. “Who took your life?”

“Sir?”

“Are you deaf?” Rukh barked. “I asked who took your life.”

Chopil licked his lips. “I believe it was Cadet Dristh.”

“So it wasn’t Prind?”

Farn arrived just then, and he added his glare to the situation.

Chopil glanced askance at Rukh’s cousin and stiffened his spine. “No, sir,” he replied.

“Then why do you think your mistake was in engaging Prind?”

Chopil licked his lips again. “I’m not sure what my mistake was.”

“Pathetic,” Farn said. “Victory is taken by those who deserve it, but even in loss, a wise warrior should be able to understand why he was defeated.”

Impossibly, Chopil stiffened even further, his face turning red with anger or embarrassment.

“You have something to say?” Farn demanded.

Rukh held his tongue, waiting to hear how the Trim would answer.

Chopil hesitated. “Would the Martial Master be willing to instruct me?”

Rukh smiled. “Of course. You lost because you set your strongest against Gold Team’s supposed weakest. In essence, you engaged in one-on-one combat while the Golds fought as a team. Cadet Beol recognized your mistake and exploited it. Your supposed strongest was held up by Gold’s weakest just long enough for the other Golds to support him and ‘kill’ you. After that, with their three to your two, the Reds were doomed.”

Chopil frowned. “But in the accounts of your battles in the Chimera caverns and Stronghold, it’s how you fought. You stood alone and unbending with your skill and faithful blade against the rage of a horde.”

Rukh scowled. Was that truly the lesson the cadets of his martial academy had taken from his battles? And what was it with the manner in which Chopil had just spoken? It sounded like the Trim had recited some bad drama he’d read. It was absolute stupidity.

“If I could have fought with my brothers against the Chimeras, I would have,” Rukh growled. “And Stronghold was a massacre. Without the Kesarins, we would have all died. I never fought alone there.”

“But, sir, we’ve watched you train. You defeated two Martial Masters by yourself.” Chopil’s voice sounded eager, young, and full of awe.

Rukh wanted to shake the Trim loose of his foolishness. How could a senior cadet at the House of Fire and Mirrors be so wrongheaded? Just a few years ago, Rukh had been just another student to these Trims, but all too often, it sounded like some of them harbored some sort of hero worship toward him. It defied reason.

“I was only able to defeat two Martial Masters because I can Blend,” Rukh reminded the rest of the Trims, all of whom appeared to listening intently. “Once they accounted for my Talent, they were able to defeat me.”

“But you’re still victorious once every third time—“

“Once every third means I’m dead two out of three,” Rukh snapped, having heard enough. “Ten laps. Get it done!”

Cadet Chopil rammed back to rigid attention. “Yes, sir!”

Members of Gold Team snickered as the Reds trotted out behind Chopil.

Rukh’s attention surged to them. “And you’ve earned the privilege of joining them,” he barked. “Move it!”

Groans met his command, but Gold Team was soon trailing after the Reds.

“I’ve never seen you get so angry at Trims like that,” Farn noted.

“Never had a reason to,” Rukh replied.

Jaresh arrived just then and whistled at the swiftly retreating Red and Gold Teams. “What happened to them?” he asked, walking up to join Rukh and their cousin.

“Your brother lost his temper,” Farn said in his inimitable, laconic style.

Jaresh did a double take. “Really? Everyone keeps going on and on about his patience, like he’s some sort of latter-day Maha Sidtha.”

“Don’t you have some accounts to receive?” Rukh asked, annoyed by his brother’s overly chipper manner.

“Those would be accounts payable, and they’ve already been paid,” Jaresh corrected in a pedantic tone. “So what did the Trims do?”

“They’re just filled with all sorts of idiotic ideas,” Rukh answered. “Speaking of. What brings you out here?”

Jaresh smirked. “Droll,” he said. “Durmer just finished running me and Bree through our paces when Nanna told me to bring you home.”

Rukh nodded, understanding what Jaresh meant about Durmer. Ever since the Kesarins—Aia, Shon, and Thrum—had given Jaresh the Talents of a Kumma, he had been training hard under the Great Rahail’s tutelage to master his new abilities. Joining him in his practice was Bree.

The last time Rukh had watched them spar, he’d been surprised by how far their sister had come. There were times when she was able to hold her own against Jaresh. Of course her ability to stand against their brother wasn’t because of perfect form or technique on her part—in fact, she was relatively raw in the use of a sword—but because she was just that much faster. Just like Rukh couldn’t Blend as well as a Muran or a Rahail or Heal like a Shiyen, Jaresh, though he was now much swifter and stronger than most people, still didn’t have the speed, endurance, and strength of a Kumma. Most of the time, his excellent technique and form were enough to overcome Bree’s advantages, but not always. Her quickness was an undeniable advantage.

“Did Nanna say what he wanted?” Rukh asked.

Jaresh shook his head. “No. But I imagine it has to do with finding the final MalDin.”

Rukh grunted in disgust. After Ular Sathin had killed himself, his position as a MalDin of the Sil Lor Kum had come to light. It was still hard to believe. Ular had been both a highly respected Muran—a member of the Society of Rajan, no less—but also the worst kind of scum. How had he managed it? How could any man, evil or otherwise, have so proficiently and consistently betrayed everyone who loved and knew him? Rukh couldn’t imagine the self-deception and discipline required to have lived Ular’s life of lies.

Regardless, after the man’s death, his journal—the one describing his role as a MalDin—had come into Nanna’s possession. It had been anonymously mailed to him, and after the code in which it had been written had been deciphered, the Sil Lor Kum had been eradicated. All except for the MalDin representing Caste Duriah, and maybe a few lower-ranking members of the so-called ‘Hidden Hand of Justice’.

“What does Nanna want me to do?” Rukh asked.

“He wasn’t the one who actually asked for you,” Jaresh said. “Bree asked him to ask you—”

“I thought she had her hands full helping out the OutCastes?” Farn interrupted.

“After the contract Bree was able to hammer out on their behalf with Clan Weathervine, they don’t really need her assistance any more,” Jaresh explained. “Nanna wants her to help the City Watch find the final MalDin and the rest of the Sil Lor Kum.” He turned to Rukh. “And Bree wants your help.”

“Why? What does she think I can do that she can’t?”

“Nothing,” Jaresh replied. “It’s more about Rector Bryce. Nanna asked for his help in finding the rest of the Sil Lor Kum, and when Bree found out who she would have to work with, she said the only person who could keep her from hurting Rector was you.”

Rukh snorted. “So she expects me to protect Rector from her?”

Jaresh grinned, clearly enjoying himself. “She says that while others could stop her from hurting Rector, she thinks you’re the only one with the skill to do so without killing her in the process.” He laughed. “She must really hate him.”

Farn chuckled. “She still hasn’t forgiven him?”

“I guess not,” Rukh said.

“But you have?” Farn asked.

Rukh shrugged. “He was a large part of the reason why I was exiled from Ashoka, but I also remember what he did for Jessira at the Magisterium. After the Magisterium, it wasn’t too hard to forgive him.”

Farn shook his head. “Not for me. I’d still want to smash his face into the pavement.”

Rukh smiled, thinking of something Jessira had once told him. ‘You aren’t a man made to hate,’ she had said.

“I thought you were the one who thought first and fought second,” Jaresh said to Farn.

“I guess your stupidity is rubbing off on me,” their cousin replied.

“If it’s my stupidity rubbing off on you, then you’re still gaining in intelligence,” Jaresh countered.

“So you’re saying that even at your stupidest, you’re smarter than me?” Farn said with a scoffing snort. “You must have bathed in an open sewer because I smell bilge water.”

“Well you’d know that fragrance better than anyone,” Jaresh said before turning to Rukh. “And just what exactly are you smiling about?”

Rukh coughed into his hand, not wanting to admit the truth. It would only set the other two men laughing. To hear them talk, they seemed to think that Rukh believed that the sun rose and set based on Jessira’s presence. “I was just thinking how it’s nice to be home and hear the two of you bicker,” Rukh lied. “I missed it when I was in Stronghold.”

“You had a look on your face just then,” Jaresh noted, sounding skeptical. His eyes narrowed.

Rukh mentally groaned. “What look?” he asked, trying to keep his features placid and curious rather than guilty.

Jaresh’s eyes widened. “You were thinking about Jessira!” He burst into laughter.

“No I wasn’t!” Rukh exclaimed.

“Yes, you were,” Farn said, joining in Jaresh’s laughter.

Rukh sighed. “Why don’t we get back on topic?” he suggested.

“You mean you don’t want to tell us about the wonderful qualities your wife possesses?” Farn asked with a straitlaced, innocent expression.

“Or maybe we can talk about Laya?” Rukh said, giving his cousin a challenging stare.

Now it was Farn’s turn to smother a cough. “So why can’t Bree forgive Rector?” he asked in an obvious attempt to change the subject.

Jaresh took a moment to glance between the two men and mutter something about OutCaste women under his breath. Rukh couldn’t quite make it out. “I’m not sure why Bree still dislikes Rector so much. I mean, Rukh has already forgiven the man, and I would guess Nanna has as well since he’s willing to entrust him with this.”

Rukh smiled. “Our sister is a complicated woman.”

“Hating someone isn’t complicated,” Jaresh observed.

Rukh shook his head at his brother’s lack of insight. “Bree doesn’t hate Rector. She hates how she misjudged him, and now, she isn’t sure if she’s doing so again with her mistrust.”

“It’s a conundrum,” Farn agreed.

*****

Aia was laid out on her back with her hind limbs stretched out behind her and her front ones tucked up so her paws were under her chin. From her current position, in the distance she could see a row of tall homes made of red brick and cold, dead wood. She sniffed at the sight. There was no beauty to the hard-edged straight lines and stiff stones that made up the city of Ashoka. Even the occasional edging of grass and trees dividing the roads wasn’t enough to soften this Human hive of rugged rocks, noxious noises, and strong smells.

She turned away from the view and let her gaze linger upon the place where she was to meet her Human, Rukh. They always met here. This was one of the few places in Rukh’s home where she truly felt comfortable. The fields between the city’s massive walls would have been fine, but for some reason, the Humans who dug up the land there—farmers were what Rukh called them—always seemed to take offense whenever Aia or her brothers decided to show up and roll about on the ground or dig in the dirt. They would yell and shout, running about and gesticulating wildly like fearful ostriches. It was most annoying. Some even flung dirt at them like a monkey hurling feces.

Aia snorted. How typical. Humans did look a little like monkeys, so maybe it was only natural that they would act like them as well.

Of course back home, if a monkey—or any other animal—had dared disrespect her, Aia would have made sure they never repeated the error. She had been tempted to teach an unforgettable lesson to the rude Human monkeys who had thrown dirt at her, but Rukh had told her in no uncertain terms that harming one of his kind was prohibited. Aia snorted at the thought. She wouldn’t have actually hurt any of them. She would have only pretended to, just enough to get the pesky Humans to leave her alone.

Aia sighed. Rukh would probably still have been mad at her.

She set aside her annoyance with her Human and returned to studying this place Rukh had found for her. Dryad Park was what he named it. It was so quiet and subdued here, at least in comparison to the riot that was the rest of Ashoka. In some ways, it even reminded Aia of her own home.

Rolling hills of grass and wildflowers cupped blue lakes and ponds full of delectable, fat fish. And while Aia knew just how succulent those scaled beasties were, once again, Rukh insisted on ruining her fun. He wouldn’t let her splash about and try her paws at catching the slippery fish. He said she’d only scare them away.

What foolishness. Fish had no minds by which to feel fear. And they were so delicious.

Aia frowned, a flattening of her ears, wishing Rukh could see reason. But he had been steadfast in his refusal.

Once again, Aia set aside her annoyance.

Instead, she glanced at a number of old Humans as they moved rocks of various shapes about on strange, flat piece of wood made of colored squares. What were they doing that was so fascinating? There they sat beneath the arms of a small grouping of oak trees, as still and unmoving as Human-shaped boulders. It looked so pointless. Rukh said it was a game called ‘chess’, but Aia wasn’t sure if he was playing a trick on her.

Kesarin games relied on running, hiding, leaping, and rolling, not staring at pieces of rock and moving them fractionally every few minutes.

Stupidity. Not to mention boring.

Aia then turned her sight to a group of large globes of various colors hanging from the branches of the oaks. She smiled. Finally, a Human creation that made sense. She loved the firefly globes. They were so beautiful, hypnotic even, especially when they waved in the breeze and spooled out bright pinpricks of moving light and shadow. It was like something alive then. Shon and Thrum loved to chase those pinpoints, racing after them, all along the ground and even leaping into the trees. Aia, on the other hand, maintained a dignified air while her brothers played their silly games.

But when her brothers weren’t around, she, too, would chase the light and shadows. It was so much fun.

Aia settled herself deeper into the warm ground, lost in pleasant memories.

A cloud passed above her, and she wondered why the sky was blue. Was it like the nearby sea, but instead of washing about on the ground, was it water floating high above the world? It made sense. After all, where else could rain come from?

Aia mentally shuddered. She loved swimming, but for some reason, she hated the rain. It was a miserable experience, and just imagining the water falling on her head was enough to make her whiskers wilt in imagined melancholy.

*Sister, why are you sad?* Shon asked, coming up to her and touching her nose with his before he licked the side of her face.

*Rain.*

Shon pulled up short in startlement. *Where?* he asked in consternation.

Aia laughed. She reached up and grasped her brother’s head in her paws. She kept her claws sheathed as she pulled him down until he flopped next to her. He lay beside her, and she groomed the top of his head.

The affection Aia felt for her youngest brother sometimes surprised her. After all, she hadn’t always liked Shon, but in the past year, he had grown, not just in size—he was bigger than Aia now and almost as big as Thrum—but also in wisdom. He was no longer the sun-addled pest she had to continually bat on the nose for his silly behavior. It was entirely unexpected, especially since his older brother, Thrum, was still prone to foolishness like galloping about and trying to catch snow in his mouth.

Aia wondered what had caused Shon to change in the ways he had.

Perhaps it was through the influence of Jessira, his Human. She was Rukh’s mate—his wife as Humans called things—which meant she had to be someone special. Aia couldn’t imagine Rukh settling for anyone ordinary of wit and wisdom. In addition, Jessira was female, and as everyone knew, males were improved through their association with a female.

*Why were you sad?* Shon asked again.

Aia yawned and rolled to her side. *Why is the sky blue?* she asked. *Is it because the heavens are like the sea? Are they full of water, and rain falls when it slips free of the clouds?*

Shon sat on his hindquarters and tilted his head in thought. *Or maybe the heavens reflect the water.*

*Then why don’t they reflect the mountains and the grass?* Aia challenged.

Shon shrugged. *Do you suppose our Humans could tell us?* he asked.

Aia snorted. *Humans don’t know everything,* she said. *They only act like they do.*

*Not mine,* Shon disagreed. *Jessira is sensible enough to admit when she doesn’t know something.*

*Rukh is the same,* Aia replied, unwilling to concede that Jessira might be better than Rukh in any way. It was simply inconceivable that there was a finer Human than her own. *Which of them do you suppose taught the other humility?* Aia asked.

Her brother cast her a grin. *Whoever it is, I hope they can help Thrum. Ever since he took Jaresh as his Human, our brother has been insufferable.*

Aia nodded. *On this we are agreed,* she said. *Jaresh should teach Thrum proper manners.*

*Unlikely. I think it’s Jaresh who is feeding our brother’s arrogance. Thrum keeps going on about how smart his Human is. How clever he is. How no one can solve puzzles like his Human. How everyone bows before his Human’s great intelligence.* Shon rumbled in annoyance. *I would like to swipe Thrum across the nose.*

*Just be glad he is with his Human and not with us,* Aia advised with a smile. *I doubt he would like your notion of swiping him across the nose.*

Shon sniffed. *I’m not afraid of him.*

Aia rubbed her head against his. *Not so long as I’m around,* she said.

Shon rumbled his affection before flopping to the ground and curling up next to Aia.

Soon, both of them were asleep.

Rukh approached the drowsing Kesarins as softly as he could. He didn’t want to disturb Aia and Shon’s slumber. Both cats were the size of an ox and could be as fierce as a raging ice storm. But not when sleeping. Then they appeared as peaceful as newborn kittens.

Jessira walked just as quietly. They were downwind of the cats, and her mild cinnamon scent wouldn’t carry. Of course, other than Shon, no one else seemed to be aware of the faint fragrance wafting about her.

“They’re so cute when they’re asleep,” Jessira whispered.

Almost as if on cue, Aia and Shon’s eyes opened, and their heads swiveled as they focused on Rukh and Jessira.

Aia uncurled from where she was scooped around her brother, and she arched her back in a shuddering stretch before she reached forward with outstretched paws and lengthened her hind legs as well. When she was done, she sat with her tail demurely curled before her.

Golden-furred Shon mimicked Aia’s posture, but the swish of his tail gave away the truth of his budding excitement.

*JESSIRA!* he shouted, sounding overjoyed. He bounded forward and rubbed his head against her chest, almost knocking her off her feet.

Jessira laughed and rubbed at Shon’s ears, forehead, and the corner of his mouth. The last had him trailing after her fingers with his head until he fell over on his side. He quickly stood up, and the entire sequence played out again.

Rukh watched all this with a smile before turning to approach Aia. The calico Kesarin who he had first met in the hills south of Ashoka switched her tail as he stepped closer. She leaned into his hand and rumbled.

*You’re allowed to act like you enjoy it when I come to see you,* Rukh told her.

Aia sat back in confusion. *Why would you think I don’t enjoy it?* she asked.

Rukh gestured to Jessira who sat on the ground and had Shon’s great head in her lap as she rubbed vigorously at his chin. The tawny Kesarin had his neck arched and his eyes closed as he purred like thunder. *You’re always so reserved now,* he said. *You were more like Shon when we first met. Even last summer.*

Aia laughed. *Would you like me to be more kittenish?* she asked. She mewled at him before falling over on her side and pawing ineffectually at the air. *Is that better?*

Rukh chuckled. *I think I prefer the noble version of you.*

Aia righted herself and sat on her belly. It was a thoughtful gesture, which Rukh appreciated since in this position her head was now no higher than his own. *I don’t act like Shon because I am his older sister. I have to set an example for him.* she said, somehow sounding regal and self-effacing at the same time.

Rukh stared into her guileless eyes, but a slight widening of them told him that she wasn’t being entirely truthful. *That’s not true. When we’re alone, you’re . . . friskier,* he said. There was a moment of strained silence as Aia appeared to dismiss his explanation with a haughty raising of her chin. Rukh studied her for a moment before he broke out in a delighted grin. *You just don’t want him to see you as anything other than his prim and proper sister. You like lording his immaturity over him.*

*Quiet,* Aia hissed. *Do you want him to hear you?*

Rukh laughed. Strangely, it was nice to see how alike Kesarins and Humans behaved toward their siblings. *He’ll never learn your secret from me.* he promised the worried Kesarin.

*Do you promise?* Aia asked, still appearing concerned.

*I promise* Rukh replied, knowing how much this meant to her.

Aia seemed to study him for a moment before she smiled with a flicking of her ears and blinking of her eyes. She rubbed her forehead and the corners of her mouth against Rukh, purring when he rubbed her favorite spots: under her chin and the soft space just in front of her ears.

*Was there a reason you came back so soon?* Rukh asked, still rubbing Aia’s chin.

*There are important matters we need to discuss,* the Kesarin said with a dissatisfied sigh.

*We can play some more if you like,* Rukh said. His lips twitched. *And when it grows dark, you can even stalk the lights and shadows from the firefly lamps.*

Aia sat back, appearing stricken. *You promised not to tell anyone.*

*And I won’t,* Rukh said with a grin even as he tried to mollify the Kesarin. *I promised, remember?*

Aia rumbled her annoyance.

Shon sat up from Jessira’s lap. *What’s wrong?* he asked, mistaking Aia’s rumble for concern or fear.

*Nothing,* Aia answered. Rukh tried to keep a straight face as she glowered at him. *We have to tell them what we learned.*

Shon stood up with a sigh. *Why is it that having a Human is so much work?*

Jessira patted him on the shoulder. *I’m sure you’ll survive the few minutes of conversation that you’ll have to engage in.*

Shon blinked at her. *Can work kill a Kesarin?* he asked in worry.

Jessira laughed. *No,* she replied. *Let me hear what Aia has to tell us, and then we’ll go play in the sea.*

Her words seemed to perk the mood of the tawny Kesarin, who now wore a smile of anticipation.

*What happened?* Rukh asked.

*Li-Choke learned of a Human who lives in the Wildness and is protected by the Demon Wind Herself,* Aia explained. *He lives just north of our lands, surrounded by a great glaring of the Nocats, the Tigons.*

Rukh shared a look of surprise with Jessira. *Did Choke learn this person’s name?*

Aia nodded. *Hal’El Wrestiva.*

Rukh rocked back on his feet. Hal’El was alive? And living amongst the Tigons under the Queen’s protection. He scowled. What depravity could have caused a man so honored and exalted to stoop so low?

*There’s more,* Shon said in soft tone.

*What else could there be?* Rukh asked.

Rather than explaining it, a vision from Aia came to Rukh’s mind. It was one where Suwraith’s presence had hovered over the western breeding caverns for much of the past winter. In another few months, She would have three Plagues on Continent Ember. Her creatures wouldn’t fully mature for another five years, but even now, they could fight.

*Does Choke know what She means to do with all those warriors?* Jessira asked.

*There’s more,* Shon said instead of answering her question.

Another vision came from Aia. In this one, the Sorrow Bringer had frozen the far northern waters of the Sickle Sea and transported many seasoned warriors—at least half a Plague—from Continent Catalyst to Continent Ember.

Rukh pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed shut his eyes. A headache began throbbing at his temples. *How long do we have?*

Aia sent him a soft sense of sympathy. *A few months,* she answered. *Choke says that he and the other Baels have been told to prepare for war. The Demon Wind means to come for Ashoka this summer.*

Jessira managed a smile. *It seems like She’s made that threat the past few summers.*

*I think this summer She actually means it,* Aia replied.

*****

Shur Rainfall was a Muran of bland features and bland abilities, but an interesting history. He was originally from Arjun, but relatively late in life, he’d set aside his farmer’s plow and replaced it with the sword. It was a holy calling was how he’d explained the sudden change in his fortune to his horrified parents. A younger Shur had been certain that destiny had something momentous in store for him, something majestic, and the only means to discover this wondrous fate was the Trials.

His amma and nanna had tearfully watched as Shur had confidently strode off in service to his city and his Caste.

It would be the last time he ever saw his parents, and his destiny had turned out to be a disaster.

The single Trial in which he had participated had been a horror. The Chimeras had attacked them day and night. They had been merciless, cunning, and cruel. Half the warriors in that single, awful Trial had died before the caravan had finally reached Ashoka’s safety.

Fifteen years later Shur could still hear the screams, smell the blood, and see the carnage of men eviscerated. After such a terrifying Trial, he had wisely chosen to stay in Ashoka. He never returned to his birthplace, rightly judging such an endeavor to be foolhardy. Ashoka became his home, and as all farmers know, the seasons change, life continues, and so too, must a man. As a result, Shur had worked hard to find acceptance into a clan of integrity, diligence, and piety and forge a new life.

He did well for himself, and with every passing year, Shur had grown ever more grateful for the bounty of his life. He’d survived a Trial that so many others had not. He’d prospered in the task to which those of his Caste were best suited: farming. He’d even married, and though his wife had died in childbirth before the physician could reach her, Shur felt no bitterness at her passing.

Devesh had already blessed him in so many other ways. Shur had been arrogant, but the Most High had spared him. Shur had been boastful, but the Lord had granted him safe harbor. Shur had been foolish, but Devesh had guided Shur’s footsteps to this special city. Ashoka was a lovely winter rose of enlightenment and justice, and Shur had long ago vowed to protect this wondrous gem of a city with every ounce of his strength and Jivatma.

It was why he had joined the High Army, rising to the rank of captain. It was why tonight’s meeting was so important. It was the first gathering of the Virtuous, but it would not be their last. These were the men and women who knew the Magisterium had sided with corruption when they had decided to allow the ghrinas sanctuary. These were the pious who knew that truth could not be set aside for the sake of mere convenience. These were the faithful servants who would fight to see Ashoka returned to Devesh’s holy grace.

The Virtuous were gathered in a hidden-away cellar that was dank, dark, and musty, but the humbleness of their surroundings didn’t matter to Shur. He knew that Devesh’s glory shined on them all. He knew there would come a time when the city would see the evil the Magisterium had allowed and hail the Virtuous for their foresight and piety.

But first, there had to be blood. The blood of the ghrinas. They could not be suffered to live.

Shur glanced about at the ten other men and women who had come here in secret. Among them were members of every Caste, but the most heavily represented were Murans. It was unsurprising given the devout nature of Shur’s people.

He smiled and rapped his knuckles on the bare wood of the poorly built table around which they had gathered. “Let us begin,” Shur said. “This is a momentous occasion. It is the first meeting of the Heavenly Council of the Virtuous.” The name was Shur’s invention, and he was quite proud of it. His pride was dented a moment later.

“Is that what we really plan on calling ourselves?” a Rahail asked, sounding scornful.

Shur knew the names of all these men and women, but in his mind, he preferred to think of them as ‘the Cherid’ or ‘the Shiyen’. It made it seem like those here were the actual avatars of their Castes, rather than a simple gathering of disparate individuals. It made them all seem more powerful, like they were a manifestation of the divine.

“It’s a good name,” a Cherid answered, rebuilding some of Shur’s lost certainty. “I think its iconic and strong.”

The Rahail settled into his chair with a grumble.

Shur gave the Cherid an appreciative nod before turning to the others. “Our first order of business is obvious,” he said. “The Magisterium has seen fit to allow the ghrinas a home in our city.” He snarled. “We will not allow it. Their wretched wickedness must be banished from Ashoka, and our city’s streets washed clean.”

“Banished?” a Duriah growled. “I did not come here to merely banish the ghrinas.”

“They will be banished to Death’s domain,” Shur said, glad to see that at least one other shared his vision. He was even more heartened to see the understanding nods shared amongst most of the others.

“What do you intend?” a Kumma asked.

Shur glanced the woman’s way. “We must begin with a task you will find unpleasant,” he said. “The corruption began with one of your own Houses: House Shektan and her iniquitous, Tainted son, Rukh Shektan. As such, that is where the purification must begin.”

The Kumma narrowed her eyes, not in anger or distrust, but uncertainty. “What do you mean?”

“I mean House Shektan must be destroyed,” Shur replied. “Root and branch. We must kill as many of them as possible.”

Gasps and dismayed mumblings met his words.

Shur held back a frown of disappointment. Did they think that they could reshape Ashoka, renew her moral core with a few secret meetings and nothing more? Then they were fools. Renewal required sacrifice, demanded justice, and needed the unflinching zeal of the faithful.

“How?” a Muran finally asked.

“The better question is why?” the Kumma countered.

Shur turned back to her. “Because House Shektan has consorted with evil, brought evil to the heart of the city, used sophistry to convince us that perfidy is good and morality is wickedness. They’ve gone so far as to try and cast doubt on the veracity of The Word and the Deed.” He snorted derision. “As if their laughable charges can deny that which has guided all the days and years of our lives and those of our ancestors.” Shur shook his head. “Nevertheless, their heresy cannot be tolerated. House Shektan must die.”

The Kumma pursed her lips. “And how will you go about destroying House Shektan? They are warriors while we are merely conspirators.”

Shur nodded. “We aren’t warriors, but we will be victorious in this war because we have something House Shektan can never hope to defeat. We have a vision. We share an ideal of what Ashoka should be, a philosophy we can make real, and all of House Shektan’s warriors, weapons, and swords will prove useless at trying to destroy our dream.”

The Cherid nodded in agreement. “He is right. An idea cannot be killed, and only a better vision can destroy another vision.”

The others seemed to accept the Cherid’s words and leaned in closer.

“What do you propose?” the Duriah asked.

Shur settled in his chair, satisfied and overjoyed. The first meeting was going better than he had ever dared hope. It was further proof that Devesh guided his movements. Righteousness was with him. “I have a notion of how we can both gain adherents and also strike a blow against the foul Shektans. The upcoming Advent Trial shall be the site of the First Cleansing.”

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