The commless woman now joins Essun and Hoa on their journey, introducing herself as Tonkee but not giving a comm or use-caste name. She claims to have joined them just because Hoa is so interesting to her, and from hints she has dropped Essun is now pretty sure that she used to be a geomest at the most prestigious university in the Stillness. The first afternoon after the kirkhusa attack, Tonkee leads Essun and Hoa to her home, which is a cave inside of a stone hill filled with books, contraptions, and random things that she’s scavenged. Tonkee uses all the water she collected to bathe, and they all sleep on their own bedrolls that night.
Tonkee’s journey from a highly-ranked geomest to a commless wanderer must be an interesting one, but she keeps her past secret and retains only the insatiable curiosity of a natural scientist. Tonkee seems to have been living like she’s in a Fifth Season since even before the Season began.
The next day the three set out south again, with Essun still trying to figure out what exactly Hoa is, because he doesn’t seem to be human (although orogenes aren’t technically considered human either). When she asks him about the kirkhusa he refuses to explain, saying only that he wants Essun to still like him. As they travel, the falling ash gets worse and worse, and they start wearing masks. Passing other travelers, everyone seems faceless and anonymous, which Essun appreciates.
The general mood of disaster intensifies as the ashfall grows worse and everyone on the road becomes anonymous to one another in their masks. They seem less like fellow human beings and more like faceless and potentially sinister creatures. Hoa remains inexplicable to Essun and still seems primarily concerned with her continuing to like him and think of him as a human child.
As many of the people on the road have returned to their comms (if they have them) by now. The remainder are growing groups of people from the Equatorial regions to the north, closer to the site of the earthquake. Essun notices that many of these people wear some article of clothing that is strictly ornamental. She realizes that this has become a kind of marker for a new tribe that might be forming as the Fifth Season begins, comprised of those who came from cities and used to be rich.
New hierarchies are being formed in real time, as the ruling class at Yumenes has been totally destroyed and others seek to fill the power gap. In doing so, they reach for old markers of power and privilege—the Sanzed racial traits that mark Equatorial people and the wealth that urban upper-classers enjoy. Even in a time of total apocalypse, people cling to small signifiers of rank and hierarchy.
Essun asks one of these Equatorial women what happened in the north. The woman says that she was at a concert in the town of Alebid when she saw a line of red light stretch across the horizon, and then a cloud of ash followed. Essun knows that Alebid is far enough north that it should have been destroyed by the shake, so she is sure that an orogene—likely a node maintainer—saved it. After hearing more stories in the same vein, Essun observes that none of the refugees come from further north than Alebid—no one is from Yumenes or anywhere along its latitude.
Again, orogenes save stills, but the stills offer them no gratitude or respect in exchange. Essun deduces that the rift in the continent must run along Yumenes’s latitude, and that anyone too close to that part of the continent—the Equatorial region, which was previously the safest and wealthiest part of the Stillness—must have been immediately killed.
The group sometimes stops at comms along the way to trade, and Essun notes that different comms accept different kinds of currency, whether money or bartering for other useful items. The three of them split a night watch and share food, although Essun is now sure that Hoa doesn’t eat at all. At one comm, she is surprised to see Tonkee produce a compass—a priceless item during a Fifth Season—and trade it for two pairs of boots, one of which is for Hoa. Tonkee then remarks that there are other ways of finding their direction, and Essun suspects that she knows about Essun’s orogeny.
This section shows how society adapts in times of disaster and crisis, turning to different economies and systems of bartering. After 10 years in Tirimo and Uche’s death, Essun is extremely wary that anyone might find out that she’s an orogene. Essun, Hoa, and Tonkee are all hiding core aspects of themselves from the rest of the world.
Their long and weary journey continues, following only Hoa’s instincts about where Nassun is. They pass through one shortcut that saves them a lot of time but means traveling near a hostile comm that shoots arrows at them. As weeks go by, Hoa seems less sure of himself, however. He tells Essun that “there are a lot of you in one place now,” which makes it hard to single out Nassun. Essun thinks about how it should be impossible—and also unwise—for orogenes to be gathering like he says they are.
Some comms try to barter with travelers, while others attack them. Everyone reacts differently according to what they think is the best way to survive during a Fifth Season.
Hoa again refuses to explain how he can sense all of this, but he is sure that Nassun at least passed near to the place with all the orogenes, if she’s not still there. Essun decides to focus on getting to this spot, and just hope that she finds Nassun. The chapter ends with a quotation from stonelore about everyone being judged for their usefulness, ending with “a few strong backs to guard them all.”
Essun clings to the single purpose of finding Nassun and is willing to trust even Hoa’s vaguest guess if it keeps them moving forward. The stonelore quotation seemingly explains the origin of the use-castes that divide people in the Stillness, ending with the lowest-ranked Strongbacks, whose job is labor and security.