The Trial So Far

Excerpted from A Warrior’s Penance Copyright © 2016 by Davis Ashura
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The Trial So Far

The Trials are the means by which Humanity maintains a fragile link between their far-flung city-states. It is a holy mission, and most often carried out by Caste Kumma, the warrior Caste, and all who accept such a weighty obligation understand that it might lead to their deaths.

The Trial from Ashoka to Nestle is no different, and it is also Rukh Shektan’s first. He is a Virgin to the Trials, as is his cousin, Farn Arnicep; Keemo Chalwin, a fellow Kumma and close friend; and Brand Wall of Caste Rahail. Rukh, however, is unique. He is the current Champion of the Tournament of Hume. His sword is said to be the finest in generations.

Disaster eventually overtakes the Trial. It is discovered by a large band of Chimeras and destroyed en masse. Few Ashokans survive, and among them are Rukh and his friends. They escape the ambush, but the means of their survival is considered anathema: they learn Talents not of their Caste. It is a situation that leaves them dismayed and horrified.

But they are also warriors of Ashoka, and they know their duty: their home must be warned of what has happened. They know that this many Chimeras gathered together at one time might indicate that Suwraith, the Sorrow Bringer, has deadly intentions toward their home, the city of Ashoka. Rukh elects to send several warriors back to Ashoka in order to carry word of the Nestle Trial’s fate, while he, Farn, Keemo, and Brand track the Chimeras to their staging area.

Their plans proceed, and as they follow the Chimeras, all four men seek to master their newly acquired, but unsought Talents. Brand learns to Shield and quicken his movements like a Kumma, while Rukh and the others form Blends, a perfect means of camouflage.

It is a situation that leads to great unhappiness, and Farn wonders if they would have been better off dying amongst their brother warriors in the Trial. He worries they are naaja—Tainted—or worse, ghrinas, children of two Castes. His fears are not without foundation, but Rukh will not hear of it. They have a mission to accomplish, and if Talents not of Caste Kumma are the means by which they complete their assignment, so be it. He demands that they put aside their fears for the future and accept whatever punishment is due them, after they find where the Chimeras are staging.

His orders are reluctantly carried out, and by the time they finally track down the Chimeras, all four warriors have a better understanding of their newfound Talents.

Rukh, Farn, Keemo, and Brand reach the Hunters Flats and discover the leaders of the Chimeras, the bull-like Baels, conversing privately with one another, far away from the bulk of their army. The Ashokans see an opportunity to destroy their hated enemies. Just as they are about to launch their attack, Suwraith arrives in a storm of wind and terror.

The Ashokans hide, Blended as hard as they can. And while the Sorrow Bringer is amongst the Baels, they learn of Her plans for Ashoka: their home is to be destroyed.

Suwraith eventually leaves, and just as Rukh and the others are about to attack the Baels, they listen in astonishment as the bull-like commanders argue on how best to disobey Suwraith—to actively oppose Her and protect Humanity. It is a stunning revelation, and one not easily believed.

Rukh decides to speak with Li-Dirge, the Bael commander, who is now alone after sending his brethren back to rejoin the rest of the army while he meditates.

Before Rukh can approach the Bael, he captures a Blended woman who suddenly manifests by his side. Her appearance is staggering. Women do not ever join the Trials, so she should not be in the Wildness. But even more shocking is the woman’s features. She is obviously a ghrina, a child of two Castes. No such individual has ever been known to survive to adulthood since they are universally banished from the cities upon birth. They are thought to die in the Wildness, but given this woman’s presence, it is obviously an incorrect assumption.

Some of the confusion is cleared when Rukh is finally able to speak to Li-Dirge. From the Bael, he learns of the great Kumma warrior, Hume, and the death of Hume’s home, the city of Hammer. Rukh discovers how Hume had instructed Suwraith’s commanders in the ideals of fraternity, and in the centuries following, the Baels had worked as best they could to disrupt Suwraith’s plans.

And the ghrina woman, Jessira Grey, turns out to be a scout from Stronghold, a hidden city of her kind—OutCastes as they call themselves. She and her brothers, Cedar and Lure, had also been tracking the same Chimeras that had destroyed the Trial to Nestle.

During all this, Suwraith finds a way to rid Herself of Her madness. The unceasing complaints of Her dead parents and Mistress Arisa, a terrifying voice that only She hears, are silenced. The Queen pours Her insanity into the minds of Her children, the Chimeras—all except the Baels. By doing so, Suwraith regains Her sanity, realizes the truth, and discovers Her betrayal at the hands of Her commanders. She sees them speaking to Humans and is enraged.

However, before She can act, She notices Her Chimeras killing one another in violent abandon. It is because of Her madness poured into them. Reluctantly, the Sorrow Bringer takes back Her insanity and as a result, loses Her memories and regains the unwanted voices of Her dead parents and the fearsome Mistress Arisa. Confusion overwhelms Suwraith’s mind, but She remembers enough. She still knows the truth about the Baels, and She thunders from the sky, intent on destroying them.

Li-Dirge and his brother Baels are gathered with the Humans, joyful that the ideals to which their ancestors had held, are finally being realized. Rukh believes them. For the first time since Hume, a Human understands the truth of the Baels’ situation. It is a momentous event, and Li-Dirge even tells Rukh about the location of the Chimera breeding caverns—the place where Suwraith helps birth Her hordes. All the breeds of Chimera require Suwraith’s direct intervention in order to procreate—the cat-like Tigons, dog-like Ur-Fels, snake-like Braids, and elephant-sized Balants. Only the Baels, born mysteriously and unexpectedly from the placid, dull Bovars, do not require Suwraith’s touch. However, in the midst of their jubilation, the Baels realize that Suwraith has discovered their centuries-long deception.

Suwraith comes to annihilate all Her Baels, but just before the Sorrow Bringer carries out Her attack, Rukh and the other Humans are urged to flee. They do so, escaping Suwraith’s clutches by the barest of margins, but Dirge and his fellow Baels—the entire command of the Eastern Plague of Continent Ember—are destroyed.

Before Rukh and the others can take stock of their situation, they are attacked by two Shylows, the giant, deadly cats of the Hunters Flats. In the ensuing battle, Jessira’s brother Lure, and Rukh’s friends, Keemo and Brand, are killed. Farn is gravely injured and he and Cedar, Jessira’s other brother, go missing. Rukh escapes with a young Bael, Li-Choke, and an injured Jessira.

Meanwhile in Ashoka, Rukh’s brother, Jaresh, is accused of murdering Suge Wrestiva, a thug and degenerate who also happens to be the only living son of Hal’El Wrestiva, the ruling ‘El of House Shektan’s most bitter rival. The situation is even more clouded because Jaresh is of Caste Sentya but was adopted by Dar’El and Satha Shektan into the House Shektan. Such an adoption is unprecedented and many Kummas are still troubled by the situation.

As a result, when Hal’El’s call for a tribunal to have Jaresh judged with the Slash of Iniquity—a death penalty—his petition is granted by the Chamber of the Lords, Caste Kumma’s governing body. During the ensuing trial, Jaresh’s sister, Bree, discovers that Suge was secretly a snowblood addict and convinces the Chamber to decide in Jaresh’s favor.

Later, a meeting of the Sil Lor Kum, the Hidden Hand of Justice—Suwraith’s Human worshippers—is convened in Ashoka. The SuDin, their leader, tells the other members of the Council of Rule, the MalDins, of Suwraith’s plans for Ashoka. He displays the Withering Knife, a mythical weapon said to steal Jivatma. It may also be the means through which the Sorrow Bringer can overcome Ashoka’s Oasis, the mystical barrier around the city that has proven impenetrable to Her might for two millennia.

Shortly after this meeting of the Council of Rule, the first murder utilizing the Withering Knife is discovered. The victim is Felt Barnel, and his corpse is withered and desiccated, as if all the water were removed from his body.

Dar’El is deeply troubled by the murder and tasks Jaresh, Bree, and Mira Terrell——the daughter of one of House Shektan’s councilors—with discovering the truth about the Withering Knife. In the course of their investigations, another victim is found murdered. This one is of Caste Cherid, Aqua Oilhue. Rector Bryce, a member of the City Watch, realizes that the murderer has to be of Caste Kumma, and he joins the other three in their search for information on the Withering Knife.

Jaresh is paired with Mira, and the two of them search the Cellar, the City Library’s lowest floors where the oldest records are kept, while Bree and Rector look for the information in other locations. The work proves frustrating and drags on for weeks. Eventually, it is Jaresh who discovers a code within the journal of a caravan master—a leader of a Trial—and a known member of the Sil Lor Kum. The cypher confirms the existence of the Withering Knife as well as the physical markers it leaves on its victims. They are identical to those found on Felt Barnel and Aqua Oilhue.

During all this, Rukh and Jessira, having been thrown together, are forced to overcome a lifetime of prejudice and indoctrination as they make their way to Ashoka. They come to share a deep friendship, but Jessira’s wounds from the battle with the Shylow are stealing her life. The wounds fester and grow infected. Jessira is dying, and can only be saved if she can teach Rukh her knowledge of Healing. It is another Talent not of his Caste, one mastered by Shiyens, and he is unable to learn what Jessira tries to teach him.

It is then, as Jessira lies dying, that another Shylow, a female calico named Aia, walks into their camp. Rukh is prepared to lay down his life in Jessira’s defense, but the cat simply stares at him, and *speaks* into his mind. It is a shocking revelation, and at first, Rukh fears he is going mad. Aia convinces him otherwise.

She is rare for her kind, able to speak to those who aren’t Kesarins—the name Shylows call themselves—and as a result, quite curious about Humans. She is especially fascinated by Rukh. Aia has been following him and Jessira since before they had exited the Hunters Flats, wondering as to why he was taking such exquisite care of someone who wasn’t close kin.

His notions of brotherhood and compassion captivate Aia, and she asks why he doesn’t Heal Jessira. When she learns that Rukh lacks the knowledge, the Kesarin reaches into Jessira’s mind and shares it with him. Aia leaves then, vowing to see Rukh again.

As a result of the Kesarin’s help, Rukh is able to stave off Jessira’s infected injuries, and the two of them continue on to Ashoka where she is fully Healed of her wounds. Afterward, they make their way to the House Seat where Rukh is joyfully reunited with his family. He makes a full report on what has happened to him, including his Talents of Blending and Healing to the House Council. Also present during Rukh’s account is Rector Bryce, who has always been unforgiving and certain of that which he considers immoral. Rector is unwilling to accept Rukh’s new abilities. As a result of his attitude, Dar’El Shektan and the rest of the House Council re-examine the Watch captain’s role in the search for the Withering Knife murderer.

Rukh’s account of his actions in the Wildness is also explained to the Magisterium, Ashoka’s governing body. Though few of the Magistrates are willing to believe the Baels are their allies, the decision is made to act on Li-Dirge’s information and send an expeditionary force to the Chimera caverns. Their goal will be simple: the extermination of all Chimera breeders. Rukh is chosen as one of the warriors for the coming expedition, and he throws himself into his work.

As the preparation for the expedition continues, the SuDin of the Sil Lor Kum turns out to be Hal’El Wrestiva. He and his Rahail lover, Varesea Apter, a fellow MalDin in the Sil Lor Kum, share a sinful relationship, one that would call for their execution were it ever discovered. But, Varesea and Hal’El are undaunted. They love one another, and they decide to kill her abusive husband, Slathtril Apter, with the Withering Knife as their first step in being together.

Rukh is able to examine the site of Slathtril Apter’s murder and realizes that two people were involved in the killing. He recognizes that the victim knew his murderers, and that the Kumma in question had to have come from one of three Houses.

As for Jessira, she is alone in the city but comes to view the Purebloods in a more positive light. Always before, she had been dismissive and sneering of Rukh’s kind, but seeing the beauty and culture of Ashoka, she begins to change her mind. And in some ways, Jessira’s presence stimulates a change in the city’s own harsh attitudes toward the OutCastes, those traditionally called ghrinas. It is a subtle difference.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Rukh, forces conspire in the shadows to have him declared Unworthy and exiled from Ashoka. Dar’El senses these hidden enemies and knows they will likely learn of Rukh’s Talents—it was a mistake to trust Rector Bryce—and bring Rukh down in order to hurt House Shektan. Dar’El concocts a scheme to keep Rukh safe: have him go with Jessira to her home of Stronghold rather than simply be cast out in the cold.

In order to do so, he needs Bree’s help to trick both Rukh and Jessira. His plan works, and Rukh and Jessira, friends already, are seen in public in what might be considered a romantic circumstance. Rukh’s fate is sealed by a late-night stroll with Jessira through Dryad Park.

The time approaches for the expedition to the caverns to leave the city, and a few days beforehand, Rukh learns of Jaresh’s possible romantic feelings toward Mira Terrell. Ironically, Rukh is unaware of his own perceived relationship with Jessira, and he confronts his adopted brother and orders him to break off all contact with Mira.

Jaresh does so, telling Mira they can’t work together anymore. She hears what he’s really saying and surprises him by kissing him on the lips. Given the prohibition against a man and a woman of two different Castes even touching one another, her expression is a bold declaration of her feelings for Jaresh—as well as a sign of farewell.

Rukh’s departure to the caverns takes place, and early on, he tells the commanders of his new Talents. They are disgusted by what he can do, considering him a naaja—Tainted—and the information spreads to the rest of the warriors, who share their commanders revulsion. The expedition travels through the Hunters Flats, and Rukh’s diminished status dims further when Aia enters the camp and Rukh is forced to explain her presence.

There are too many changes for the other members of the expedition to accept, and Rukh is essentially thrust out of the brotherhood of warriors. He is forced to work alone, left intentionally vulnerable and exposed with no one to guard his back. Rukh perseveres, but even in the caverns—which are exactly where Li-Dirge said they would be—he is left to fend for himself.

His situation is dire, but somehow Rukh survives. He even comes across Li-Choke and the last few Baels of the Eastern Plague to survive Suwraith’s pogrom. He leads Choke and the others to safety where they can make their way to the Hunters Flats and, as promised by Aia, find shelter amongst the Kesarins.

Following the battle, Rukh’s ability to Heal proves essential. He is able to keep dozens of warriors alive during the long march back to Ashoka. His selfless devotion to the lives of others slowly changes the opinions of his fellow warriors. They acknowledge his service with gratitude, and even Rukh’s greatest enemy amongst them, his direct commanding officer, Lieutenant Danslo, comes to appreciate and respect all that Rukh can do.

After weeks of emotional toil, Rukh finally sees hope for the future. If his brother warriors of the expedition can look past their prejudices and accept Rukh, then why not all of Ashoka?

It is a short-lived hope.

Days after leaving the city, the Chamber of Lords had met and—just as Dar’El had feared—judged Rukh Unworthy. He is to be exiled. Jessira learns of this just prior to her own departure from Ashoka, and she agrees to delay her leave-taking. She will wait for Rukh’s return and lead him to Stronghold.

When the expedition to the caverns returns, she meets it a day short of Ashoka and informs Rukh of what has happened. He will never be allowed to enter his home again.

Rukh is heartbroken and prepares to leave with Jessira for Stronghold, but before he can do so, the warriors of the expedition honor him the Champion’s salute. It is their apology for what they now recognize as their wrongful treatment of him during the long march to the Chimera caverns.

Jessira leads Rukh away from the expedition. Later, she apologizes for her role in his situation and reaches to console him. They share a deep, but confusing, kiss before she pulls away, and Rukh follows her west.

That evening, as they set up camp, Jessira is conflicted by what she has done. She feels the kiss was a mistake because she is engaged to Disbar Merdant, someone she’s known since childhood. While she likes Rukh, any feelings she has for him can’t be acted upon. Thankfully, Rukh feels the same way. He understands her situation, but just as importantly, Kummas don’t infringe upon someone already in a serious relationship.

As they begin their travels, Jessira tells Rukh about Stronghold. He learns that the city was founded by fifty-five survivors of Hammer’s Fall, a small group of Sentyas, Duriahs, Cherids, Shiyens, Murans, and Rahails, but no Kummas. More surprising, though, is the fact that the survivors of Hammer’s Fall were saved by Hume, the legendary warrior who would go on to teach the Baels of fraternity. As a result, the OutCastes revere him, even holding a martial tournament in his name—the Trials of Hume.

The fifty-five eventually founded Stronghold within the heart of Mount Fort in the Privation Mountains. It is a city like any other with certain occupations holding greater status than others—such as farmers and craftsmen being valued above simple laborers. However, there is one important distinction: Stronghold doesn’t have an Oasis. As a result, the OutCastes prize secrecy above all else. They have to if they wish to survive

Rukh takes all this in and hopes that he can find a position in Stronghold’s army as a warrior, something Jessira assures him will not be a problem.

Weeks into the Privations, Rukh and Jessira are tracked and attacked by a band of Chimeras—a nest of Ur-Fels and a claw of Tigons. Rukh’s thoughts go black during the battle. He takes reckless risks, essentially courting death and willing to die.

Jessira, initially furious with his actions, quickly comes to recognize the deep depression Rukh has fallen into. She’s experienced something like this herself, and she tells Rukh a personal story of horrifying betrayal by someone she trusted. Rukh listens, knowing all the while that he can’t go on as he has and eventually speaks of his own pain.

And watching the battle is a young Tigon named Chak-Soon, the leader of the Chimeras that had attacked Rukh and Jessira. He witnesses the carnage from a nearby bluff, and after the clash’s conclusion, he begs for Suwraith’s attention, the being he knows as Mother Lienna.

She answers Chak-Soon’s call. When She learns that a single Human had killed a claw of Tigons and a large nest of Ur-Fels, She is convinced that it must be the acts of Hume, the dreaded warrior of Hammer. How the Sorrow Bringer had learned of him, is unknown, but Her mind, briefly sane when She had learned of Her betrayal at the hands of Her Baels, is obviously confused and cluttered once more. Suwraith orders Chak-Soon to scour the Privations and kill Hume. She promises to supply him with all he will need to carry out this task.

After the meeting with Chak-Soon, Suwraith continues to find Herself deluded. She cannot distinguish the past from the present, and the lamenting cries of Her Mother and Father persist, as does the needling horror of Mistress Arisa. It reaches a boiling point, and once again, Suwraith pours Her insanity into Her children. This time, She finds a means to permanently banish much of Her madness.

For the first time in millennia, she is able to plan.

First, Suwraith sends a blizzard scouring through a valley in the Privation Mountains. It is meant to kill the Human Chak-Soon had seen. Next, She sends for Li-Shard, the SarpanKum of the Western Plague and orders him east to assume control of the Eastern Plague. After Her murder of Li-Dirge and his Baels, the Eastern Plague had been turned over to the incompetent command of the Tigons. It is about to tear itself apart.

And finally, Suwraith re-captures Li-Choke, the Bael who had escaped the destruction of Dirge’s command and, through Rukh’s help, the abattoir of the Chimera breeding caverns. He and several other eastern Baels had been living quiet lives in the Hunters Flats. All of them but Choke are ripped apart by Suwraith, and She offers him a simple choice: serve Her or see every Bael in Arisa destroyed. Choke bends knee and, by Her orders, takes command of Chak-Soon and a number of Chimeras. They are sent to hunt down a single Human. They are to journey to Hammer and kill the one who destroyed Chak-Soon’s Tigons and Ur-Fels.

Meanwhile, back in Ashoka, Rector Bryce thinks himself noble. It was he who exposed Rukh’s new Talents to House Shektan’s foes. Rector learns to his folly that Dar’El Shektan is a man who will swiftly repay such betrayal. Dar’El knows a secret about Rector’s family, one that would see them ruined: Rector’s great-grandfather had been of the Sil Lor Kum. To keep such devastating information secret, Rector reluctantly agrees to do as Dar’El orders: spy on House Shektan’s greatest enemy, Hal’El Wrestiva, and find a means to ruin him.

Rector is paired with Mira and is expected to report any findings to her. It is a situation neither of them like. Rector thinks Mira is arrogant and possibly Tainted while Mira thinks Rector is a self-righteous hypocrite. Nevertheless, they end up working well together.

Dar’El also has plans beyond Hal’El’s ruination. He has every intention of finding a means to bring Rukh home. Dar’El is a member of the Society of Rajan, a near-mythical organization whose members are all high-ranking personages in Ashoka. With their help, he hatches a scheme that will see Rukh’s conviction overturned. However, not all is as it seems. A member or the Society, Ular Sathin, one of Dar’El’s closest friends, is also a high-ranking member of the Sil Lor Kum.

And none of them know that Hal’El Wrestiva is actually the SuDin of the Sil Lor Kum or that he and his Rahail lover, Varesea Apter—also of the Sil Lor Kum—are struggling with their own terrifying problems. The people murdered with the Withering Knife sometimes whisper in their minds. Despite this terrible turn of events, upon Suwraith’s orders, Hal’El kills one last time with the Knife, a Rahail named Van Jinnu.

During all this, Rukh and Jessira press on toward Stronghold. The dark depression he hid from even himself is now gone for the most part, but a new threat arises. As they traverse a narrow gorge, Rukh is thrown from his horse and badly injured—his leg is broken and his right arm hangs useless at his side. Even worse, a freak blizzard takes them by surprise. The storm was presaged by a lightning-laced, bruise-colored cloud crisscrossing the sky—Suwraith.

Rukh and Jessira find shelter in a nearby cave where they ride out the storm, but a hidden injury nearly kills him. In her fear for him, Jessira lets slip the truth of her feelings for Rukh. She names him ‘priya’, a word that means beloved in Ashoka. Later, after Rukh recovers, they press on toward Stronghold. When Rukh asks Jessira about the meaning of ‘priya’, she dissembles. She claims that priya means close friend, but in Stronghold, it actually means ‘only beloved’.

When they finally reach her home, Jessira reunites with her family. Her cousin, Sign Deep, is the first to greet her. Her brother Cedar made it back home as well, bringing Farn with him. Rukh, though, is briefly held prisoner until Stronghold’s Senate decides to grant him asylum.

Afterward, he is sponsored by Court Deep, Sign’s brother, and along with Farn, the three men share a flat. However, Court is a warrior while Farn has been relegated to work as a laborer. Rukh’s cousin had suffered a head injury and until recently had been unable to walk for any length of time without stumbling.

In addition, Stronghold isn’t as Jessira described. The OutCastes have their own form of bigotry. The two Kummas face discrimination. They are bluntly told that Purebloods—the Stronghold aspersion for those who aren’t OutCaste—come from a culture that is inferior to that of Stronghold’s, that the OutCastes are inherently better and more civilized. This attitude combined with the lingering effects of Rukh’s injuries ensures that he will not be allowed to demonstrate his Talents as a warrior. He, too, must work as a laborer.

Nevertheless, Rukh settles into the city as best he can. He even finds someone to Heal his damaged arm, and he and Farn began training once more. Rukh’s cousin plans on returning to Ashoka as soon as he can, even willing to brave winter’s winds in order to leave Stronghold. While Farn admires what the OutCastes have built for themselves, their superior attitude has long since grown too grating to tolerate.

Unknown to Farn, Rukh also plans on leaving Stronghold. He reckons that after his cousin’s departure, he will be all but alone in the city. While Court and Cedar have become good friends, as have some laborers, it isn’t enough. Rukh, too, is tired of Stronghold’s bigotry. In addition, he has purposefully put distance between himself and Jessira. If her people ever discovered the depth of their feelings for one another or learned of the kiss they shared, it might ruin her reputation.

Jessira is incensed by the decision Rukh has made regarding their friendship, but she has little time to challenge him over it. Her work as a scout keeps her too busy. Plus, she has struggles of her own. She is disgusted by the attitude and behavior of her people toward Rukh and Farn, but whenever she brings the matter up to her family or friends, it is only Cedar and Court understand her revulsion. No one else recognizes the problem. To most people of Stronghold, their home is a paragon of equality and refined thought.

Matters aren’t improved when Jessira truly gets to know her fiancé, Disbar. He is clutching, controlling, and calculating—on his word, his cousins spy on Jessira to ensure she doesn’t contact Rukh. His loathsome conduct becomes too much for her to bear, and she ends their engagement. It is a scandalous action, but Jessira doesn’t care. She can’t live a lie.

Later, after returning from weeks of maneuvers in the Wildness, Jessira learns that Farn has left Stronghold and that Rukh, Healed and hale once more, plans on entering the Trials of Hume.

No one gives him a chance at victory. They discount Jessira and Cedar’s accounts of what Rukh can do. They reckon that the supposed Talents of the Kummas are likely nothing more than an exaggeration. Stupidly, they’ve not even bothered to ask Rukh for a demonstration. The one time he had offered to do so, he was vulgarly dismissed. He is also attacked on multiple occasions by masked assailants. The situation has him disgusted, and Rukh plans on carrying through with his decision to leave the city and never return.

The Trials of Hume arrive, and just as Jessira predicted, Rukh devastates all the warriors he faces. It is a stunning display that leaves all of Stronghold in silent shock as he leaves the arena.

Rukh’s feelings toward the OutCastes softens somewhat at the Champion’s banquet when many individuals come to express their sincere regret over their behavior and actions. The Governor-General, Mon Peace, even goes so far to give Rukh an officer’s commission in the Home Army and his own flat.

However, Rukh is still insistent on leaving Stronghold. In a final letter his nanna sent him, a reference was made to The Book of First Movement, the supposed journal of the First Father. The Book is said to be in Hammer, and it is there that Rukh chooses to journey. But Jessira decides to accompany him, something to which he is categorically opposed.

While they set off in their travels, back in Ashoka, the search for the Withering Knife murderer continues. Information comes to Bree and Jaresh, but in the course of their investigation, they are attacked. In a narrow alley, they fight for their lives. Bree, who had never given proper seriousness to her martial training, is almost frozen in panic. She does enough to stay alive, but for the most part, it is Jaresh who defends them both. The attack is thwarted, and the only surviving assailant escapes but only after nearly killing Bree.

Rector learns of the assault, and he is able to deduce the location of the surviving attacker. From him, he learns that the one who initiated the assault was a Rahail woman, a MalDin. The same woman who was likely seen by several of the Withering Knife murder victims. She may also be a silent partner at the Wrestiva warehouse that Rector oversees.

As House Shektan prepares to investigate this new information in greater detail, Farn Arnicep returns to Ashoka. His miraculous homecoming allows Dar’El to push forward with his proposal to have Rukh’s ruling rescinded. The Society of Rajan helps him, and with their aid and Farn’s testimony, the Council of Lords decides in Rukh’s favor. He is no longer Unworthy. He can return to Ashoka if he wishes.

Immediately, further plans are initiated. Farn will command a Trial to Stronghold, and Jaresh will go as well.

And far to the south, Li-Choke meets Chak-Soon for the first time. It is not an auspicious beginning. Discipline amongst the Chimeras has fallen precipitously since Li-Dirge’s death. Choke almost has to kill Soon in order to force the Tigon to accept his mastery. However, after Soon bends knee, the other Chimeras fall in line as well. Nevertheless, even after their submission, Choke is still forced to institute harsh penalties for even the most minor of infractions. The Chimeras suffer, and Soon surprises Choke when he offers to accept everyone else’s punishments if the other’s will no longer be harmed.

The Tigon’s willing sacrifice is stunning, and Choke eases off the punishment. He even begins to teach Soon of fraternity, who becomes the first Tigon in history to become so aware. There even comes a moment when Chak-Soon realizes that Suwraith is mad. He recognizes the folly of this quest that She has set them upon: to find Hume in long dead Hammer—the Bone Place, as the Chimeras call it.

During all this, after their months of turmoil in Stronghold, during their own travels to Hammer, Rukh and Jessira rekindle their love. It requires patience and understanding, but eventually they come to forgive one another for whatever hurts they suffered on the other’s behalf. Rukh even agrees to return to Stronghold.

However, while camping on the famed black cliffs north of Hammer, the sound of Braids on the hunt drives them into the city. They huddle in a crumbled building and are shocked when Li-Choke and Chak-Soon burst into their sanctuary. The cry of wolves on the hunt hounding their heels had driven the Bael and Tigon to seek shelter.

Rukh runs Soon through before Choke can explain their presence. Jessira Heals the Tigon, and the pursuing wolves leave of their own accord. Afterward, with Soon still unconscious, the three of them recount their journeys to Hammer. Choke also explains Chak-Soon’s importance and agrees to help Rukh and Jessira recover The Book of First Movement. He already knows where it is, a secret known only to the Baels. The Book is hidden away in the Library of Hammer, and after they retrieve it, they quickly exit the city.

Eventually, Chak-Soon awakens, but now a new challenge awaits him. He has been instructed since he was a cub that Humans are evil. Yet, one of them Healed him, and according to Li-Choke, all Humans are Soon’s brothers. The young Tigon eventually comes to accept this truth.

The four of them travel east and go their separate ways on the banks of the Soulless River. Choke and Soon return to the Eastern Plague while Rukh and Jessira make their way to Stronghold. However, the two Humans are careful to never reveal that there is, in fact, a city in the Privation Mountains. The Chimeras are led to believe that the Humans mean to return to Ashoka.

Later that evening, Rukh, overcome by curiosity, cracks open The Book of First Movement. The pages are blank just like all the stories say. However, a blue light overwhelms his senses, and he finds himself relieving the last night of Linder Val Maharj, the First Father.

All the stories are true. The First Father and the First Mother had a single child, Suwraith. That child would go on to murder Her Parents with the Withering Knife and become the being known as Suwraith. But somehow before He died, Linder was able to create the Oases and The Book of First Movement.

Suwraith, drawn by what She thinks is Her Father’s Jivatma, seeks out the source of what She senses. She races to where Rukh and Jessira had been camped, and the two of them barely escape Her wrath.

The rest of the journey back to Stronghold is tense, except for an evening when the Kesarin, Aia, and her brothers, Shon and Thrum, briefly reunite with Rukh and Jessira.

As for Choke and Chak-Soon, they make their way back to the Eastern Plague, where the new SarpanKum, Li-Shard greets their arrival with acclaim. What Choke has accomplished—befriending a Human—is the longed for dream of all Baels. The fact that he could open Chak-Soon’s eyes to the truth of fraternity is another stunning blessing.

Their glad celebration is brief.

Suwraith informs Choke that he is to take a full Shatter of Chimeras and follow Her north into the Privations. There, he will assist Her in eradicating a city of Humans. Choke is certain this must be Jessira’s hidden home, the one she never spoke of, but which he was able to infer must exist. He and Li-Shard plan for how best to thwart the Queen’s plans.

And back in Ashoka, Dar’El discovers the truth about Ular Sathin. His friend, a member of the Society of Rajan, is also the Muran MalDin. However, before Dar’El can extract any information from the traitor, Hal’El tracks Ular down first. In the confrontation with Hal’El, Ular ends up taking his life, and by doing so, all his secrets as well.

Days later, a journal—Ular’s—arrives on Dar’El’s desk. It contains everything the Muran MalDin knew of the Sil Lor Kum . . . but it’s written in cypher.

That same day, Rector and Mira, through a great deal of investigation, separately learn the true name of the SuDin: Hal’El Wrestiva. Mira is about to relay the information to Dar’El, but before she can do so, she is abducted by Hal’El, who had been watching her movements and monitoring what she had been doing. He takes her back to the secret flat that he and Varesea share

Rector had been on his way to meet Mira, and he catches a glimpse of her with Hal’El. At first, he isn’t sure it’s her, and before he can act on what he’s seen, she’s gone. He’s further distracted when Satha and Bree Shektan ride up to him. After hearing what he’s learned, and what he’s just witnessed, Satha returns to the Shektan House Seat to gather warriors, while Rector and Bree go after Mira.

They burst inside just as Hal’El strikes Mira. In the ensuing battle, Varesea is killed and Mira terribly injured. Hal’El, however, manages to escape.

During all this, Rukh and Jessira manage to make their way back to Stronghold. Shortly thereafter, they are married. Any damage to Jessira’s reputation when she broke off her engagement to Disbar is long since washed away, especially when the wedding ceremony is performed by none other than the Governor-General, Mon Peace.

Their honeymoon, however, is short-lived.

Several weeks after their wedding, Suwraith arrives at Stronghold. Rukh and Jessira, along with Sign, Cedar, and Court, watch helplessly as the Sorrow Bringer eradicates the OutCaste city. Only a handful manage to escape the destruction.

Also arriving at Stronghold on the same day as Suwraith is Farn, Jaresh, and the rest of the warriors of the Trial from Ashoka to Stronghold. They, too, are witness to Suwraith’s wretched evil as is Aia, Shon, and Thrum.

Li-Choke, who has brought his Shatter of Chimeras north, does his best to save the survivors. He and Chak-Soon had managed to haul a number of canoes up to River Gaunt, which the OutCastes can hopefully use to escape. Choke tells Rukh, newly reunited with Jaresh and Farn, about his plan and promises to do all he can to keep the Chimeras away from where the boats are to be launched.

A tearful trek makes its way north. Out of Stronghold’s original forty thousand, a little more than one hundred remain. Nevertheless, through luck, courage, and skill, all of the survivors—Strongholders and Ashokans alike—make it to the River Gaunt and the promised boats.

They push off into the water, but in the ensuing, frenetic escape, a Fracture of Chimeras discovers them. The battle that follows is horrific, and none would have survived if not for the timely intervention of Aia and her brothers. The Kesarins had been tracking their Humans—Rukh and Jessira—back to Stronghold. During the battle, they pass on all of Rukh’s Talents to the OutCaste warriors fighting for survival.

By the barest of margins, the new abilities prove just enough to hold off the Chimeras, and it is left to a ragged and weary Jessira and Rukh to lead the other survivors to safety. They push their canoes into the water, hauling on the oars as they hurl them into the river’s rapids.

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