Chapter Thirty Four
I'm becoming a Sorakine?
Toke's ears were ringing as Zashiel sat down in front of him, head hung low like a turtle trying to disappear into her own jacket. Him? A Sorakine? The very idea was ludicrous, but what other explanation was there? Suddenly, after weeks of worrying, everything made sense. Too much sense. The increased strength, the feathers...
I should have realized it sooner, he thought absently. The evidence hadn't just been staring him in the face, it had been slapping both of his cheeks while singing at the top of its lungs. Why had he tried so hard to ignore it?
He knew the answer to that, of course: because Zashiel had told him to. She had promised that him turning into a Sorakine was the most far-fetched, childish fantasy in the world. One that even Boam would scoff at for being too unrealistic. Toke had trusted her, spitting in the face of logic and common sense, because the idea that she would lie to him about something like this had never even occurred to him. It was like... like...
Like her waking up and finding out I stole her Chiyuka ointment, he thought, turning pale.
He felt a pang of guilt, but it instantly vanished under the immensity of the situation. He was turning into a smiting Sorakine!
What did this mean for him? How long was this transformation going to take? How much time did he have left as a human? What... What would this to do him and Inaska? She was willing to marry a Juryokine, but what about a Sorakine? His eyes opened wide at the thought of her rejecting him the minute he sprouted wings. Even for someone like her, the Calix Cura, marrying outside of her own species had to be going too far. It had to...
Toke's hands were shaking. He didn't try to stop them. If there was ever a time to shake and tremble, it was now. He looked up at Zashiel, ready to demand that she answer every single one of his questions before he smiting—
She was already talking.
“What?” he asked dumbly. In his distress, he hadn't heard a word she'd said.
Zashiel stopped and, to his surprise, a trace of irritation glinted in her eye. “Are you really going to make me say all that again?”
He nodded. “Yes, please.”
She sighed, and curled even further into herself. She looked small, Toke thought. Smaller than he had ever seen her look before. Whatever was going on, it hurt her. He felt bad for making her do this... but he was turning into a smiting Sorakine!
“We have myth back in Hashira,” she said. “About the creation of the Sorakines.”
Toke said nothing, and Zashiel hugged her knees.
“It's not something we would ever tell anyone outside of our city. It's something we don't even like to talk about ourselves, but... the myth says that the Sorakines used to be humans.”
Toke jumped a little when he heard that. “If you used to be humans, then that means there's a way to turn humans into Sorakines! Why hasn't anyone ever found out about this?”
“I just told you, it's one of our most closely guarded secrets! We don't even tell our children until we know they're old enough not to go spreading it around. It's not something we're proud of.”
“Do you believe it?” Toke asked.
Zashiel shook her head. “Most of us don't, but the council still demands that everyone be told the story once. It says that our gods—”
“The Sorakine gods?” Toke interrupted before he could stop himself. “You have a religion?”
The Sorakines were a tight-lipped bunch, but it was commonly believed that they had at least one organized religion. What it was, though, nobody born without wings had any idea. Toke's suspicions had grown every time Zashiel had demanded he give up learning how to fly. The sky belonged to the Sorakines. It was sacred. Something didn't become sacred without the blessing of a higher power. Still, he had never been able to pry more information than that from her.
Zashiel held up her hand, stopping the tide of questions they both knew were coming. “I'm not going to tell you more, Toke. I can't.”
Toke raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”
“Because you know just as much as I do.”
“What does that mean?”
With a sigh, Zashiel bowed her head. “We have a religion, but we don't know much about it. The council and the seraphs are the only ones who know its history and... whatever else a religion needs. They give us the rules we're to abide by, tell us a couple stories to go with them, and promise us a good afterlife if we obey the law and keep true to our people. Other than that, though, they keep it all to themselves. We don't know our god's name, or if we have more than one, or what they're like, or... anything.”
To Toke's surprise, he felt a spark of anger leap up inside of him. “That's terrible!” He shouted, clenching his injured fist. “Do you have any idea how much power you're just giving—”
“Do you want to know why you're turning into a Sorakine or not?”
Toke froze. Right. He nodded.
Zashiel seemed disappointed by that, as if she had hoped he would be so distracted that he would forget how he was, apparently, turning into a winged superhuman warrior. She took a deep breath, and continued.
“Anyway, the myth says that our gods looked down on Fissura just as a great war was being waged. It was a war that had consumed the entire world, and had raged for hundreds of years. Through it all, a single army rose above all the rest. They were brave, strong, valiant, and most importantly, undefeated. The gods descended, and brought with them the first peace the world had seen in generations. To the brave army they had watched, they bestowed a great gift.”
“Sorakineism?” Toke ventured a guess.
Zashiel gave him a sidelong look. “Yeah. That. Strength, speed, and a lifespan that normal men could only dream of—plus the gift of flight. But they gave us a warning, too: what had been done to them could be passed on to others. This was forbidden, as it was a reward for them and them alone. Should anyone pass on their gift to somebody unworthy, they would be condemned to untouchable skies and cold, hard ground after death.”
“Taint not the blood, taint not the skies, lest you lose the eternal prize,” Toke whispered.
Zashiel started. “Where did you hear that?”
“From you,” he answered. “Back when I first started growing feathers.”
“Oh.” She lowered her head. “Right.”
Toke held out his hands. “I don't get it, though. Why did you try to keep this from me?”
“Because...” Zashiel's voice was quavering now. “Because I committed the ultimate sin. I tainted the blood. I thought if I ignored it, kept you from knowing what was happening, maybe it would...”
“I know I'm an idiot!” she snapped. “I don't need you to rub it in my face, all right?”
“Oh, you don’t?” he shot back, temper rising. “Because I really want to rub it in your face right now! Why didn’t you just tell me?”
“I thought I had found a loophole,” Zashiel’s eyes were vacant, staring at nothing like Treyn's had been a minute ago. “I didn't give you my blood, I gave you my juryo. That had to be okay, right? The law said not to taint the blood, not the... the...” She stopped and sucked in a raspy breath. “But I was wrong. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I'm going to be damned for it anyway.”
“So you're afraid you'll go to whatever cold, dark underworld naughty Sorakines get sent to when they die?” he snapped.
Zashiel froze, looking at him with wide, horrified eyes. Toke clenched his teeth. Had those words come out of his mouth? Yes… they had.
And he didn’t regret saying them.
“I just... I mean...” Zashiel stammered.
The bitter, hateful voice came again. “And you think that makes lying to me okay? Telling me I'm just fine when in actuality I'm turning into something... something not human?”
“You're already not a human. You're a—”
“Oh, can it!” he yelled, stomping his foot. He felt the surge of strength at the last second, and the wooden roof cracked a little under the force. He didn't care. “You knew this all along, but you kept it to yourself because of some bogus religion?”
Zashiel was on her feet in an instant, fists balled. The fire was back in her eyes again, but this time it was directed at Toke. He took a reflexive step backwards, suddenly convinced she was about to attack him.
“Don't you dare say that!” she snarled. “You don't get to say that, do you understand me?”
Toke blinked in surprise. Zashiel had gone from heartbroken to red in the face with anger in less than a second. He didn't doubt that if he were to push her even a little further, he would be receiving one of those fists right in his face. That was surprising. After a year of listening to her go on and on about her debt to him, he had finally found something she apparently cared about even more.
“Why?” he challenged her, knowing it was stupid but too angry to care. “I saved them, didn't I? Every single one of them. If I want to call them out for letting Klevon and the others dupe you like a bunch of idiots, I think I have that right!”
Zashiel hesitated, but then growled and took a step toward Toke. “You don't know what you're talking about, so just shut up!”
You don't know what you're talking about...
Those words rang in Toke's head with the kind of clarity that only came with a painful memory. Suddenly, Toke was whisked back to a day just over a year ago. Zashiel had stood in front of him then, too, dressed in a sky blue dress that was as different from the jacket and pants she usually wore as the sky was from the ground. The look of rage she'd had on her face, though, was identical to the one she wore now.
Toke felt like he was splitting into two different people. One side of him remembered how much he had hurt her a year ago and how close he had come to losing her. The other side was overwhelmed by how much he was hurting now. Zashiel had lied to him. That alone felt like being stabbed by an old, rusty knife. The fact that she had the gall to defend herself, to actually get mad at him, heated the knife's blade while it was still stuck inside of him. Though the compassionate side begged him not to, he couldn't handle this kind of pain on his own. He had to share it.
“I know one thing,” he spat. “You believe in this phony religion more than you believe in me!”
Zashiel stepped back as if she'd been struck. Toke felt a flash of sadistic satisfaction, and kept going.
“You said it yourself, you're not supposed to share this with unworthy people. Well,” he spread his arms, “after everything we've been through, after everything I've done for you, do you still think I'm unworthy?”
“No,” Zashiel protested. “I—”
“Don't lie to me!” Toke roared. He pointed accusingly at her. “You've done that enough! You didn't tell me what was happening because you were ashamed of what you'd done. You still think you're going to get sent to this dark, scary afterlife! That tells me everything I need to know. You don't think I'm worthy, so you lied to me like—”
“You want to talk about telling lies?” Zashiel yelled back, her voice overtaking his. She flared her wings angrily, and Toke faltered, intimidated despite himself. “When were you planning on telling me about those wings you built into your jacket, Toke?”
Toke froze. She knew. She knew. He had worked so hard to keep those a secret, using them only when he was sure she wasn't looking, but she'd found out anyway.
“How did you know?” he whispered.
She rolled her eyes. “How stupid do you think I am, Toke? Yours is the only jacket with a bulge on the back like that, and it wasn't there a few months ago. I've known since you sewed the first stitch!”
Toke's mind was still reeling, but he forced himself to push his confusion aside and glare at her. “Well, so what? I guess you don't think I'm worthy of those either, do you?”
“I didn't say anything at first because I thought you might be,” she shot back, “but you're doing a good job of convincing me I was wrong!”
“I hid them because I knew you would take them away!”
“You're acting like a child, Toke!”
“Am I?” Toke walked up to her, shoving his face so close to hers that their noses nearly touched. “Or am I just sick of being treated like this?”
Zashiel's eyes flashed with a challenge. “Treated like what?”
“Like this! Being lied to!”
“You lied to me too, Toke, so don't give me that.”
“I lied to you about a pair of smiting wings.” He balled his fists. The burst of strength was still coursing through him, and his wrist didn't even hurt when he clenched his fist. “You lied to me about- about me! About what I am!”
To his surprise, Zashiel's expression softened. “Nothing's changed, Toke. You're still—”
“Nothing's changed? How can you say nothing's changed when I... when I...”
As if on cue, the telltale itching rose up his spine, and he reached down the back of his shirt and pulled out a handful of dully glowing feathers. He winced in pain. These ones felt more permanent than the others. Not quite like Zashiel's, but not the chick-like fuzz he'd been growing before. He thrust them out toward the Sorakine girl.
“How can you say that when this is happening?”
Zashiel looked at the feathers for a few seconds, and then lowered her eyes.
“Toke...” she said, whispering. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean for any of this happen.”
Toke barked a laugh. “You're sorry? That's all you have to say for this? You're sorry?”
“What else can I do, Toke?”
That stopped Toke short. Deep inside him, he could feel his more compassionate side screaming in horror at the things he was saying to her. She'd already fled her home country with him, promising to protect him from any and all danger. What else could he possibly ask of her? But he was still angry. He was still hurting.
Throwing the feathers to the ground, he spun around and stormed off.
“Toke, where are you going?” Zashiel called after him.
“As far away from you as I can get!” he yelled without turning.
“Stop!” He clamped his hands over his ears. “Just smiting shut up, Zashiel. I don't want to hear it. I don't want to be around you. Just stop!”
He came to the edge of the ship, his toes hanging over the side. There was nothing but black, gently undulating water beneath him. The reflection of the moon looked up at him from those depths, deceptively bright, full, and cheerful in spite of the life changing revelation he'd just been dealt.
“Where are you going to go?” Zashiel asked. “You're in the middle of a lake the size of a small ocean. You'll drown before you reach land!”
“That would be preferable to spending one more day here with you!”
With that, Toke leaped off the side of the ship and snapped his wings open. The air immediately caught them like a pair of parachutes, and he weakened his gravity and gave them a powerful flap. He arched out of the dive just before hitting the water, and flew parallel to the lake for a while, just a few inches above the surface. He could hear Zashiel yelling his name, but it was getting quieter by the second. Just like he'd hoped, she wasn't following him.
He looked down, and started so hard that he nearly fell out of the air. He could see his face staring back at him from the dark surface of the lake as clearly as if were a mirror. That wasn't his face, though. It couldn't be. While he wasn't vain, Toke had still spent his entire life looking at his own reflection. His face was as familiar to him as his mother and father's. He had the same smooth, youthful skin that most young men did at the age of twenty one, contrasted sharply by eyes that spoke of the hardness of a soldier thrice his age.
That wasn't what he saw when he looked down now, though. Tonight, he saw a face contorted by anger, with eyes that shone with spite and hatred. It was the face of a bitter, angry man, the kind who would spit in the face of someone who cared about him just to see them cry. A shudder ran down his body, making his flight go bumpy for a few seconds, and then nodded sharply so that his hood flipped up over his head, its visor obscuring that ugly, alien face.
She deserved it, he told himself, and then flapped his arms as hard as he could, rising further above the lake while still speeding forward. The air, which was as warm and muggy as a midsummer's night in Yasmik, suddenly felt as cold as ice as he darted across the sky. Once he was fifty feet above the water, he angled sharply to his left, wheeling around in that direction. Just as he'd thought, the Seventh Swordfish was already lost to sight.
Zashiel was right about one thing, he thought, though he hated to admit it. There's no land anywhere near here. Even if there was, you wouldn't have any idea how to find it. What are you planning to do?
He pondered this for a minute. The last thing he wanted right now was to go back to the ship, particularly with Zashiel there waiting for him. He could already see the smug look she would have on her lips when he came flying back.
“Changed your mind about drowning?” she would ask. “That's fine, because I've already come up with a dozen more secrets I need to keep from you. Oh, and by the way, I'll just be taking your jacket. Thank you!”
His anger, which had cooled a bit under the incredible freedom of flight, immediately flared to life again, and with a huff he turned away from the ship—or least the direction he thought led to the ship—and flapped his wings to gain speed. Oh, he would come back, but not until he was good and ready. And if Zashiel thought she was going to take his...
Something inside him changed, leaving him feeling empty, like he'd suddenly gone from being made of stone to being made of paper. He gasped in surprised, nearly losing his aerodynamic form, but managed to right himself. What had just happened? He knew the answer even before he'd finished asking himself the question.
All this time, I've been having a power surge? he thought in amazement. He could remember it coming on him back on the ship, but he'd been so consumed with his argument with Zashiel that he'd barely noticed it—or how it had never gone away. What did that mean?
“Maybe I should head back to the ship after all,” he muttered, his voice lost in the wind. Suddenly most of his anger was gone—not all of it, but enough to get him thinking clearly again—and he felt a lot less sure of himself than before.
But... where was the ship?
The moon was in front of me when I took off, he thought, looking up at the glowing orb. So if I head away from it, I'll be back on the Swordfish in no time!
That was flimsy logic and he knew it, but since it was all he had to go by, Toke angled himself so that the moon was behind him, flapped his arms, and—
Pain lanced up and down his arm like he'd been struck by lightning. Toke's mind went blank at the intensity of it. Somewhere deep inside him, he realized that he had pushed himself too hard. Without the power surge to fuel him, he couldn't summon the strength to support himself in midair. His injury was getting worse.
None of that mattered now, though, because Toke was plummeting down, down, down toward the dark moonlit lake below.
He crashed into the water.
NEXT TIME: The end! Toke is dead, Zashiel goes on to be a famous Vlangurtian pop singer, and Inaska marries Boam. Everyone lived happily ever after! …OR DID I?!