Prologue

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.

 Prologue

When a city is destroyed by Suwraith, Hope itself becomes a victim.
A Concise History of Arisa by Kalthe Mint, AF 1839

Rukh watched Jessira sitting alone by the banks of the Gaunt River. Her knees were clutched to her chest, and she stared across the water wearing a distant expression of shell-shocked weariness. Her air of grief and exhaustion was one that was mirrored by rest of the OutCastes, all of whom sat about in small clusters of huddled misery and mourning. Their losses were incalculable. From a city of over forty thousand people, there were now but one-hundred twenty-nine survivors of Stronghold’s destruction. The OutCastes were people at risk of extinction.

Rukh glanced over at the small encampment of Ashokans. Fifty warriors had journeyed from the city of his birth to Stronghold, and they too, had suffered grievous losses. There were now a little more than thirty Ashokan warriors remaining. They mourned their dead alongside the Strongholders and appeared every bit as drained. Most of the Ashokans leaned against one another, bone-tired and dozing, while a few of them remained alert and kept watch. Jaresh and Farn were amongst those who remained awake.

Rukh shook his head. He still couldn’t believe his brother and his cousin were actually here. It was like a waking dream, and he would have been overjoyed to see them, except for the occurrence of yesterday’s events. So many terrible tragedies. So much loss. So many dead. Too many. Rukh bit his lip, refusing to let the tears fall as he remembered Cedar and Court.

His gaze shifted and fell upon the people grouped along the river’s bank. Some of them were angry with him. After the rapids, when the water had leveled out and calmed, many of the OutCastes had called for a halt. They wanted to stop and grieve, but Rukh wouldn’t allow it. He knew they had to push on. They needed distance between themselves and Stronghold. The Sorrow Bringer was probably still seeking them.

While Li-Choke could promise that his Fracture of Chimeras would not be patrolling the Gaunt River, he couldn’t make the same promise on behalf of the Queen. She would almost certainly be on the hunt for them, and if She found them, they were all dead. According to Choke, Suwraith had discovered a new Talent. She could somehow sense a person’s Jivatma, even through the tightest of Blends. It was apparently the reason why no word of Her imminence had been carried back to Stronghold by the Home Army’s scouts. The Queen had killed them all.

If Choke was right, the news was disastrous, not just for those huddled here but for everyone throughout the world. The Trials might no longer be possible. They relied on Blends to hide from the Sorrow Bringer’s sight, but if She could see through them, then no one entering the Wildness would ever be safe.

Art and learning—so important in rebuilding civilization after the Days of Desolation—would suffer as each city was cut off and left as an island alone. The loss of communication and sharing would lead to stagnation, decay, and a slow-motion death for each city.

Word of this potential calamity had to be carried as quickly as possible and . . .

Rukh sighed, cutting off his thoughts.

Tomorrow would have to take care of itself. Right now, all of them—Ashokans and Strongholders alike—needed to get going again if they were to make it through the rest of this day.

He stood and stretched before turning to face the river. After last night’s harrowing ride, they’d beached their canoes along a flat stretch of water. A broad valley spread out around them, enclosed on all sides by the Privation Mountains. A sandbar cupped the curve of the water, and a morning mist wrapped the world in silence.

And Jessira remained seated on a plank of driftwood next to the river, as still and unmoving as a statue. She continued to stare out over the water and as Rukh approached her, he did his best to set aside his sorrow. His wife didn’t need his tears. Not now anyway. Maybe later when they could properly grieve. Right now, she needed his support, his strength, his clear-eyed judgment to see them safe until they reached Ashoka. But as he studied her empty expression, he immediately knew he was wrong. Jessira needed his strength and support, but she also needed his comfort, even if it was nothing more than his quiet presence.

Rukh sat down next to his wife and pulled her close. She didn’t resist, and she rested her head on his shoulder.

They sat silent, quiet and still and seemingly alone despite all the others nearby.

“We have to get going soon,” Jessira said, breaking the quiet.

“You heard what Li-Choke said about the Queen?”

“She can sense a person’s Jivatma,” Jessira replied, her voice uncharacteristically flat.

Rukh kissed the top of her head. “We have to get to Ashoka as quickly as possible,” he said. “Will the river be the swiftest means to do so?”

Jessira nodded. “Traveling downstream, it is,” she answered.

“But not upstream?”

“No.”

“Is that why we didn’t just follow the Gaunt to Stronghold when we left Ashoka?”

“Yes. We would have had to climb too many cliffs and waterfalls,” she replied, a small bit of life to her voice. “It would have taken weeks longer.”

“But even going downstream, we’ll have to hike down those same cliffs and waterfalls,” Rukh reminded her, glad to hear her take an interest in what they had to do next. He had worried that she might not; that she’d retreat into a bitter shell.

“It will be difficult, especially for the children and those unaccustomed to the hardships of the Wildness,” Jessira mused.

“But it should be a little easier since we’ll know what to look for.” At Jessira’s look of confusion, Rukh explained further. “Farn just made the journey we’re about to take. He can tell us what to expect.”

“His experience will be invaluable,” Jessira said with a nod. “I’ll let my people know we have to get going.”

She made to stand, but Rukh held her down. “Our people,” he reminded her.

She held a hand to the side of his face and offered a brief, wan smile. “Thank you.”

Rukh kissed her fingertips as he sought to buy some time. He didn’t want to tell her the final piece of information.

“What is it?” Jessira asked.

“Disbar survived,” Rukh answered. “After everything he did—setting his cousins to attack me—he was stripped of his rank and forced to work as a laborer at East Lock. During the escape, he was thrown from his canoe and battered by the rocks. He isn’t likely to live very long.” Rukh hesitated. “He wants to talk to you.”

Jessira sighed in what sounded like a mix of regret, sorrow, and disappointment. “I’ll go see him.”

*****

The canoes provided by Choke and Chak-Soon had carried the survivors of Stronghold’s demise far in the past week. Though ugly and rough-hewn, they were also rugged and durable, and Rukh was grateful for them. They were holding up. Only a few easily repaired leaks had been required to keep them afloat.

“Everyone sure is quiet,” Jaresh observed as he took a seat next to Rukh.

“Would you expect any different?” Farn asked, having accompanied the other man.

Jaresh shrugged. “I suppose not.”

Rukh glanced about.

They’d stopped for the day near a series of rapids and falls, and from them came a plume of mineral-scented mist. The exuberance of the water was a sound not reflected by those who had travelled upon it. As usual, the camp was somber. A few muted conversations could be heard, but otherwise, the OutCastes and Ashokans quietly moved about their tasks. Some had prepared the evening meal while others readied the bedrolls or inspected the canoes.

“Do you mind if I eat with you?” Lieutenant Altin Danslo interrupted, sounding diffident as he handed a plate to Rukh. “I noticed you hadn’t had your supper yet.”

Rukh motioned for Altin to sit down. He still had trouble believing that this was the same lieutenant who had hounded him so mercilessly on the expedition to the Chimera caverns. That man had hated Rukh with a deep, dark passion, willing to see him dead, no matter the means. But in the end, that man had also apologized to Rukh, and according to Farn, as soon as the expedition for Stronghold had been announced, it had been Danslo who had been the first one to volunteer. He’d even been willing to change House affiliation if that was what required to join the Trial.

Apparently, many of the Kummas who had journeyed to Stronghold had similar stories to tell. Rukh’s selflessness on the brutal return to Ashoka from the Chimera breeding caverns had won him the admiration of a number of warriors who felt they owed him a lifelong debt. Farn said hundreds of them had leapt at the chance to see Rukh home. They claimed to have sins that needed expiation, and while their gratitude was humbling, it was also something for which Rukh felt wholly unworthy.

“We lost another OutCaste today,” Farn said, gesturing to the rapids. “It’s the fifth so far. She jumped off the falls. We found her body downstream.”

The group fell into a reflective silence, and Rukh shook his head in disappointment. With everything the OutCastes had been through, it wasn’t surprising that some of them would take their lives, but it was still heartbreaking.

“How do you suppose we should get past those rapids?” Jaresh asked, changing the subject as he gestured toward the racing river.

“It’s too treacherous to try the canoes, even during the day,” Danslo said. “We’d be better of portaging overland until we reach a quieter stretch of water.”

Farn grunted. “It might cost us a lot of time, but dying would cost us even more.”

“I think we’ve all had enough near-death experiences on this journey to last a lifetime,” Jaresh responded with feeling.

“Then it’s a good thing you weren’t on the Trial to Nestle,” Farn said.

“Or the one to the Chimera caverns,” Danslo added.

Jaresh looked between the two men before rolling his eyes. “And I’m sure in both Trials, the warriors waded through knee-deep snow and a howling blizzard in both directions.”

“No snow,” Farn said, “but with the Nestle Trial, we did fight uphill the entire way.”

“And in the expedition to the Chimera caverns, we fought in pitch black.” Danslo grinned. “A blizzard would have been easy. All the Chimeras would have died of frostbite.”

“And surviving a blizzard is easy, especially if a beautiful woman keeps you warm.” Farn nudged Rukh. “Isn’t that right?”

The other three men laughed. They all knew the story by now, and Rukh chuckled with them.

On the road to Stronghold, Rukh’s horse had thrown him. He’d broken his leg and badly injured his shoulder and lungs. Then had come a freak blizzard, and Jessira had snuggled close to Rukh and kept him warm. She’d Healed him, saved him, and called him ‘priya’ for the first time.

He caught sight of Jessira just then. She was heading out in the same direction he had seen taken by Jaciro Plume just minutes before.

He frowned. He knew all about Jaciro Plume. The one time he’d confronted the man, it had taken all his self-control not to beat him within an inch of his life. What Plume had done to Jessira was unconscionable, unforgivable. Plume should have been castrated and cast out of Stronghold for the hurt he’d done to Jessira.

But to see her following him, the two of them far away and alone, and the knife-edged anger Rukh sensed from his hot-tempered wife . . . He had a bad feeling. Rukh made his pardons to the other three men and set off in pursuit. He had to catch up with her before she did anything rash. It wasn’t hard to do. Somehow Rukh could feel her presence. He knew exactly where she was.

As he approached closer, Plume was nowhere in sight, but Jessira was marching on. Rukh followed after her with a frown. What was happening? From Jessira billowed a wave of icy fury, cold as cruelty and heartless as a grinding glacier.

Rukh continued to shadow her trail, careful to keep far enough back that she wouldn’t see him. When he finally found her, he watched her confrontation with Plume, and after a few minutes, he turned aside and returned to the camp.

*****

The survivors of Stronghold’s death sat huddled about small fires that shed thin streams of quickly dissipating smoke. The crash of the nearby rapids overwhelmed most conversations, but every now and then, softly spoken words caught Jessira’ attention. They were words of disbelief and denial; of anger and accusal; of sorrow and suffering; but sometimes of prayer and belief.

Was Devesh truly up there in the heavens listening to the devotions of His people?

Jessira hoped so, but she was no longer so sure. Still, even now, despite her fragmented faith, she continued to pray. She lifted her face to the heavens and prayed for her parents, for her family, for all the people she loved. She prayed for herself, for strength, for courage, for forgiveness. She even prayed for Disbar Merdant, her once fiancé. Their final conversation still haunted her.

“Passion can drive a man to stupidity.” Disbar had wheezed. His face had been a purpled wreck, bruised and broken just like his body. “And I wish I could have been the man I should have been.” He hesitated, and a wistful smile, a fleeting look of regret had stolen across his face. “Tell Rukh I’m sorry. Tell him I hope he remains a better man than I was.”

Disbar had died later that morning, but Jessira liked to believe he’d achieved a state of grace before his passing. She hoped so anyway. She prayed so.

It was in that moment, when she returned her gaze to the camp, that she noticed Lake Wren walk into the nearby woods. She looked to have been crying. Jessira’s heart ached for the younger woman. Lake’s entire family was gone. She had been married with three small children, but they were all dead now.

Minutes later, Lieutenant Jaciro Plume left the camp as well, and Jessira’s hackles rose. Plume’s path carried him along the same route as the one recently trod by Lake.

Well did Jessira remember the lieutenant and what he had taken from her. She stood and followed him.

A quarter mile away, in a secluded space of boulders with a curtain of aspen, she found him.

Jessira’s mind hardened with fury. But her anger, usually hot and raging, was frozen this time. It was a bitter, biting thing, like an icy spear. It left Jessira in a strangely wicked mood, chill and hollow. In that moment, she knew herself capable of all sorts of cruelty, and it was this recognition that caused her to pause. She reconsidered if this was truly who she was, who she wanted to be.

Jessira forced herself to reach past the coldness, back to the person she was. Molten rage, controlled and potent, filled her. It was better than the cruelty icing her veins moments earlier.

She unsheathed her sword and stepped forward. “Let her go,” Jessira growled.

Plume jerked his head up, panic flashing across his face. “Jessira—what are you—I saw Lake wander away from camp. She looked ill, and I was concerned.” He gestured to the unconscious woman. “I found her like this. She must be injured or sick.”

“I saw what you did to Lake,” Jessira said to him. Her blade was level with his heart. “Stand up and move away from her.”

Plume slowly rose to his feet. “This is all a misunderstanding,” he said. “I was just trying to help—”

“Like you helped me?” Jessira interrupted. “Is that why I was unable to remember what happened to me that night?”

Plume’s face twisted into a sickly smile. “I know you feel differently, but for me, our night together was special,” he said. “I’m sorry if you later came to regret your decision but . . . ” He shrugged.

Some of the earlier coldness returned. “Strip off your clothes,” Jessira ordered. When Plume hesitated, she moved. Quicker than he could follow, she sliced him across the face, just below his right eye. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will if you leave me no choice.”

Plume wiped at the blood trickling down his cheek. “You are making a mistake,” he vowed darkly. Nevertheless, he began unbuttoning his shirt.

Jessira didn’t bother responding to Plume’s words. “Remove your pants and your boots,” she ordered.

“I can help our people,” Plume entreated, even as he followed her orders. He soon stood naked except for his undergarments.

“Fold your clothes and sit on them.” She kicked his belt to him. “Tie your hands with this. Tighten it with your teeth.”

“I’m one of the few warriors we have left,” Plume continued to implore even while he tied his hands with his own belt. “Who else can you trust to protect us? The Purebloods?” He sneered. “They aren’t all like your husband. They’ll slit our throats when it suits them.”

Jessira didn’t pay attention to his statements. She wasn’t here to convince him of the righteousness of the Ashokans or defend their honor. She was here to protect her people against a monster.

“You cannot come with us,” Jessira intoned. “The lives of my people—”

Our people,” Plume hissed. “I’m no less a child of Stronghold than you!”

Jessira shook her head. “Not anymore. You lost that honor several years ago, and tonight, after what you almost did to Lake, judgment will be rendered.”

“Why are doing this?” Plume cried. “Lake wouldn’t have remembered a thing. It would have been as though it had never happened. No one would have been hurt.”

“The fact that you believe so is the reason you cannot come with us,” Jessira replied. “Hold your knees against your chest.”

“Why?” Plume asked suspiciously, even as he obeyed her command.

Jessira stepped forward and kicked him in the side of the head.

His eyes rolled to the back of his head, and his legs stiffened. He keeled over with a groan.

Jessira checked to make sure his belt was as tight as possible. Good. It would take him some time to get free. She stuffed one of his socks in his mouth and used his bootlaces to bind his feet together.

Plume would live, but never again would he be allowed amongst her people.

It was justice—justice long-delayed and long-deserved.

*****

Rector Bryce waited outside Dar’El Shektan’s study with a brooding sense of foreboding. Given what had occurred the last time he had been here at the Shektan House Seat—Rector’s forced enrollment into House Wrestiva as a spy—it was an understandable fear. In fact, the only reason he had managed to muster the courage to ask for today’s meeting was because of the words Mira Terrell had spoken before she’d died.

“Your honor is as you see yourself, not as you wish others to see you. See yourself truly.” Those had been among Mira’s final statements as she had slowly bled to death in a drab dwelling in Stone Cavern.

Rector swallowed back grief that was like bile in his throat.

When he and Mira had first been forced to work together, he had held a very poor opinion of her. She had struck him as arrogant and conceited, full of herself despite the minimal accomplishments to her name. Add in her possible immoral relationship with Jaresh Shektan, and there had been little reason for Rector to have ended up respecting, much less liking, Mira Grey. But something about her rugged perseverance, her inner strength, and core of dedication had struck a chord with him. Mira had never offered sympathy for Rector’s plight—she had expected him to deal with his circumstances without becoming mired in self-pity—and in return, she had never once asked, nor expected, forgiveness for her own situation.

Their conversations, so heated early on, had eventually softened into friendship. Rector came to know and respect Mira, finding her to be insightful and fiercely loyal, and even though she had never admitted it, he knew she had loved Jaresh Shektan. Her struggle to reconcile her emotions with what she knew to be moral must have been difficult, but ultimately, she had remained true to her Kumma heritage and the teachings of The Word and the Deed. She had never acted upon her feelings. Mira had remained upright and virtuous.

Her admirable example had pushed Rector to become a better man, a more understanding one. In the face of her unrelenting courage, how could Rector have continued to wallow in his self-pity? And as her friend, how could he have hated her for the simple act of loving?

Mira had been a special person. She had deserved so much more than the ending she had received: murdered by Hal’El Wrestiva, the SuDin of the Sil Lor Kum.

Rector’s fists clenched in fury. Even now, weeks after the fact, Mira’s murderer had yet to be captured. The fragging bastard had escaped from the Stone Cavern flat he had shared with his Rahail lover, Varesea Apter, and had managed to elude the justice he so richly deserved.

Of course, news of Hal’El’s infamy had thrown all of Ashoka into upheaval. His actions had been unprecedented, and the resultant shockwave, especially through Caste Kumma, had been unlike anything Rector had ever known of or experienced. The fury over Hal’El’s betrayal had been overwhelming, and House Wrestiva had lost all standing. Even their allies had been ensnared in the riptide of outrage and excoriation.

No one wanted to be associated with such a disgraced House, and that included Rector Bryce. It was another reason why he sat waiting outside Dar’El Shektan’s office. House Shektan was his birth House, and most of his family were still members of it. What better place for him to turn to than the honorable House that had exposed Hal’El’s evil? More importantly, Rector had once promised Mira that he would try and reconcile with Dar’El. It was a vow he had made while she had lain dying, and it was a vow he was determined to keep.

He knew it wouldn’t be easy, not after what Rector had done to Rukh, and it was likely that Dar’El had yet to forgive him, but, still, he had to try.

Eventually, the call came for Rector to enter Dar’El’s office, and he rose to his feet. He closed his eyes and took a cleansing breath, seeking to control his nervousness. One more breath, and he was ready. A servant ushered him into the office where he found Dar’El sitting alone behind his desk. The door to the room closed, and Rector had to keep himself from glancing back at it.

Dar’El didn’t bother looking up from his work. He waved vaguely at a chair on the opposite side of his desk. “Have a seat,” he ordered.

Rector took the indicated chair and waited. The room was silent except for the scratching of Dar’El’s pen. Rector held still, not allowing himself to shift nervously.

Minutes passed before Dar’El set aside his work with a satisfied grunt. “What did you wish to discuss?” he asked as he finally looked up.

“I wish to rejoin House Shektan,” Rector replied in what he hoped was a clear, even tone as he met the older man’s gaze.

Dar’El gave a grim shake of his head. “That seems an unlikely proposition given your actions the last time you were a member here.”

“I was wrong to have acted as I did,” Rector replied. “And I offer my sincerest apology for what I did to Rukh and to your family.”

“Your sudden remorse is certainly convenient given House Wrestiva’s fall,” Dar’El said, viewing him with narrow, suspicious eyes. “But since Mira spoke in your defense, I’ll hear you out. What’s changed your mind about this House with which you were once so greatly displeased?”

Rector smiled briefly as he thought of Mira. She was who had changed his mind. With her dogged determination and sarcastic questioning, she’d changed many things. “I had notions of what was right and moral, but events since then . . .” Rector shrugged. “I’ve learned some hard lessons. Rukh’s friendship with Jessira, much less his Talents, should not have resulted in his being found Unworthy.”

“And Hal’El’s relationship with Varesea Apter?” Dar’El asked, staring at him with a measuring, cunning gaze.

Rector shrugged again, discomfited. “That man should be executed for many crimes far greater than whatever kind of relationship he and Varesea might have shared.”

“But they were lovers. Does that not count as a sin?”

“So it is said in The Word and the Deed,” Rector began uncertainly. “But I’m no longer sure we can afford to unquestioningly follow that book, not when there is a more ancient creed, one that is more generous.” He hesitated. “I think generosity is going to be sorely needed in the future.”

The Book of All Souls?”

“Yes.”

Dar’El templed his fingers beneath his chin.”I’m impressed,” he said sarcastically. “A politician could not have provided a smoother, more convincing answer.”

Rector gritted his teeth, forcing himself to remain quiet in the face of the older man’s insult. A politician was another name for liar. Rector tried to hold his face as unexpressive as a plank of wood.

“But trust, once lost, is hard to recapture,” Dar’El continued. “How can I ever trust you after you betrayed me so terribly?”

Rector stared at a point over Dar’El’s shoulder, trying to come up with an answer to the older man’s impossible question. “I hope that my recent actions in exposing Hal’El might serve better than any words I can offer.”

Dar’El studied him for a stretch of silence before suddenly sighing. “You did what you could and in doing so, you kept my daughter alive. I only wish you could have preserved Mira as well,” he said as a fleeting look of sorrow passed across his face.

“So do I,” Rector whispered.

“As I said, toward the end, Mira spoke in your defense,” Dar’El continued. “I trusted her judgment when she said your . . . conversion wasn’t merely one of convenience, but I must confess”—he leaned back in his chair—”I find it hard to reconcile the man I see before me who so humbly asks for forgiveness with the man I once knew, the one who was so certain that it was only his moral compass that pointed unerringly to the truth.”

“That man was an arrogant fool.”

“On this we are agreed,” Dar’El agreed. He leaned forward suddenly, the look of a raptor on his face. “I’m told you found a small book amongst the possessions of the Sentya MalDin, Moke Urn. What information did it contain?”

Rector scowled. He had hoped he wouldn’t have to bring this up. The information in that slim volume would be disastrous if it ever came to light. “It was a history of the Sil Lor Kum, especially the SuDins. There was one name that was of particular relevance: Kuldige Prayvar.”

“The founder of House Shektan,” Dar’El said, appearing unsurprised. Instead, he looked like he had been expecting the answer.

Rector realized Dar’El must have already known about Kuldige, and he mentally grimaced. Was there anything of which the man was unaware?

“Knowing this, the sin at the heart of House Shektan, are you sure you still wish to rejoin us?” Dar’El asked.

Rector nodded. “The sins of the fathers should not pass on to their progeny.” He coerced conviction into his voice.

“And if I still deny your request,” Dar’El said. “What will you do then?”

Rector kept his face impassive. “I won’t release the knowledge about Kuldige if that has you concerned,” he replied. “I’ll just have to find a different House to take me in.”

“And if the knowledge about Kuldige became available to everyone?”

Rector tried to remain impassive in appearance even as he hid a shudder. It would be a disaster if the truth about Kuldige became public knowledge. “Then House Shektan will have a problem.”

Dar’El stared at Rector with a discomfiting gaze. “You’ll have my decision in the morning,” he finally said.

“I look forward to it,” Rector said, schooling his features to a serenity he didn’t feel as he rose to his feet.

The next morning, Rector was summoned back to House Seat. There, in the presence of an enigmatic Dar’El and a glowering Durmer Volk, he was oathed back into House Shektan.

Rector left the House Seat with a sense of stunned elation. His life was his once more. No longer did he have to pretend allegiance to the Wrestivas. All the lies binding him to that fallen House could be shed. He was once more of his birth House, able to offer it his steadfast and unrestricted support.

He walked with a bounce in his step and an easy grin on his face. His smile fell when he purchased the morning’s broadsheet. It had just been published. On the front page was an exposé, a list of all the known Kumma members of the Sil Lor Kum dating back over the past several hundred years. Prominently displayed was the name of Kuldige Prayvar.

Rector swallowed an oath as he crumpled the paper.

*****

Hal’El Wrestiva hid within the shrouded recesses of a corn field. He wore a dark cloak that blended with the surrounding shadows, and his hood was thrown forward, hiding his features. Nevertheless, even if he had chosen to walk the streets of Ashoka with his face uncovered, he doubted many would have recognized him through his layers of grime and weeks-old stubble. Given his grubby, pathetic appearance, no one would have taken him for the ruling ‘El of House Wrestiva.

He scowled.

The former ruling ‘El of House Wrestiva. He had been deposed several weeks ago when his membership in the Sil Lor Kum had been exposed, including his role as the Withering Knife murderer. All it had taken was a single disastrous night for his entire life to have come undone. It had all started when he’d captured Mira Terrell and ended with Rector Bryce and Bree Shektan breaking down the door to his flat in Stone Cavern. They hadn’t managed to save the Terrell girl, but they had done something far worse: they had murdered Varesea.

Hal’El worked to suppress his pain. It had been weeks since Varesea’s death, and he still had trouble accepting that she was gone. He missed her.

Since that awful night, Hal’El had been forced to hide in his safe house, one that only he knew about. Years ago he had prepared it, all in case his membership in the Sil Lor Kum ever reached unfriendly ears. Not even Varesea had known of it. The safe house had been stocked with enough food and water to have lasted Hal’El for months. Of course, what to do after the supplies ran out was a concern he had never been able to properly answer.

Thus, with little thought of the future, Hal’El had simply hidden himself away in the safe house, not knowing what to do next. After all, he was thrice cursed with a death sentence. He was a murderer, a member of the Sil Lor Kum, and a ghrina.

All Ashoka knew it.

Despite his isolation, though, news of the outside world had still reached Hal’El. A daily broadsheet, easily stolen from a nearby stand, told him what was occurring in the rest of the city. Unsurprisingly, House Wrestiva was nearly ruined, while House Shektan was widely lauded for their role in unveiling such a heinous evil living in the center of Caste Kumma.

Hal’El cursed at the memory.

It was intolerable that the man responsible for Varesea’s death should be so extravagantly praised. Dar’El Shektan had forever been a thorn in Hal’El’s side, foiling his plans at every step, and setting his House in opposition to Hal’El’s. After all, it had been Dar’El’s instructions that had set Mira, Rector, and Bree to ferreting out Hal’El’s secrets. He’d even found a means to keep his cursed ‘son’, Jaresh, from facing proper punishment for murdering Suge.

Hal’El cursed once more.

Dar’El Shektan should have shared the same fate that Hal’El had managed to apply to Mira Terrell.

Indeed, immediately after Varesea’s death, it had been Hal’El’s intention to seek out the death of his hated enemy. He had gone to the Seat of House Shektan with a simple scheme to see his bitter nemesis ended. Nothing would have stopped him, and his plan would have worked, except for the interference of one singularly stupid woman.

As Hal’El had approached the Shektan Seat, barring further passage to the front gates had been the Hound, Sophy Terrell, Mira’s amma. Even though Hal’El had been Blended, she had sensed his presence and confronted him. There had been a pregnant pause when Hal’El had revealed himself.

Then Sophy had run away, howling like a madwoman for help.

Hal’El had meant to kill her quickly, but she had been surprisingly agile, sprinting and screaming while she threw Fireballs at Hal’El to slow him down. She had even formed an unexpectedly strong Shield. In the end, though the chase was short-lived and Sophy’s life shortly stilled—the Knife had quieted her cries—by the time Hal’El had managed the task, a dozen Kummas had converged on their location. Hal’El had been forced to beat a hasty retreat to his safe house.

There, he’d hidden away, trying to come up with a plan out of his predicament. The first few days after had passed in hours of morose, unaccustomed self-pity with Hal’El had curled up in a ball of misery. Everything he had loved and worked so hard to protect had been stolen away from him, and during those moments, he had reckoned that his life couldn’t sink any lower.

He had been wrong.

The true horror of his situation quickly became manifest soon thereafter.

“Fool,” a voice whispered in the vaults of his mind.

Hal’El flinched. He’d come to know and dread that voice all too well. Whereas Felt Barnel, Aqua Oilhue, and Van Jinnu had all remained relatively quiescent following their deaths, only muttering and murmuring now and then, Sophy Terrell had burst into his mind like a thunderclap, raging like an inferno at what he had done to her. She rarely remained quiet for longer than a few hours at a time before beginning again with her screamed vilifications and dire threats of retribution. Worse, the others—Felt, Aqua, and Van—had begun following Sophy’s example. During such moments, Hal’El felt like his mind was going to tear apart from the cacophony of bloodcurdling oaths and howled promises.

To make matters even more chaotic, last night the Queen had visited Hal’El’s dreams. He had explained what had happened, told Her why he couldn’t kill anyone else. After his recitation of what, even to him, sounded like incomparable incompetence, rather than react in fury, the Queen had surprised Hal’El. She had been understanding. She had quietly ordered him to find a way to leave Ashoka, promising him safety amongst the Chimeras.

With no better plan in the offing, Hal’El had agreed to do as the Queen had commanded. If She kept true to Her word, at least Hal’El might find some future means to avenge himself on Dar’El Shektan. He might even find a way to thwart the Suwraith’s plans for Ashoka. He still hoped to save the city from the Sorrow Bringer’s wrath. Surely if he managed such a monumental feat, his fellow Ashokans would forgive him for his multitude of sins. After all, they’d forgiven Rukh Shektan, and he was every bit as degenerate as Hal’El.

It was this hope for redemption that now drove him. It was the reason why he currently found himself studying the movements of the warriors manning Sunset Gate, the southernmost entrance through the Outer Wall. It was the final obstacle he had to overcome in order to exit Ashoka. There were five guards, all of them Kummas, and the day was late, just past dusk. It was a situation that might work to his advantage.

“I’m talking to you, Fool,” Sophy said in a louder tone.

“Quiet,” Hal’El hissed to her.

Sophy didn’t relent. “The warriors will capture you, and then what will happen to you, you great, stupid coward? You’ll be hung, drawn, and quartered, and your remains will be strewn upon the Isle of the Crows. You’ll be forever damned, Fool!”

“Be silent, or you will be silenced!” Hal’El thundered into the reaches of his mind.

“You can’t kill her,” a soft voice rasped. Aqua Oilhue. “You can’t kill any of us. We’re already dead.” She laughed in black humor.

“And we’ll make sure you join us,” another voice vowed in an ugly tone. Felt Barnel.

“Don’t forget the Knife,” Van Jinnu advised in a mocking tone. “It’ll be the death of you.”

Hal’El grimaced even as he stroked the sheath in which the black blade was housed. Even if the Queen hadn’t ordered him to bring it with him, there was no chance he would leave it behind in Ashoka. He had lost too much on account of the Withering Knife to be parted from it now.

“You haven’t lost everything,” Aqua said. “You have much pain yet to endure.”

“We’ll ensure it, Fool,” Sophy promised. “Future generations will wonder at how an overwhelming idiot like you became a ruling ‘El of a great House. What a craven jackass you are.”

“Shut up,” Hal’El hissed.

“How do you intend to get past those guards?” Sophy persisted.

“I have a plan,” Hal’El muttered, knowing it was a mistake to engage her.

“A plan he says?” Sophy scoffed. “You couldn’t plan a trip to the toilet. You’d likely flush yourself down the drain, you imbecile. Are you sure you aren’t the get of a donkey, you long-eared jackass.”

Hal’El gritted his teeth. Enough! He imagined his hands on Sophy’s throat, choking off her words, choking the life from her. Shockingly, it worked. Sophy gasped once and fell quiet. The other three fell into fitful, uncertain murmurings.

Blessed peace!

While Hal’El suspected Sophy would soon return, at least for now, she and the others were no longer so noisome. He could proceed with the final steps of his plans without their incessant meddling.

Hal’El had managed to get this far by pretending to be a burly Sentya drover, and his disguise should hopefully get him through Sunset Gate. He’d have to be quick about it, though.

He left the shadows of the corn field and returned to the wagon he’d left on a nearby dirt path. He clambered aboard. A strawman sat atop the seat with a set of reins dangling from its hands. Hal’El Blended, and while everyone was now alert for someone hidden in such a fashion, he reckoned it would take the Kummas manning Sunset Gate a precious few seconds to find him. Their task would be made even more difficult by the wagon with its strawman drover charging their position. It should be enough distraction for Hal’El to slip past the guards and manage his escape.

His plan decided, Hal’El set the bullocks to trotting, with the fine gelding he’d stolen in order to ride later tied off to the side of the wagon. The horse easily kept pace, and Hal’El shortly came upon the Gate. He flicked the reins, and the bullocks were soon at a rumbling gallop. Shouts from the guards ordered him to slow, but Hal’El kept the wagon at a breakneck pace. He raced past the warriors.

More shouts came to him, this time of a Blend, and arrows were fired at the wagon.

Hal’El had his Shield ready. The arrows bounced off of it. More came. A few pinged close to the gelding, and Hal’El extended his Shield. Fireballs were thrown, but none of them made an impact either.

Except for one. Hal’El let it through just as he mounted the gelding and raced off. The wagon took the brunt of the Fireball, and burst into flames. Bullocks screamed in fear and pain. It was the final distraction Hal’El needed as he raced off into the night.

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