“You have twelve weeks to convince me to marry you!”
Those words struck Toke like a Sorakine punch. He froze, arms and legs too stunned to move, and immediately sank under the water. He shook his head down there and thrust back upwards, breaking the surface again.
“What the smite is that supposed to mean?” he demanded.
Inaska, still standing on the pier, smiled down at him. It crinkled the underside of her scars a little. “What's wrong? You have marriages in Yasmik, don't you?”
“Y- Yeah, but...” Toke stammered. He hauled himself back up onto the pier. “People generally don't get married less than a week after meeting each other!”
Inaska turned and walked a few steps away from him. “Well, things are different here.”
I hadn't noticed, Toke thought, trying not to ogle her half naked body.
“We believe in signs here, and being attracted to someone is one of the most powerful signs of all. If you like someone, then you like them for a reason. They have something that you lack, and being close to them completes you.” She flashed him a smile. “If they're attracted to you too, then marriage is the obvious answer.”
Toke couldn't help but shake his head. “That's absurd,” he protested. “You can't fall in love with someone you barely know!”
Inaska, sitting down on one of the posts that held the pier above the water, eyed Toke as if he'd just told her he spoke Potato.
“I'd heard you Yasmikans have a weird way of looking at love,” she said. “You like to say that you 'fall in love.' Like it's something you don't have any control over.”
Toke shrugged. He hadn't given it a lot of thought, to be honest. How had it felt for him to fall in love with Zashiel?
“They say that,” he agreed tentatively, “but it's more like easing into it. The longer you're around someone, the more you get to love them.”
“Do you stop loving someone if you're away from them?” Inaska challenged him.
“What? Well, no.”
“Then it doesn't have anything to do with being close to someone. You see, Toke,” she crossed her legs lithely, balanced perfectly upon the post, “love isn't some kind of trap you either fall into or avoid. It's a choice.”
Toke looked at the white-haired acrobat, and shook his head. “And what? You’re saying you're attracted enough to me that you want to marry me?”
“No. Not yet, anyway. You have to convince me to do that.”
Toke spread his arms. “Why?”
“Why what? Why do you have to convince me to marry you? I'd have thought—”
“No, why do you find me attractive?”
This gave Inaska pause. “Why wouldn't I?”
With a groan, Toke sat down on another post a few feet away from hers. “Don't give me that. I know what I am. I'm a full grown man who still looks like he's fifteen. I spend too much time thinking about machines, and hardly even notice people. The only thing that matters to me is...”
Is my inventions. The inventions I don't work on anymore.
“Toke?” Inaska asked, leaning toward him when he didn't finish his sentence. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “You shouldn't settle for me. You need to go find someone better, for your own sake.”
For a minute, the only sound was the water lapping against the pier. When Inaska spoke again, though, she didn't have the dejected tone Toke had expected to hear. She actually sounded amused.
“And what makes you so sure there's someone better than you out there?”
“Common sense,” he answered frankly. “I haven't lived a normal life, Inaska. I still have people hunting me for what happened in Yasmik. It would be wrong for me to involve you in that.”
With a sigh, Inaska hung her head. “My life hasn't exactly been smooth currents and full nets either, Toke. I told you, I...” Her hand went up to feel her scar again. “Everything you’re saying, I could say the same. So maybe that makes us right for each other?”
Toke cocked his head. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, you can't court a woman because of the danger it would put her in. I can't let a man court me for the same reason. But we both know how to take care of ourselves, so maybe we have a chance!”
Her voice was passionate, almost desperate. Toke saw the way she clenched her fists and leaned toward him, like he was a fish at the end of her line that she was afraid would escape if she loosened her grip even a little.
“What happened to you?” he asked softly. What on Fissura could have broken a high-spirited woman like this?
She frowned and looked away again. “If you don't want to tell me your story, Toke, that's fine. But until you do, I want to keep mine to myself as well.”
Toke nodded, feeling a little guilty for having asked. He'd only known Inaska a few days, but he already knew she was one of the most interesting women he would ever meet. The fact that she was so easy on the eyes only made the prospect of courting her even more appealing. Perhaps if he just...
Toke froze, and then shook his head.
“No, no, no,” he said, waving his hands. “I'm sorry, Inaska, but I can't.”
A little bit of the hope died in Inaska's eyes. “Why not? I thought you didn't care about...” Her fingers went to her scars again.
“I don't!” Toke insisted. “I don't know why you're so ashamed of those scars, but it's not that. It's because I... Because there's already someone... a woman...”
To his surprise, Inaska nodded at this. “I know. She told me.”
Toke jumped at little. “Wait, what?”
Inaska stood up and began to walk toward him. “She told me you'd resist at first.”
A pit formed in Toke's stomach, and he stood up as well. “Who said that?”
Inaska stopped in front of him, so close that Toke's bare chest almost touched her barely clothed one. She raised her hands, running them up Toke's muscled arms.
“She told me to just keep giving you the right... encouragement... and you'd give in.”
Her hands went to caress his chest, her fingernails trailing tantalizingly over his skin. With a grunt, Toke grabbed her hands—more roughly than he meant to—and lifted them off of him.
“Inaska, who told you this?” he demanded.
The white-haired girl smiled. “Zashiel. She told me you were out here. She told me to come find you, and to...” Her smile widened.
Toke's body went numb. His ears rang. It felt like a rug—no, like the entire smiting planet had been yanked out from under his feet, and he was frozen in midair just before the eternal fall. Zashiel had sent Inaska? She had been the one to tell her to court him? Inaska was leaning forward like she wanted to kiss him, and he stepped away from her like she'd suddenly turned into a venomous snake.
“Why?” was the only word he could force out of his mouth.
Inaska's smile faded a little. This obviously wasn't the reaction she'd been expecting.
“She said she'd caught you looking at me, and asked if I liked you too. I said yes, and she sent me out here to find you.”
“And she... she told you to court me too?”
“What? No!” Inaska almost sounded offended by the idea. Toke breathed a sigh of relief. “You're the one courting me!”
Toke clenched his fists in frustration. When Inaska took another step toward him, he backed away again, nearly falling off the pier.
“Inaska, listen. I can't do this. It's got nothing to do with you. It's just... I love Zashiel!”
Surprisingly, she nodded. “I know. She told me that too.”
Toke froze. “What?”
Inaska sighed and awkwardly crossed her arms in front of her stomach. Toke felt bad for her—really bad. She was probably regretting wearing that skimpy outfit for him now.
“She told me that you'd fallen in love with her, but she didn't return those feelings. She said it was wrong for you to pine over her like this when you'd never get anything out of it. She said you were Yasmik's greatest hero, and you deserved someone to love. Someone who would actually love you back.”
Toke's heart sank into his stomach. No. No, this wasn't happening. Give him Gravity Storms. Give him mad scientists. Give him bounty hunters and angry Sorakines. Anything, anything but this!
“I told you that love is a choice, Toke,” Inaska said, hesitantly taking another step toward him. Toke didn't move. He couldn't have if he'd wanted to, his feet were rooted too firmly to the floor. “Zashiel is choosing not to love you, so stop chasing her. If you're half as amazing as she says you are, then you deserve someone better than that.”
“There is no one better than Zashiel,” Toke whispered.
“I know we barely know each other, but I feel like there could really be something between us, Toke.” She reached out and took his arm in her hand again. “I think I could choose to love you. And I can see it in your eyes: you could love me too. Please, let's at least try this.”
Tears were making Toke's eyes sting now. Those words... they were exactly what he'd always dreamed of hearing. But not from Inaska. She was a wonderful, beautiful woman. Better than he had any right to ask for. And yet, looking into her violet eyes, he couldn't do it. He tried to imagine a future with her, happily married, living and working on the Seventh Swordfish, but he saw nothing.
Because she wasn't Zashiel.
A knife of pain suddenly ripped through his heart, and he stumbled away from her again.
“No,” he muttered. Them more loudly, “No! No, I- I'm sorry, Inaska. I just... I just...”
He couldn't finish his sentence. He couldn't even stand to be here, looking into her wide, injured eyes a minute longer. His clothes... they were still at the edge of the pier, behind her. Reaching out with his powers, Toke pulled them to where he stood. Inaska yelped in fight when the bundle of clothes flew past her, but Toke ignored her. He had to go. He had to run. He... He just couldn't.
“I'm sorry,” he said one more time, thrusting his legs into his pants. He put on his shirt as he ran, covering the jacket beneath it. For a second he thought he heard someone crying behind him, but he didn't look back.
Betrayal burned in his chest like a raging inferno. He was angry. He was heartbroken. He was terrified. A thousand emotions fought for control inside of him, and there was nothing he could do. He had no idea how he wanted to feel. He knew he should have felt horrible for abandoning Inaska on the pier like that, but he couldn't find it anywhere inside him. His feet carried him through Tad Moru, unconsciously taking him back to the docks, back to the Seventh Swordfish, where Zashiel was waiting for him.
No, not waiting for me, he thought with a sudden spike of bitterness. Not for me. For anyone but me!
He was going to confront her. In his frenzied state, he had no idea what he was going to say to her. He could just as easily take a swing at her as try to talk. All he knew was that by trying to play matchmaker with him and Inaska, she had taken all his feelings for her and thrown them in a fire. And even worse, she had known all along. He hated her for that. Hated her almost as much as he loved her. And he had to tell her that. He would march up the gangplank. He would find her. He would throw Treyn overboard if he tried to get in his way. See how he liked it. Then he would—
A powerful hand clamped around his elbow, stopping him in his tracks. For a split second, Toke's fevered mind told him it was Inaska, trying to woo him one more time. He clenched his fists and spun around, ready to give her a piece of his—
That wasn't Inaska.
The arm that had caught toke was clad in black steel, with veins of green light shining from it. Toke's eyes went wide at the sight of Navras' old armor. The old man—not Navras, but close in age—stood in the doorway of an old floating warehouse, and with his strength amplified by the armor he effortlessly whipped Toke off his feet and hurled him across the building. His mind overcome by shock, Toke's training kicked in and he instinctively weakened his gravity so that when he struck the far wall the impact rattled his teeth but didn't break his bones.
“Good to see you again, Cassitoka,” the old man said, as if Toke had dropped in for a friendly cup of tea. His voice... he was sure he had never heard it before, but it sounded so smiting familiar! “Tell me, how have you felt these past few days?”
With a groan, Toke slid down the wall, head spinning. He teetered, nearly losing his balance, but managed to stay upright and glare at his attacker.
“Who... the smite are... you?” he grunted.
The old man chuckled. “Really, Cassitoka? I'm hurt.” The chuckle turned into a full blown laugh. “I kid! I know you don't remember me, young man. Well, I suppose reintroductions are in order, then. You can call me Shen.”
Toke stared at him. His arms... that was definitely Navras' armor, no doubt about it. Where had he gotten it? And why? The mere fact that he was wearing it made Toke doubt Shen was as friendly as he was acting.
“All right, Shen,” he finally said, “what do you want with me?”
While he spoke, his brain was scrambling. What would Shen do if he took out his jacket and weapons? Could he do it without him noticing? Reaching under his shirt wasn't exactly the most discreet thing he could do. The door to the building was still open, though, and the bridge leading past it was deserted. Perhaps Toke could anchor himself to something outside and escape?
“Just to ask you a few questions,” Shen answered with that sly, unsettling grin of his. It was the kind of smile one used to try to put someone at ease while plotting to scam him. Or stick a knife in his back. “So, how are you feeling?”
“Honestly? Like putting an axe in your face, old man,” Toke shot back. “So you'd better start explaining yourself before I act on that impulse!”
Shen chuckled again, the way a man laughs at a tiny dog that thinks it’s the most ferocious thing in the world. Toke clenched his fist, the urge to attack growing even stronger. Perhaps the man was a friend, but Toke doubted he would regret playing it safe and killing him anyway. That armor...
But Shen just kept talking. “Any odd feelings as of late? Inexplicable pains?” His eyes glinted conspiratorially. “Growing feathers?”
Toke froze, and a chill washed over him. The room itself seemed to grow darker. “How do you know about that?”
Shen's grin widened. “I'll take that as a yes. Tell me more!”
Suddenly, Toke didn't care how the old man reacted. He reached under his shirt, pulled out his jacket, and flung his arms into the sleeves in a quick, fluid motion. He left the hood down, not wanting to waste the time raising it. A moment later, both axes were in his hands, and he charged at Shen.
“What did you do to me?” he yelled, leaping into the air. He anchored himself to the spot on the wall just behind Shen, lifting his feet from the floor as he began to fall. He wanted to kick Shen in the chest, hit him hard enough to hurt but not so much that he couldn't answer his questions.
Shen waved his hand casually, and the air around him flashed green for a split second. Toke's foot barely touched that light, but his entire body was thrown violently off course. For the second time, Toke went flying through the building, though this time he had the presence of mind to re-anchor himself to the floor before he hit anything. His feet touched down, skidding across the rough wooden floor before he came to rest.
The warehouse was much wider than it was tall. Toke guessed that it must have been up for rent, because there was nothing in there except for him and Shen. In other words, it was the perfect battleground for a Juryokine.
With a shout, Toke threw himself at Shen again, both axes raised to attack. He wanted answers, not to kill him, but that armor was dangerous. The full suit had let Navras take down Sorakines without breaking a sweat. Toke wasn't sure how much power the arms alone would grant Shen, but he didn't doubt it was still enough to tear this entire building apart with him in it.
Toke watched Shen with the intensity of a hawk even as he charged at him. The moment the old man twitched his hand, Toke weakened his gravity and launched himself into the air. His momentum carried him up and over Shen's head, and Toke swung one of his axes at his exposed head.
Shen dropped to the floor with a yelp of fear, and Toke's axe missed him by mere inches. Toke cursed and anchored himself to the ceiling before his feet could touch the floor, falling up out of Shen's reach. He had missed, but that was all right. Shen’s reaction to nearly having his skull cleaved open told Toke more about him than the old man probably realized. His cocky façade had vanished the minute Toke had gained even a little bit of control over the situation. Screaming and falling on his face wasn’t the reaction of a warrior. Whoever Shen was, he wasn’t a fighter.
That gave Toke confidence.
“This isn't necessary, Cassitoka,” Shen said as he stood up, trying to keep his voice as level as it had been before. “Simply answer my questions and I'll be on my way.”
“No,” Toke said, positioning himself right over the old man. “You're the one who's going to be answering questions. Tell me what you did to me!”
“I won't—” he began, and then shouted again as Toke made Shen himself his anchor.
Shen’s arms gave off the same tingling sensation that Toke had felt whenever he'd fought Navras, but since only they were covered that still left more than enough of Shen for Toke to anchor himself to. Toke increased his weight so that the ceiling groaned beneath his feet, causing Shen to come flying straight up at him like an arrow from a bow. Just before Shen hit him, Toke re-anchored himself to the ground, while maintaining his anchor to Shen, and leaped so that he landed almost thirty feet away. He skidded, his increased weight carving shallow gouges into the wood floor, and then spun around. With his gravitational anchor changing positions, Shen was dragged for a few feet across the ceiling before taking a sharp turn back downwards. Toke watched him fall, and, right before they collided, released his anchor and leaped over old man. Shen's cry of pain was almost drowned out by the sound of smashing wood as his armored arms broke two holes in it.
Toke kept his axes ready, but Shen didn't move. Looking at him down there, something tickled the back of Toke's mind. Something familiar. He... He knew Shen from somewhere. No matter how hard he strained his brain, though, he couldn't for the life of him remember where he knew him from.
“Now, are you ready to talk?” Toke demanded, making his way over when Shen didn't give anymore sign of fighting back. Toke put his foot against him to roll him over. “I want to know—”
Shen rolled over on his own and thrust his gauntleted hand at Toke. His face was bleeding from three different cuts and large strips had been torn from his clothes, but the old man's eyes gleamed with predatory concentration. The glove flashed bright green, and Toke found himself flying backwards yet again.
A trick? he wondered, fighting to regain his balance in midair. Had Shen been faking how inexperienced he was?
Toke landed right side up again, but another wave of kaosuryo slammed into him before he could move. He flew backwards a few feet, and then hit a wall. The pressure didn't let up, pinning him against the wall so that he couldn't move a muscle. On the other side of the building, Shen struggled to his feet.
“I take it by your anger,” he said, “that my experiment is producing results. And yet, you have not undergone the full transformation. Why is that?”
“What the smite are you talking about?” Toke asked. His voice was strained, barely able to move his lungs enough to breathe.
Shen walked with a pronounced limp now, but he still determinedly crossed to where Toke was pinned to the wall. He reached into his ruined blue robe and pulled out something that glowed bright yellow—a stunning contrast to the green glow of his gauntlets.
“Is that juryo?” Toke exclaimed.
“I was obviously correct, but I must have made a miscalculation.” Shen was speaking now as if Toke wasn't even there. “The amount administered is clearly a more important factor than I anticipated.”
The juryo was in a syringe. Toke's heart began to race and he struggled to break free from the tingly green energy pressing him to the wall, but to no avail. Shen stopped in front of him and unzipped his jacket.
“Don't you dare, you dropper!” Toke yelled, watching the syringe with wide eyes. “Let me go before I—”
“I don't have much time,” Shen said. “There's somebody nearby looking for you. I'm interested to see how you fare against her in your current state.”
Then, with a swift motion, Shen drove the needle into Toke's chest. Toke cried out in pain, but could do nothing while the old man pushed down the plunger, forcing the bright yellow chemical into his body.
“What are you trying to do?” Toke roared. “I'm already a smiting Juryokine!”
“Yes.” Shen withdrew the syringe and then tossed it over his shoulder. It skittered across the floor until it fell through one of the holes Shen's arms had made when he'd fallen, splashing into the canal below where nobody would ever find it. “But you could be so much more.”
The juryo was warm inside Toke's chest, like liquid fire that somehow didn't burn him. Even as he struggled, panic trying to overtake his rational mind, things began to get clearer. Sudden surges of inhuman strength. Feathers growing from his back. Shen somehow knowing about it. This had happened before. He had no memory of it, which almost frightened him more than the attack itself. How could anyone simply forget something this horrifying? What had Shen done to him? And why?
His own question was answered when Shen withdrew another syringe from his robe. This one was smaller, and contained a clear liquid.
“To make sure you don't go telling anyone about this,” he said, bringing it closer to Toke's head. He smiled. “This will be our little secret!”
He pressed the needle into Toke's head, right in between his right eye and his ear, and squeezed the plunger. Toke couldn't feel this chemical like he had the juryo, and that only frightened him even more. Then, just like that, Shen withdrew the needle, and the wall of kaosuryo that held him pinned down vanished. Toke fell less than a foot before landing on the floor, and suddenly he wasn't sure what to do with his hands. Should he inspect his chest first, or his head? His arms twitched up and down, first going for one wound, then the other.
Toke slowly raised his head to see Shen looking down at him, smug grin plastered back on his face.
“W- What now?” Toke asked, dumbly.
“Now,” said Shen, “you fight for your life.”
He raised one hand above his head, making Toke flinch. He was still fighting to mash the white-hot panic back down where it couldn't control him. He wasn't in any condition to fight Shen again, especially after... after...
After having juryo injected into his chest. Right.
But Shen didn't strike him. Instead, his glove flashed, and the pulse of kaosuryo blew a hole into the ceiling, revealing the bright blue sky above them. While Toke was looking up, Shen grabbed him by the collar and lifted him easily off the floor.
“Do your best out there,” he said, mockingly. “I'll be watching.”
Toke desperately wanted to say something witty, to show Shen that he wasn't as intimidated as he looked. But before he could think of anything, the old man heaved upwards, his armor-enhanced strength catapulting Toke up through the hole at a blinding speed. Toke clenched his eyes shut, remembering what Zashiel had once said about the wind hurting them, and yanked his hood up.
Tad Moru spread was spread beneath him like a map. He wasn't as high up as he'd been when he'd flown the previous day, not by a longshot, but Toke still yanked both wings open to slow his descent. He angled himself to the left. If he acted fast enough, maybe he could catch the old man before he escaped. He owed Toke answers. Lots of answers.
His name was... what again? he thought as he closed the distance between him and the hole he been launched from. He had known it just seconds ago. Why couldn't he remember?
As he approached the warehouse again, though, a glimmer of yellow caught the edge of his vision. Was that Zashiel? He turned his head to—
Finch's feet slammed into his side with the force of a speeding autocarriage, throwing him off course and tumbling downwards.
“Smite!” Toke cursed, letting his wings snap closed. Flipping and spinning out of control as he was, he couldn't focus on anything long enough to anchor himself to it. Instead, in a desperate move, he lashed out with as many different anchors as he could manage, latching onto whatever they came into contact with. Something lighter than him crashed in the distance as it was yanked up off the ground, and then he lurched back upwards until he struck the edge of the warehouse's roof, his momentum catapulting him head over heels yet again.
“Pathetic,” he heard someone say once he'd come to a rest. The world was still spinning chaotically in his head, but he instinctively weakened his gravity and thrust up with his arms, shooting him into the air again. Just in time too, because the moment he left the ground he heard the sound of metal slicing through the air and the warehouse roof cracked. He regained his senses while he was airborne, noted Finch's position, and then anchored himself further down the roof to put some distance between them. She had both of her slings out, and was spinning them so quickly that they looked like mirrors reflecting the early afternoon sun.
“I refuse to believe that Zashiel betrayed all of us… betrayed me… for you!” she spat once Toke's feet touched the ground. He wasted no time in drawing his axes again, and then threw himself awkwardly to the side when she loosed another iron ball at him. He hit the ground, rolled, and stumbled to his feet even as the missile drove itself into the roof.
Smite! He clenched his teeth and scrambled back to his feet. Still too dizzy. Have to focus!
“Look at you!” Finch ranted. “You can barely control your powers!”
She's judging all my skills based on that fall I just took, he realized as the dizziness began to fade. Amateurish. A warrior never underestimates their opponent.
Even so, he knew he was in trouble. Zashiel said Finch hadn't completed her training—or, at least she hadn't when they'd gone into exile. Who knew what skill level she was at know? Not high enough to take down Zashiel, judging by their last battle, but what about Toke? He gripped his axes in sweaty palms, willing his heart to stop racing. If he was going to survive this, he needed to have a clear head. He'd already fought one unexpected foe and... and... had he won?
Toke blinked. Who was I even fighting down there?
Finch must have sensed his distraction, because she launched herself into an attack with a flare of her wings. Toke cursed and threw himself into a roll, passing just underneath her as she soared overhead. They both planted their feet and skidded to a halt, turning to face each other, and Toke put himself into a defensive stance.
What do I do? Finch is a Sorakine warrior, just like Zashiel. She's not going to let me get out of this alive. But... I can't kill Zashiel's sister!
He looked at the axes in his hands, their blades sharp enough to split hairs. If he'd thought to bring any of those rubber strips he and Zashiel trained with, he could have hit Finch without holding back. He hadn’t, though, which meant he could end up killing her if he struck her in the wrong place.
Finch attacked again, jerking Toke out of his thoughts. She swung her slings, the chains whipping through the air quickly enough to serve as weapons themselves. Toke leaped backwards out of her reach, and had to stop himself from throwing one of his axes. It came so naturally to him now. It wasn't even likely that he would land a killing blow with one throw, but he couldn't risk it. He couldn't stand to have Zashiel look at him with that kind of betrayal in her eyes.
He landed and, in the blink of an eye, Finch had loaded one of her slings. She launched it at him in the same fluid motion, and Toke dove to the side before the heavy metal ball could punch a hole in his head. He turned briefly to watch it go, and saw it halt in midair and then zip back the way it had come, straight into Finch's open hand.
“You're weak,” she said, eyeing him through her visor.
“I might surprise you.”
“What did you do to her?” Finch's fist tightened around the metal ball so hard Toke thought it might crumble to dust. “She never would have abandoned us for something like you!”
That hit a nerve. Toke ground his teeth and glared at the Sorakine girl. “Zashiel made her own decision. I guess that's more than anyone could say about you!”
Finch froze, her mouth falling open. “W- What did you just say?”
Toke pointed his axe at her. “You came to Vlangur to kill your own sister. Why? Because Klevon told you to! Zashiel is strong enough to think for herself, even if you don't agree with her, but you're still taking orders from a maniac!”
The lower, uncovered half of Finch's face turned dark red, and she let out a scream. She charged at Toke, not bothering to take to the air this time. Likewise, she didn't bother loading the metal ball back into her sling. She just threw it at him. A metallic missile thrown by a Sorakine arm wasn't much better than a sling, though, so Toke still weakened his gravity and sprang out of the way. Finch was there half a second later, swinging her slings. One still had a ball loaded into it, halving its length but doubling its deadliness. The other, empty and held loose whistled as it flashed past Toke's face, the tip nearly striking him. Cursing, Toke bent his knees and jumped away—only to come to an abrupt halt and fall back to the roof.
He twisted so that his shoulder absorbed the impact of the fall, grunting in pain, and looked down to see Finch's empty sling wrapped around his ankle. The Sorakine girl glared at him through her visor, and then yanked him backwards. His entire body left the ground under her inhuman strength, but Toke focused on her as he went flying past and swung one of his axes. He heard Finch cry out in pain, soon left behind as her sling came loose and he was flung across the warehouse roof. He doubled his anchor to the ground to steady himself and landed without injury, facing Finch. She was down on one knee, hand clasped around a fresh wound in her thigh.
Sorakine jackets may have been nearly impenetrable, but not so much the rest of their clothes.
“That was a coward's move!” she screamed at him.
“You made a mistake, and I used it,” Toke shot back. “It's your own fault.”
Her face grew even redder when she heard this, and forced herself to stand up. Toke sighed. He had hoped a leg wound would take her out of the fight without hurting her too badly. But Finch was Zashiel's sister through and through. He should have known better.
“We don't have to do this,” he insisted, putting himself in a defensive position all the same. “Zashiel doesn't want to see you dead, and I don't either. Just go.”
Finch spat on the ground between them. “A Sorakine never stops until her mission is complete. Sir Klevon told me to cleanse you from Fissura, and that's what I'm going to do!”
She launched the contents of her second sling at him, and Toke leaped over that one too. While he was up in the air, though, Finch spread her wings and came after him. Toke increased his weight at the last second, plummeting the few feet back down to the roof, and Finch passed above him. He realized too late, though, as the wood beneath him groaned, that he'd made himself too heavy, and the roof buckled beneath him. He fell into the warehouse, and quickly switched his anchor to the ceiling above him while the patch of roof he'd broken free crashed into the floor below. Standing upside down, with the floor above him, he noticed another pair of holes gouged in the warehouse floor.
What happened in here? he wondered. Something tickled his brain, like a locked away memory, but he couldn't grab onto it hard enough to pull it back into remembrance.
Then, before he could think more on it, Finch's fist came through the ceiling. With her Sorakine strength, she was able to punch holes in the wood like it was made of cardboard. Toke cursed and jumped away, his leap carrying him down toward the floor before arching back up to the ceiling. He could hear Finch following him up above, apparently listening to hear where he landed, and he leaped a second time just before the ceiling exploded into splinters. This time he weakened his gravity, landing as softly as he could, and stood still.
Nothing. Finch hadn't heard him.
A few seconds later, he heard her frustrated voice calling out to him. “Stop running from me, you freak! If you're really a warrior like you say, then come out and fight me!”
She was right, he realized. Not about him being a coward, but about having to fight her. He could hide down here either until she came to look for him, or she'd smashed the entire roof to pieces, but it wouldn't get rid of her. He had to face her, and he had to win.
Taking a deep breath, Toke turned to eye the first hole he'd made, the one that had brought him inside the warehouse. Tightening his grip on his axes, he broke out into a sprint toward it, and then jumped. Since he was anchored to the roof, his gravitational field sent him into a flip as he passed through the hole and into the bright, cloudless day above, and he landed on his feet. His eyes were closed, sensing his surroundings with his powers, and he as soon as he found Finch's field of gravity he spun around on his toes and flung his axe at her.
Finch cursed, but even a Sorakine's reflexes weren't fast enough to deflect such a sudden attack. The axe struck her square in the chest making her stumble backwards a couple of steps, but her jacket kept it from doing any real harm. Toke opened his eyes again, his feet already carrying him toward her, and he jumped. This time, Finch herself became his anchor. She grunted in surprise when she felt herself being pulled up toward him, but she was a Sorakine. Anything Toke could do, she could do just as well. She increased her weight, making Toke fall toward her even faster—exactly what he wanted. He increased his own weight at the last second, throwing her off balance again, and extended his leg. He kicked her visor, as heavy as a boulder dropped off a cliff, and heard the satisfying crunch as the black glass shattered beneath him.
Finch was thrown onto her back. She may have been five times as strong as a human, but not even a Sorakine could withstand an impact like that. Toke kept himself anchored to her, foot planted square on her face as she fell, and when her back hit the roof he leaped off of her, propelling her skull into the ground as well. He cringed at the sickening crack that made. Had he gone too far? What if he'd killed her, despite his attempts to avoid doing just that?
He landed on his feet five feet away from her, and fell still, waiting. For a few seconds, the Sorakine girl didn't move. A pit formed in Toke's stomach...
And then, with a scream of absolute rage, she sprang back to her feet. She let her hood fall to her shoulders, the visor no longer there to protect her eyes, giving Toke a good view of the foot-shaped bruise that as already forming on her forehead. A trickle of blood ran down the back of her head, over her shoulder, and down inside her jacket. None of that mattered, though—not compared to the animalistic look in her eyes. Those weren't the eyes of a human, or even a Sorakine. A chill ran down Toke's spine. She would tear him limb from limb in her current state, like an animal ripping into its prey.
“Smite,” he whispered under his breath. He needed to make distance, and fast.
Keeping his eyes on his opponent, he leaped backwards—and Finch followed. She moved will the graceful speed her people were known for, her strength lending her legs power without having to weaken gravity's hold on her the way Toke did. Toke didn't even have time to raise his axes before she slammed into him, wrapping her arms around his so that he couldn't attack or escape. And then suddenly they were going downwards. It was a strange feeling, having someone else manipulate the gravity around him. He used his powers so differently than Zashiel that sometimes he forgot they were both capable of the same things.
Stars flashed in front of Toke's eyes as he hit the warehouse's roof with Finch on top of him. She unwrapped one arm from around him, but before he could make a move she had raised her fist and rammed it into his gut. All the air in Toke's lungs came rushing out of him. His jacket might have protected him from nearly any kind of weapon, but a Sorakine's punch still felt like being rammed by an angry bull. She hit him so hard that he heard the roof underneath him crack again.
“I have to kill my sister,” Finch whispered, eyes wide with depravity, “and it's your fault. It's all your fault!”
She punched him again, and Toke couldn't stop himself from crying out in pain this time. Something had broken inside him. At least two of his ribs. Maybe—probably—more.
Ignore the pain. Push it away. Go into the void! he urged himself, but he couldn't do it. Pain racked his body. Terror racked his mind. Between the two of them, he couldn't gather the focus he needed to banish it all away.
Finch raised her fist again, and time seemed to slow down. Ribs broken. One more punch could easily drive one of them into his lungs. He had two choices: give up and die, or spend the next three seconds trying to figure out how to stop that fist from falling. He couldn't dodge. He couldn't escape. His only option was to fight back. But how?
I need one of those power surges, he thought as Finch's fist blotted out the sun, casting a shadow over his eyes. I nearly knocked Zashiel unconscious last time. I can do that again.
He had no idea how to summon that strength, though. Both times they'd happened, they seemed random.
He paused. No, only one of them had been random. The other one, the first one, had happened when he'd been sparring with Zashiel. It was as if his body had responded to some unspoken need and given him and extra boost of strength. But then, why wasn't it happening now?
I need it, he begged himself, unsure of whether his body was even listening. Whatever's been happening, I need it to happen again!
He closed his eyes, and… felt something. It wasn’t the void. The void was emptiness, but this was the exact opposite. It felt like a well inside his body. It was covered, shut up, but he could still feel something radiating from inside. Light. Energy. Power! He grabbed it inside his mind, threw open the door…
Finch's fist fell... and Toke's body exploded with power!
Thinking quickly, he thrust one of his hands up, and their fists collided at the halfway point. The impact shook Toke's entire body, but he could tell it had done the same to Finch. Her eyes widened with shock instead of rage this time, and Toke took that as his chance to escape. Putting both his palms on the roof to either side of him, he pushed up with all his might—and he had even more might than he'd realized. He shot up off the roof, almost ten feet in the air, carrying Finch with him. He heard Zashiel's sister gasp.
“Not as weak as you thought, am I?” he yelled right into her face.
With reflexes now just as quick as Finch's, he lashed out and grabbed both her shoulders. Then, anchoring himself to the ground at an angle, he did a flip and threw Finch back down as hard as he could. She hit the roof, cracking it from the impact, bounced, and came to rest right below Toke. Toke clasped both fists above his head, increased his weight to make him fall faster, and plummeted back down to the warehouse. He landed with his feet straddling Finch, and used the momentum to his fall as he dropped to his knees and struck her with right in the chest with both fists.
The roof around Finch seemed to ripple like water after a stone had been thrown into it, and then it imploded, collapsing into the warehouse and bringing Finch and Toke with it. Toke didn't care. The fire that raged inside him felt so good. He was indestructible. A smiting god. Let Finch, the bounty hunters, and Klevon himself come after him. Nothing on Fissura could—
He hit the ground at the same time Finch did, and somehow the vibrating impact cut him off from his new power, leaving him feeling cold, empty... and in more pain than he thought could exist in a single person's body. Shadows were already swimming in his vision as he toppled backwards with a pitiful whimper. There was no strength left in his body. Not even his normal strength. He collapsed on his back, and couldn't keep his eyes from closing as he succumbed to unconsciousness, and blissful lack of pain that came with it.
NEXT TIME: Whew, that’s a relief! Instead of worrying about getting married, Toke just has to worry about getting murdered. Talk about dodging a bullet! I’m sure that whole “courting Inaska” thing will never come up again… right?