Chapter Forty Six
Thunder rumbled in the clouds, and Zashiel flapped her wings with all her might, trying to fight the powerful winds that buffeted them and threatened to cast her and Toke out of the sky. Those wings were the only source of light in the seemingly endless darkness, except for the occasional flash of lightning—and Toke almost wished those would stop, because in their brief light, he could see the churning waters down below. Waves rose dozens of feet in the air, like grasping hands trying to grab them and drag them down. Toke's heart pounded in his chest. If they fell, it was all over. Not even Zashiel would be able to fight tides that strong.
But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered except getting back to Inaska in time.
“Are you sure we're going the right way?” he asked, having to yell to be heard over the winds.
“Yes,” she answered, “but I don't know how long it's going to take us to get back. We were on that boat with Ludsong for hours!”
Toke clenched his fist. That wasn't good enough. It was hard to keep track of time in the middle of a storm like this, but he felt like they had been flying for at least two hours, easily outpacing the tiny lifeboat even while being battered by the wind. They should have been back by now. What if they were too late? What if they got back—if they ever got back at all—and Shen had already butchered the Seventh Swordfish's crew? His mother, his father, his two best friends, and... and the woman he had come so close to marrying.
Don't think like that! he told himself. Everything is going to be fine!
Lightning forked across the dark sky, and in that split second of light...
“There!” he yelled, wrenching his arm free of Zashiel's grip to point.
Down below them, now just a shadow in the darkness of the storm, was the Seventh Swordfish. The multicolored barge was unanchored, rising and fall at the mercy of the waves, without a single light shining from its deck. It was a miracle they had found it at all. Toke's heart sank into his stomach.
“Come on,” he urged the Sorakine girl. “Hurry!”
Zashiel obeyed, and angled forward into a dive toward the massive ship. Rain attacked Toke from every angle, making it impossible to see out of his hood's black visor, but he gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. Inaska would be all right. As soon as they landed, Toke and Zashiel would confront Shen and end this. Even with a piece of Navras' armor, the old didn't stand—
Zashiel leveled out a few feet above the Swordfish's deck, and suddenly cried out. She grabbed her neck with one hand, and her flight immediately went into a spiral.
“Zashiel, what's wrong?” Toke demanded, closing his eyes to keep from getting dizzy.
She didn't answer, and the two of them crashed onto the deck. Zashiel's arms went limp, sending Toke skidding and bouncing away on his own until he collided with something, bringing him to an immediate stop. He laid there for a few seconds, head spinning and ears ringing, until he found the strength to open his eyes and scramble to his feet. He braced himself against the thing he'd run into. The seats. He was just outside the ring. And, no matter where he looked, he couldn't find any trace of the ship's crew.
“Zashiel!” he yelled. She lay on the ground twenty feet away from him, face down with her wings hanging limply from her back. Panic shot up inside of him, and he sprinted toward her. His foot slipped on the wet wooden floor, sending him crashing back down onto his face again, but he ignored it and crawled to her on his hands and knees.
“Zashiel?” he asked again when he came within arm's reach of her, more quietly now, weaker. “Z- Zashiel, are you... oh, smite, no.”
He raised his hand toward her, but then stopped. Did he really want to know? He kicked himself. Of course he didn't want to know, but that couldn't stop him! Not when she could be…
He grabbed her by her shoulder and rolled her onto her back. Dark as it was, her wings still gave off just enough light to see by. That was good. He didn't know as much about Sorakines as he would have liked, but he at least knew that the light in their wings went out when they died. The fact that they were still glowing meant she was still alive. He pressed his hand to her chest, and sighed with relief when he felt it rising and falling. Definitely alive. But what had...
Then he saw it. A tiny green feather sprouted from her neck. With a shaking hand, he pulled it out of her. A needle tipped it, long, thin, and covered with her blood. A dart.
Sure enough, as if waiting for his cue, the old man's voice rang out across the ship.
“Cassitoka, come and join us! It's time for the show to begin, and your audience is waiting!”
Clenching his teeth, Toke stood up and turned to face the ring, where the voice had come from.
“What did you do to Zashiel?”
“Just a sleeping potion to make sure she doesn't interfere. Now, come! Time is running out.”
Toke looked down at Zashiel, still lying motionless on the floor, at the mercy of the rain and wind, and clenched his fist. This whole situation stank. He had counted on having her at his back when he confronted Shen, but now... She was still breathing, and that didn't seem likely to change anytime soon. He turned to face the ring. He could still do this. This wasn't the first time he had faced off against an enemy alone.
Alone... Alone... Alone...
The word rang in his head like the gonging of a bell, making him feel hollow and his legs weak. He reached behind him and drew his axes, and their cold, familiar weight offered a bit of comfort. Not because they stopped him from being alone, but because, if he was going to use them, that meant he wouldn't be alone for much longer.
“I'll play your game just this once, Shen,” Toke whispered into the rain, “but don't expect to win.”
Then, forcing his legs to obey, he marched into the ring—and what he found waiting for him nearly made them give out again. Everyone... the Seventh Swordfish's entire crew... was sitting in the seats, waiting for him. Captain Treyn was in the front row, with Pruyal a couple rows behind him. Limbasko, the Spudalla siblings... even Inaska sat out there, easily identified by her mask, which was quickly being ruined by the rain. He half expected them to burst into applause, the way the audience had when he'd come out to play Saldo Gunn. They didn't make a sound, though. Not a single one of them so much as moved.
And there, standing in the very center of the ring, was Shen himself.
“What did you do to them?” Toke demanded, gripping his axes hard enough to turn his knuckles white.
“Who, them?” Shen waved dismissively at their audience—and Toke realized that the old man wasn't wearing Navras' sleeves like he had been before. “The same thing I just did to your dear Sorakine friend.”
Toke took a step toward him, but Shen looked entirely unthreatened. “Why?” he demanded.
“Because,” Shen clasped his hands behind his back and gave Toke a solemn look, “there can be no interferences tonight.”
Toke found himself staring at Shen's arms. Without Navras' armor, they looked as threatening as overcooked noodles, but the sight of them still made the hair on the back of Toke's neck stand up. Shen wouldn't have left something like that at home on a night like this, when he planned to end... whatever it was he was doing. So, where were they?
Use it to your advantage, Toke's instincts commanded him. Without those sleeves, he's helpless against you!
His first impulse was to charge right in and finish this now, before whatever plans Shen had concocted were put in motion. And Toke knew for a fact that Shen had a plan—he was the kind of person who never went anywhere without a plan. But Toke didn't know what that plan was yet, which was exactly what stopped him from attacking. He needed to get Shen talking, find out what he was doing, and how Toke could undo it once the old man was dead.
“And what,” Toke challenged him, “are you so worried about them interfering with?”
Shen chuckled. “Haven't you figured it out yet, Cassitoka?”
“Only my family gets to call me that, Toke snapped.
“Oh, but I am so much closer to you than they will ever be,” Shen said with a shake of his head. “You just don't know it yet, Cassitoka.”
The two of them stared each other down for a minute, and when Shen didn't offer any further explanation, Toke tentatively made his way to where Treyn was sitting. Now that he was closer, Toke saw that his eyes were closed. Just like Zashiel, though, his chest was still rising and falling steadily. Toke gave his shoulder a quick shake, but all that elicited from the captain was a snore. He removed his hand, and Treyn slumped over backwards, his head landing on Pruyal's lap. A quick look around revealed that the rest of the crew was the same—including Inaska. He didn't let his eyes linger on her for longer than they did anyone else, but still he felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders—she wasn't dead!
“How did you do this?” he asked, stepping back and turning on Shen again.
“Still with the unimportant questions?” The old man sighed. “If you must know, I drugged their evening meal. It is as simple as that.”
“And they're all going to be okay?”
“They will wake up as soon as it passes out of their systems.”
“Good.” Toke looked down at his axes. Should he attack now? If the crew was really going to be all right... No, he didn't trust Shen nearly enough to simply believe that. “Now tell me what you want!”
Shen smiled at him in that infuriating grandfatherly way. “As the Lord Juryokine commands.”
Toke stopped short. Those words... He had never heard them before in his life, but somehow they still managed to dredge up a vague memory from the depths of his mind.
“The Inverted Path!” he exclaimed.
For once, Shen seemed completely caught off guard. The look on his face, blinking stupidly with his mouth hanging open, nearly made all of this worthwhile.
“So you've heard of us?” he finally said, after gathering his wits. “I didn't know that news of our ambitions had—”
“One of my friends heard about you before hopping the border,” Toke interrupted him. He could sense something. By surprising Shen, he had momentarily taken control of the situation out of his hands. If he could keep the old man from regaining control, then perhaps... “You're that crazy cult that thinks I'm going to turn you all into Sorakines.”
Shen chuckled darkly. “You? No, Cassitoka, you misunderstand. You are our guide, the holy prophet who shows us the way to Ascension, but you are not the one who will transform us.”
Toke spread his hands. “So, what? You came here to bring me home? This all seems a little excessive for that.”
“Bring you home?” Shen asked in mock surprise. Toke clenched his fist. Unplanned or not, Shen was improvising, regaining control over the conversation. “Why, my dear boy, I would never want you one inch closer to Yasmik than you are now!”
Toke hesitated, unsure of what to say. He knew he was letting Shen gain even more control, but he couldn't help it. He'd had no idea what the old man was up to before, and these sudden revelations only served to confuse him even more. Toke shook his head. Fine, enough with the mind games. Shen didn't have his armor, which meant that, if he had to, Toke could overpower him any time he chose.
“Quit wasting my time,” Toke snapped. “Tell me what you want already!”
A knowing smile rose on Shen's face, and Toke got the sinking feeling that he'd just lost even more ground.
“All the accounts I've read label you as a genius,” the old man said. “Have you really not figured out what my plan is yet?”
Toke ground his teeth, and was about to demand that he answer his smiting question, but stopped himself. Boam... Boam had been the one to tell him about the cult, hadn't he? Toke scanned the seats until he saw his writer friend, asleep just like the rest of the crew. What else had he told Toke about them? Nothing came to mind that Shen hadn't already brought up. Unless...
Unless it didn't have anything to do with what the cult believed, and everything to do with Toke.
“You're the reason I'm turning into a Sorakine,” Toke finally said.
Shen's face lit up with satisfaction. “There's the smart little man I came to see!”
Toke frowned. He had begun the conversation sounding reverent, like a devoted cultist before his god, but his words were becoming more and more derisive.
“How are you doing it?” Toke demanded. He still had the advantage, so long as Shen was unarmed. He might as well get the answers he'd been so desperate to have.
“How else? With juryo!” Shen reached into his robe and withdrew a finger-sized vial full of glowing yellow liquid. “That which gave you your powers is that which can further them!”
Toke looked closely at the glowing vial. Yes, that was juryo all right. He looked Shen in the eye and shook his head.
“Nice try, but I know how that stuff works. It gave me my powers, but it didn't turn me into a Sorakine!”
Shen laughed again, and a shiver ran down Toke's spine. “Is that so? What exactly did Zashiel tell you the night she changed you?”
“She said...” Toke thought back to that fateful night, just over a year ago. “She said that juryo is what gives Sorakines the power to control gravity, and that if I swallowed a little bit of it my body would start producing it too.”
“And why is that?”
Toke hesitated. “I... don't know.”
“Think now, child!” Shen grinned and tapped the side of his head. “What kind of sense does that make? If you drink juice, does your body start growing fruit?”
“Get to the point!”
“Have you heard the old Sorakine mantra? Taint not the blood, taint not the skies.” Shen held up his hands mockingly. “Yes, very dramatic. But what does it mean, do you think? I'll tell you...”
Toke clenched his fist tighter around his axe.
“The secret...is that juryo isn't a magic potion that gives superpowers. It's a mutagen!”
Lightning flashed, followed immediately by a deafening boom of thunder.
Toke blinked and shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
Seeing his reaction, Shen leaned his head back and laughed. “I don't know all of the secrets yet, my boy, but I do know this: if a human ingests enough juryo...”
“They become a Sorakine,” Toke finished for him.
“Precisely!” Shen clutched the vial of juryo in his fist almost hard enough to crush it. “Do you realize what this means? About the Sorakines? About you?”
“It means you haven't told me anything I don't already know!” Toke raised one axe threateningly, ready to throw it. “So if you've got anything worthwhile to say, spit it out already! If you're not here to bring me back for your cult, then what do you want?”
“I want proof!” Shen's face went deadly serious again. “I've kept my followers—your followers, really—under my control for a year now. Chemicals... they're the real magic potions. Give someone just the right combination, and they won’t just turn into your puppets, they'll beg you to keep it that way!”
Something Toke's father had said came back to him. “You... took your customers out to dinner.”
Shen beamed at him. “Exactly! A little of this, a little of that, and they were always ready to pay whatever I demanded before dessert!” He paused, and a nostalgic look came over his face. “And not just money, either...”
“I'm a leader, Cassitoka! I'm leading my followers to a new age of strength and prosperity. And leaders get certain... perks.”
Toke clenched his teeth and growled. “I'm running out of patience. Push me much farther, and I might decide I don't need to know any of this.”
Shen gave him a suffering look, like parent whose child refused to behave. “Very well, then. Let's get to the point.” He raised a hand to his mouth and called, “Bring her in!”
Toke blinked, but before he could think about it there was a flash of yellow, and he jumped back when a body slammed into the floor just in front of him. Then he froze.
“Zashiel!” he yelled, dashing up and kneeling by her side. She was still unconscious. “What did you—”
“I've been waiting for this, Juryokine.”
The blood in Toke's veins turned to ice, and he slowly got to his feet and turned to see another figure cloaked in yellow light standing atop the seats.
“Finch,” he whispered.
And there wasn't just yellow light up there, he realized. There was a bright, vivid green mixed in with it. Toke took a step backwards, nearly tripping over Zashiel.
His gauntlets... so that's what he did with them!
Finch leaped from the seats, and Toke scrambled backwards, away from her. She landed at the edge of the ring, and... smite, he could already feel the power radiating from those armored sleeves. His heart started to pound. Navras had been able to overpower Zashiel with ease in that armor. What on Fissura was a Sorakine capable of while wearing them?
“We- We don't have to do this,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “We don't have to fight! Just go, and... and leave us—”
Finch ignored him, and knelt down to grab Zashiel by the back of her jacket. Instantly, all of Toke's fear vanished.
“Get your hands off of her!” he yelled, charging at her.
Finch held out her hand, barely glancing at him, and a bright flash of green light erupted from her arm. It hit Toke like a landslide, and he felt his feet leave the ground as he went flying backwards into the seating. His head spun, his ears rang, but he was alive. He put his hands underneath himself, trying to sit up.
“I'm sorry it has to end like this, sister,” he heard Finch say, and looked up just in time to see her pick Zashiel up and hurl her at Shen. “But you brought this on yourself.”
“N... No...” Toke grunted.
Toke froze, and turned his head to find himself lying right next to Boam. The writer's eyes fluttered open.
“W- Wuzz happenin'?” he asked, words slurred.
Toke sucked in a breath, and then, not knowing what else to do, reached out and put his hand over his friend's eyes. “Nothing. Just go back to sleep, and don't move. Okay?”
“Uhhh...” Boam groaned, but did as he was told. “'Kay.”
With that, Toke summoned his strength and forced himself back to his feet. Shen and Finch were both standing side by side, with Zashiel propped up between them.
“Leave her alone,” he commanded them, stepping back down into the ring. “She's got nothing to do with this!”
“No, she has nothing to do with us,” Shen corrected him, pointing at Toke and then himself. “But this lovely young lady apparently has orders to hunt down and exterminate her.”
Toke fixed his eyes on Finch. “You'd really do that? Kill your own sister just because some psychopath told you to?”
Finch bristled at that. “Watch your mouth, freak! She may be my sister, but she's a traitor to her entire race!”
“The only traitor here is—”
“Shut up!” Finch screamed, her face bright red. She obviously wasn't as good at pushing her emotions down as Zashiel. “I have to kill her, or it'll disgrace my entire family. You wouldn't understand. How could you understand, being what you are?”
Toke took a step toward them. “You think that just because I can control gravity like you, I don't have a family? Or friends? Zashiel gave me these powers to—”
Finch dropped Zashiel and raised her gauntleted arms. “I said... shut... up!”
She moved to attack, but stopped when Shen put his hand protectively in front of her.
“You'll get your chance, my dear. First, though, let me explain the rules.”
“Rules?” Toke echoed. “What are you blathering about now?”
“He's right,” Finch agreed. “You talk too much. It's time to—”
“I brought you this opportunity, young lady,” Shen snapped. “The least you can do is keep your end of the deal!”
Finch glowered at him, but backed down anyway.
Shen nodded. “Good. Now, as I was saying, I've kept my people under my thumb for a year now, Cassitoka, but chemicals and promises can only get you so far. I need proof that what I've been preaching is true, or else I'll lose control of them. That's where you come in.”
“You want me to turn into a Sorakine,” Toke guessed, “so you'll know once and for all if it's possible.”
Shen nodded again. “Precisely. Fourteen times, the two of us have met over the past year...”
Toke jumped. Fourteen times?
“... Not that you would remember any of them. But each time, I administered a little more juryo to your system, and then observed you. It wasn't until the last two doses, though, that I began to see what I wanted.” He grinned.
“Power surges,” Toke said.
“Yes! But they still weren't enough. You still weren't...” He sucked in a breath, eyes widening maniacally. “Changing! But unfortunately, I've run out of time. I have to return to Yasmik. So consider this your final test.”
Finch raised a hand and clenched her metal-covered fist, making it flash green. “Me.”
“As you can see,” Shen said, “I've given her the piece of Navras' armor that I worked so hard to restore. You managed to defeat her last time without transforming all the way. This time, it won't be so easy.”
Toke scowled at them. So that was his plan? Make the superhuman warrior even stronger, thus making a full transformation into a Sorakine his only chance of survival? He hated to admit it, but it was a good plan.
“And to ensure we have your full cooperation...” Shen nodded to Finch. “Show him.”
Reluctantly, Finch reached into her jacket and withdrew a long, thin tube.
Her Chiyuka ointment.
“I had to use most of it to get her back into fighting condition after the damage you did to her last time,” Shen admitted. “But there should still be enough left.”
“Enough left for what?” Toke demanded.
“Defeat her, and it is yours.”
“Enough left for what, old man?”
Shen grinned at him—and then whipped out a knife and slashed it across Zashiel's throat. Toke froze, shocked out of his mind, as he watched blood began to spill from the cut, down her front, staining her white clothes below.
“To save her,” Shen answered. “But I'd hurry, if I were you. She only has a few minutes.”
Toke charged straight at Finch, roaring.
NEXT TIME: Oh ho, it is freaking on, ladies and gentlemen! Juryokine vs Ultrapowered Sorakine! Toke isn’t fighting for the world this time—he’s fighting for something much more precious to him. Be here next week to find out who comes out on top. Don’t you dare miss it!