Chapter Thirty Six
The crab was gigantic. Unbelievably so. It was covered with a shell the color of dirty sand, and its flat back was big enough for three grown men to stand side by side on. Six spider-like legs kicked sand and water a dozen feet into the air in every direction. And it's claws... they were big enough to snip a man right in half as easily as scissors cut through paper.
It thrashed in the shallows, fighting to break free of its invisible bonds. Zashiel's axe was embedded up to the handle in its side, and thick purple blood dribbled from the wound and into the water. Now that he knew what to look for, Toke was able to anchor himself directly to it and pull it free. It flew across the distance between them, and was back in Toke's hand a moment later.
In doing so, though, he had to release the anchor that tied him to the crab itself. The moment he did, he expected it to take off running again. Instead, it froze... and then turned to look at him.
“Smite,” Toke whispered again.
Whether the underwater monstrosity was a predator, or just saw Toke as an intruder in its territory, Toke didn't know. All he knew was that there was a menacing look in the crab’s beady eyes as it raised its claws. It took a slow, cautious step toward him, as if it knew he had been the one who'd hurt it earlier, and then a second, braver one. Toke tightened his grip on his axes. It obviously wanted to fight. The question was, was he in any condition to fight it?
A sprained leg, several cracked ribs, and on top of it all his hand injury was worse than ever. And this... thing... had thicker skin than anything Toke had ever fought before. He eyed the wound he had given it earlier. That had come from him throwing his axe with all his might, and it was little more than a prick to the colossal beast.
Before he could finish that thought, the crab charged at him! It moved with more speed than Toke would have thought the great, lumbering brute to be capable of, its spiny legs a blur as it dashed across the small island. It only had to go a few feet before it reached him, but Toke was already in motion as well. He darted in toward it, too close for its giant claws to get him, and swung the axe in his left hand at its face. The crab ducked as if it had anticipated this move, and the weapon bounced harmlessly off its shell.
Toke angled his right hand axe for an underhanded swinging, determined to strike it in its face. Every inch of its body that Toke could see was covered in that rock hard shell, buts its face—that nice, squishy face—was exposed. To his surprise, though, the crab anticipated that attack as well, and headbutted him! It felt like being hit by an autocarriage, and the impact lifted him completely off his feet before landing on his back in the wet sand.
Dazed, Toke shook his head and snapped his eyes open just as a shadow blocked out the moonlight. The crab was standing right over him, its six legs making a cage on his left and right. Toke cursed and, putting his feet on the ground, thrust with all his might. With his gravity weakened, he slid out from underneath the crab just before it sat down. Its hard body met the soft sand with a muted whump, and Toke didn't need to look at the impression it left behind to know he would have squashed like a bug underneath it.
The crab's eyes followed him as he leaped back to his feet. He raised his axe again, ready to hurl it straight into the monster's face, but the moment he took aim the crab raised its claws to protect itself. Toke cursed again, but threw the axe anyway, hoping he could at least break through another section of its shell. It struck one of the claws and bounced off, doing about as as much damage as a wad of paper. Toke anchored it back to him before it could go spinning off into the lake again, wincing when his injured hand caught it.
Then the crab was coming at him again, and Toke barely had time to spin out of the way before one of its claws slammed into him. It thrust its other claw at him like a sword, snapping threateningly. Toke sidestepped it, and almost didn't see the first claw swinging at him from the side in a wild haymaker. Toke bent his legs and jumped, cartwheeling over the claw, and landed on his feet—which buckled under his weight. He hissed in pain. He couldn’t stop—
The claw hit him in the back, sending him sliding on his face across the island.
For a few seconds, Toke's mind went completely black. It was only his unbridled panic that brought him back to lucidity, and he struggled to his feet again. His jacket had absorbed most of the blow, but he was still going to have a bruise across his back now—assuming he survived.
The rapid tp-tp-tp-tp announced the crab scuttling up behind him, and he spun around to face it. The massive crustacean's claw was already swinging, and Toke ducked underneath it and tried, once again, to bury his axe in its face. It turned slightly to the right, though, and all Toke managed to do was break free a small piece of its shell. Another pinprick of purple blood oozed out of that wound, but it was so small that the crab didn't even seem to notice it, and raised both claws to bring them down on Toke's head.
Toke leaped backwards, and gasped when his leg lit up with pain again, causing him to fall to his knees. The crab, sensing weakness, hurried forward to finish him off.
Come on, Toke thought, desperately trying to summon the strength to get up. Come one, move! It's going to... going to...
Going to give you a quick death. Isn't that what you wanted?
The rogue thought tore through Toke's concentration, and he froze, staring as the scuttling monstrosity came in for the kill. He'd already accepted that he was going to die out here, hadn't he? Why keep fighting, then? Why not just let the ugly thing have its way with him? He couldn't think of many deaths that worse than by giant crab, but after everything he'd said, everything he'd done... maybe that was exactly what he deserved.
The crab's claw shot out and clamped itself around Toke's right arm. It pressed down, the two bladelike prongs fighting to reunite themselves, but his Sorakine jacket was too strong. That didn't stop it from hurting, though. Lights flashed in front of Toke's eyes, and he clenched his teeth together, trying not to scream. He opened his eyes and looked at it. A giant crab was the last thing on Fissura he'd have thought would kill him, and not just because he hadn't known they existed before now. He'd always known his chances of surviving very long were slim, but he had expected his last stand to be against a vengeful Sorakine, or a gang of bounty hunters. Not this ugly, stupid, crab. This crab that had...
That had left its face unprotected in its haste to grab him.
Toke gathered what remained of his strength, shouted at the top of his lungs, and swung. A burning fountain of satisfaction erupted inside of him when the blade bit deep into the crab's deformed face, strong enough for him to feel the impact even through the pain. It immediately let go of his arm, dropping him onto the sand below, and took a few panicked steps backwards. Toke fought to get back to his feet, his head spinning and his vision going in and out of focus with every heartbeat. It was then, staring the crab down, that he came to a decision. He might be scum. He might be a dropper who abandoned his friends and family. He might deserve to die out here on this forgotten little island. But he was still a warrior.
If he was going to die, he was going to die fighting!
He yelled again, and charged at the crab. The enormous thing paused, as if surprised to see him still on his feet, and he used that surprise to his advantage. Before it could react, Toke leaped into the air and landed right on top of it!
The crab immediately panicked, bucking and spinning, trying to throw him off. Purple blood oozed steadily from the where he'd struck its face, but the smiting monster didn't seem much the worse for wear from it. Toke anchored himself to it to keep from being hurled away, its flat head proving more than adequate as a platform, and then dropped to one knee and raised one axe. Slowly, he inched his way to the front of the crab, ready to sink his blade deep into its face again, but had to throw himself backwards when those two massive claws came up and began to stab at the place where Toke had just been. Not hard enough to break the shell and do Toke's job for him, but still more than enough to turn him into a Juryokine pincushion.
Think, he urged himself. Think!
He couldn't break through the shell, and the crab had learned its lesson and was guarding its face now. Where else could Toke hit it where he could get through its shell?
Or... where had he already gotten through it?
He spun on his knees, the smooth, wet shell letting him slide without issue, and he found himself looking down at the wound in its side where he had thrown his axe. The wound that, he noted bitterly, had put him in this mess in the first place. Well, now it was going to get him out of it! Stowing one axe in the loops behind his back, he raised the other with both hands and brought it down as hard as he could into that thin, bleeding chink in the crab's armor.
The crab immediately froze, rigid, as if the idea that it had actually been wounded three times was simply too much for its stupid little brain to comprehend. Then it began thrashing and bucking with renewed vigor, and Toke was catapulted right off of it. He was still anchored to the crab's back, though, and so he let his momentum tear his axe out of its skin, trailing thick globs of purple goo behind it, and then raised it again as he came falling back down. A second strike made it rear back, its claws swinging wildly in front of it like the world's ugliest horse, and Toke knew that if it had vocal chords it would be screaming in pain.
“If you want to kill me...”
He raised his axe.
“...then go ahead.”
And brought it back down.
“But I'm not just going...”
“...to let you do it.”
“If you want my life...”
“...you'll have to take it from me!”
And with that, his rage consumed him. All his anger, all his frustration, all his grief came rushing up inside him like a volcano, erupting through his axe as he slammed it again and again into the dying crab. He hated himself for what he had done, and so he imagined his own face peering out at him from the crack in the crab's shell, enticing him to strike again, and again, and again. Purple blood spurted out, coating his face and the front of his jacket, but he ignored it. The crab wasn't a crab. The crab was him, and he needed to be punished. He needed to die.
And he was only too happy to make that happen.
You are alone. You are alone. YOU ARE ALONE!
Something inside him snapped, and a scream he could barely recognize as his own tore from his throat.
He had no idea how long the fight lasted, if it could even be called a fight at that point, but eventually the crab stopped struggling and toppled over. Toke, who had lost himself in the grim ritual of slaughtering the beast, yelped and rolled backwards off of it and into the sand again. He scrambled back to his feet, axe gripped tight in his hands, and stared at it with animalistic focus. The crab couldn't be dead, because he was the crab, and he was still up and moving, and so, therefore, was the crab. So why didn't it move?
Minutes passed, and as the adrenaline went away, Toke's raging insanity passed—only to be replaced by a new delusion. He fell to his knees, breathing hard. The crab was dead. He looked at it again, and cocked his head. It was... a symbol. For a little bit, he hadn't been alone on this tiny island. The crab had come to be his friend, his companion. And Toke had killed it. Just like he had killed Zashiel, Inaska, and... Wait, he hadn't killed them, had he? He'd killed any semblance of friendship there was between them, though, and that was nearly as bad. Now he was alone again. All alone, alone, alone, alonealonealonealonealonealonealonealone.
“I'm sorry,” he whispered, reaching out and putting his hand on the poor crustacean's back. “I'm so sorry. Why does this keep happening?”
The moon was right above him now, looking down like a watchful, judgmental eye. Grief wracked every cell in his brain, pulling him farther from the brilliant, brave youth, and turning him into a guilt ridden, pathetic, sobbing wretch that could barely remember who he had been five minutes ago. If the real Toke had walked up to him, the new Toke wouldn't have been able to recognize him, except perhaps for an inexplicable hatred and an urge to tear him limb from limb. It was with tears running down his face that Toke curled up beside the dead crab—the closest friend he'd ever had—and laid his head on the sand to go to sleep. Maybe he would see his friends in his dreams, and he could tell each and every one of them how sorry—
Another splash came from the lake, and Toke was on his feet in an instant, and in that instant something happened inside of him. Splashes meant a threat, and a threat was something familiar that Toke could react to instinctively. Without realizing what he was doing, he shoved down the crying, pouting Toke that was no match for any kind of threat, and in the blink of an eye he became the real Toke again. The transformation was so sudden that he froze in confusion, blinked, and looked at the dead crab. When had that happened? He could vaguely remember fighting it, but after that... a cold sense of foreboding crept down his spine, and he backed away. Something had happened to him in those minutes—hours?—after the fight. Something bad. And he got the feeling that it could happen again at any time if he wasn't careful.
More splashes. Toke spun to face the lake—just as six more lumps rose out of the water. Toke's heart sank into his stomach as the now-familiar shape of giant scuttling crabs came rushing up the shore toward him.
“Smite it,” he whispered, voice quavering. “Smite it, smite it, what am I going to do?”
The answer was obvious: there was nothing he could do. He had barely been able to kill one of those monstrous crabs. Six of them at once? He may as well have laid down and let them tear him apart. The fire he had briefly discovered before was still burning in him now, though. If he was going to die, fine, but he would go down fighting!
He hurled himself at the first crab, and was knocked aside with an almost casual flick of its claw. He landed hard on his side with a grunt, skidding a few feet in the sand until he ran into the next crab. He gasped, and barely had time to curl into a ball before its massive claw came down, driving itself into his side. Only his Sorakine jacket kept him from being skewered, but he was sure he felt some of his ribs snap anyway. Then another claw came down on him, then another. Soon all six crabs had gathered around him, and were busy stabbing him anywhere their claws could reach. They all aimed for his chest, as if they were smart enough to know all his vital organs were in there, and none of them could pierce the jacket. That wouldn't matter soon, of course. It was only a matter of minutes, if that, before his body succumbed to the sheer force of their attack. Minutes... seconds... then he would die, just like he'd known he would.
And what did it matter? He was all...
One of the crabs pulled back.
Toke blinked in surprise. He was barely aware of his surroundings at this point, but he still had the presence of mind to recognize when there was one less giant crab stabbing at him. His beaten and battered mind struggled to understand what it was doing—and that was when he saw the golden glow.
“Za... shi...el?” he managed to croak.
A sickening crunch from just out of Toke's vision declared the missing crab dead. “Toke?” a frantic—yet blessedly familiar—voice asked. “It is you!”
His vision was going in and out of darkness, but he could still see well enough to watch the glowing silhouette that was Zashiel charge at the remaining four crabs. Three of them turned away from Toke, sensing more formidable prey, but Zashiel was upon them before they could react. Two of them took chakrams to the face, her strength propelling the bladed rings straight through their skin and into their bodies, and the third one she vanquished with a punch that went straight through its shell. She withdrew her arm, now coated liberally with purple blood, and summoned her weapons out of the other two corpses.
The two remaining crabs, which had remained focused on Toke despite the fighting going on, were now forced to turn and confront Zashiel as well. She stood before them, coated with their blood and baring her teeth like a wild animal. Even in his barely conscious state, Toke didn't think he had ever seen anything so terrifying in his life. Even the crabs seemed taken aback. If they had turned and fled, Toke might have believed that they were truly intelligent, sentient creatures. Instead, they overcame their momentary fear and charged her.
The first one reached her, and Zashiel raised both of her chakrams and slammed them down onto its head. The shell cracked under the impact, knocking the crab off of its feet. A second blow gouged a hole in its head, and Zashiel thrust both her arms into it while the crab thrashed in visible pain below her. It fell still—and Zashiel grunted when the second crab's claw struck her in the stomach.
“Zashiel!” Toke tried to shout, but he was in too much pain to raise his voice. He tried to reach for her, but couldn't move.
The blow threw her off her feet, and she landed hard on her back. Even a Sorakine’s strength, it seemed, couldn't compare to one of these crabs. How foolish had he been to think he could do it? Zashiel wasn't done yet, though. She kicked her legs into the air, flipping over backwards, and was back on her feet in an instant. The crab came at her again, and she dropped her chakrams into the sand. The crab thrust both of its claws at her, and like some kind of wrestler, Zashiel caught them. The two of them struggled against each other for a few seconds. Whatever the point of this contest of strength was, it was that obvious the crab was winning, and Zashiel was being pushed backwards toward the water.
Zashiel, why are you here? Toke thought as he watched her get pushed toward her doom. Why come here? Why for me? Why?
Then Zashiel screamed, dug her feet into the sand, and twisted. All at once, the crab's body rose up from the island. Zashiel spun around, once, twice, and then released it. The crab went flying out over the lake, still spinning, until it hit the water and began to bounce across the surface like a skipping stone. Soon, it was lost in the darkness, and the splashes stopped.
Breathing heavily, Zashiel turned back to Toke.
“Wh... Why?” he croaked.
Zashiel didn't hear him. Instead, she ran up and knelt over him. “Toke, are you all right? Can you hear me?”
“Why?” he asked again.
Her hands were running all over him, and he winced whenever she found one of his injuries.
“Oh, smite,” she moaned. The concern in her voice was real. “They really did a number on you, didn't they? Come on, let's get you back to the ship.”
She reached to pick him up, but Toke caught her wrist and stopped her.
“Why?” he asked for the third time.
She raised an eyebrow. “Why what?”
“Why.... did you... come? Why... after everything I said... why didn't you just leave me here?”
To his surprise, Zashiel snorted. “They must have hit you on the head if you think I was just going to let those things kill you.”
Tears were running down Toke's cheeks again now, and he gave her wrist a feeble squeeze. “You.... should have.”
“Toke,” she took his chin in her hand and made him look in the eye, “you listen to me. It doesn't matter what you say, it doesn't matter what you do, I will never, ever abandon you, do you understand me?”
Toke looked at her... at Zashiel... his friend... and suddenly he was crying like a baby.
“I'm so sorry,” he said in between sobs. “For what I said, for what I did, everything!”
She cupped his chin and smiled. “It's okay, Toke. I forgive you.”
“I'm sorry for... lying to you. I'm sorry... for trying to force you… to love me. I'm sorry for... for... being the worst friend... in the world!”
The next thing he knew, he was being lifted up and pressed against in her in a hug. “You are the best friend in the world, Toke! I'm the one who should be sorry! I'm sorry for lying to you, and for trying to make you abandon your friends. Can you forgive me?”
Even though he still couldn't stop crying, Toke managed to smile. “Already... done.”
Even though his body protested every movement it didn't absolutely have to make, he reached up and hugged her back. It was a loving hug, even if it wasn't the same kind of love he felt for Inaska. It was the kind of love two best friends shared after they had seen the worst the world had to offer and helped each other survive. And that was fine. That was all Toke needed.
“I thought I'd lost you forever,” Zashiel whispered into his ear. “Don't you ever make me go through that again!”
More splashes came from the lake, and both of them snapped their heads to see even more lumps rising from the water. A dozen. Two dozen.
“It's time to go,” Zashiel said decisively. As gently as she could, she bent down and picked Toke up. He still groaned in pain, but didn't complain as she launched into the sky, her wings leaving a yellow afterimage in her wake. He could live with a little pain.
Because he wasn't alone after all.
NEXT TIME: Well, isn’t that heartwarming? But I wonder how Inaska will react to this? Running away right after they…yeah… Hope you didn’t already pick out a ring, Toke!