Chapter Forty Seven
Toke knew he was being stupid even as he ran headlong at Finch, but there was nothing he could do to stop himself. Even with the yellow light of her wings and the green light of Shen's gauntlets burning in his eyes, all he could see was the dark, deathly red of Zashiel's blood running down her throat.
He screamed at the top of his lungs and swung his axe, but Finch sent it skittering away across the ship's deck with barely a flick of her wrist. Toke saw the punch coming a split second later, and ducked. Finch's fist flashed half an inch above him, and the telltale tingle of kaosuryo radiated from it, making goosebumps rise on his skin.
“Don't do this,” he begged even as he sprang away from her. “She's your sister, Finch. You can't just let her die!”
“I don't have a sister!” Finch roared, and leaped after Toke. Her arms were the only part of her that were armored, but she was still a Sorakine, so her leap carried her across the width of the entire ring like an arrow loosed from a bow. Toke threw himself out of the way just in time, but she still passed so close that for a second Toke was blinded by bright green light. Luckily, Toke was reaching out with his powers, so he was able to feel the way her field of gravity shifted to aim a second punch right at his face. He ducked again, but this time didn't retreat.
Stay close, he told himself. She may be able to kill you with a single hit, but that won't matter if you don't give her room to swing!
One of his axes lay on the other side of the ring, but the other was still in his hand. It was his injured hand, but Toke clutched it with white knuckles anyway as he darted in closer to Finch. She blinked, surprised, but held true to her training and didn't let that confusion slow her down. She lunged at him, and Toke dropped to the floor and slid right beneath her outstretched hands. Before she could react, he weakened his gravity, thrust himself up into the air, and wrapped his legs around Finch's throat.
“Got you!” he grunted, raising his axe. Sorakine or not, even Finch wouldn't be able to survive having an axe being driven right into her skull. Even as he swung, Zashiel's face appeared in his mind's eye. Teary eyed, brokenhearted, demanding to know why he had killed her sister after going to such lengths to forbid her to do that herself. He remembered the threat he'd made. If Finch died, then so did Toke...
Unlike on Kuerlo's ship, though, he didn't let that stop him.
I'm sorry, Zashiel, he thought. I'm going to have to break my promise. I can't die now. Not when I have Inaska to think about!
His axe cut through the rain, reflecting the flash of lightning up above—and then came to a sudden halt when it collided with her armored palm. She wrenched the weapon out of his hand, and then with the other grabbed him by the back of his jacket and pulled her off of him like some kind of overgrown leach. Toke wrapped his hands around her hair, grabbing two huge fistfuls of it, and stubbornly held on. He tried to increase his weight enough to make her collapse, but there was nothing he could do. With Shen's gauntlets increasing her strength, he came free and dangled from her grip, helplessly.
Or so she thought.
“I expected more from you,” she growled, raising her other fist to turn his face into pudding. “And here I thought you might actually be—”
Her voice cut off when Toke's first axe came whizzing across the ring, drawn to him by his powers. The angle was slightly off, but it still scored a deep, painful gash along the side of her forehead as it flew past before falling back to the floor, Toke's anchor released. Then, before she could recover, Toke thrust both his legs up and kicked her in the face. Once, twice, three times, right foot, left foot, right... He may have only been a human, but he was proud of the way each kick snapped her head backwards.
“Enough!” she screamed after the fifth kick, and threw him straight up into the air.
Toke went flying up into the stormy sky, flipping and spiraling the whole way, and suddenly he thought he understood how his axes must have felt whenever he threw them. He waited until his upwards momentum faded, and then hastily anchored himself to the nearby mast. Finch launched herself after him, and the two of them passed in midair, Toke falling sideways while Finch flew straight up.
And in that split second, he had an idea.
Toke landed on the mast, and immediately did a backwards handspring to carry him further up. Less than a second later, Finch crashed straight into the mast, her gauntleted hand punching a straight through it where Toke had just been. Luckily, the entire mast didn't collapse from that punch, and while she was busy trying to yank her arm free, Toke jumped. He passed right over her, close enough to touch—which was exactly what he did, reaching out and grabbing two handfuls of the feathers from her wings as flashed past. That was a move Zashiel had taught him, and then made him swear never to use unless he had absolutely no other choice. Behind him, Finch went rigid with outrage. Sorakines may have been strong, but yanking out a handful of feathers still stung like smite, and was considered an insult besides.
With a scream, Finch fell backwards off of the mast, trying to grab Toke as she went, but Toke ducked, rolled, and grabbed at her belt as she fell past. A heavy fist-sized pack was torn loose, and Toke bounded back up the mast to where the tightrope was tied. A quick glance inside confirmed his suspicions.
He reached in as Finch rocketed back up into the air, and then whipped his hand back out, scattering a handful of razor sharp shuriken out in front of him. Finch jumped with surprise—Toke doubted she'd even noticed him stealing her pack—and had to cover her face with her hands to keep from being hit. While she was distracted, Toke took something else out of the pack and then pounced. She saw him coming at the last second and threw a punch, but Toke dodged it, twisting in midair—and then wrapped her silver sling around her neck.
Finch gasped in horror before he had even tightened the cord, but when he did, he simultaneously increased his weight, instantly becoming a boulder tied to Finch's neck. She lurched in midair, flipping upside down, and the two of them plummeted back down to the ring. Toke closed his eyes, cringing, waiting for the impact... and he wasn't left wanting, since he hit the floor like a meteor. His legs immediately gave out beneath him, tremors and pain lancing up and down his entire body, and he collapsed on the Seventh Swordfish's deck.
The void! He needed the void! With some difficulty, he managed to summon that sweet, numbing darkness, banishing the pain for the moment. He forced himself to his feet. Finch was lying face down, moaning. Toke turned and looked at Zashiel, still bleeding at the edge of the ring.
“You're running out of time, Cassitoka,” Shen said. “I would say she has... mmm, less than five minutes left.”
Toke pushed back the urge to attack the old man, and turned back to Finch. Save Zashiel first, then kill Shen in the most gruesome, painful way imaginable. He knelt down, moving slowly, and reached out toward Finch's jacket...
And her arm shot out and grabbed him around the throat.
“You...” she growled, pushing herself up with her other arm. “Filthy... smiting... dropper!”
She raised him up above her head, and Toke had just enough time to close his eyes before she hurled him back down again. The floor rose up to meet him, and lights flashed in his eyes as he collided with it for the second time. He bounced—he smiting bounced—and landed on his back, looking up as Finch brought her fist down again. Toke didn't have time to dodge. He took the punch right in the chest, and the floor gave out beneath him.
Toke yelped, and fell for another two seconds before landing on the floor of the storage room beneath the deck. Crates and props were stacked high all around him, but Toke barely noticed them as he struggled to get back up. His body... it hurt... Even with his jacket to absorb the blow, a punch from a Sorakine wasn't something most people could just shrug off. This Sorakine had been wearing Navras' armor. Frankly, he was surprised he was even still alive.
In a flash of yellow, Finch was standing over him again. She was bleeding from three separate wounds now: from her forehead where his axe had hit her, from her nose where he had kicked her, and from a long, paper thin cut that went all the way around her neck. Rather than looking any worse for wear because of it, the blood only made Finch even more terrifying. Toke tried to get back to his feet again, but collapsed from the pain.
“S- Stop!” he said as she reached for him. “Don't you see what he's doing?”
She ignored him, grabbing him by his jacket and lifting him up off the floor.
“He... trying to build an army of... Juryokines like me!” Toke raised his hand and pointed up at the hole they'd made in the ceiling. “You were sent here to kill me, but... now you're helping him!”
He looked her in the eyes, and knew that his breath had been wasted. Her orders had been to kill her sister and the Juryokine. Shen could turn the entire smiting population of Yasmik into Juryokines and she wouldn't care, so long as her mission was complete.
So Toke hit her with a box.
Anchoring himself to the stack of crates directly behind them, Toke pulled on it, and brought it toppling down on top of them. It struck Finch , the topmost crate cracking open on her head like an egg, and the two of them were instantly buried under the cubular avalanche. They were under there for less than a second before Finch turned the crates into splinters with a gauntlet-assisted thrust of her elbow, but in her momentary distraction Toke managed to slip out of her grasp. She grabbed for him, but he leaped nimbly away from her, letting the maze of crates break her line of sight. The landing nearly made his legs give out again, and he stumbled and found himself leaning against Dabba's cage, of all things.
The lion growled warningly at him, but Toke just shook his head.
“Look, I don't have time for you right now, okay? Just let me—”
The growl abruptly turned into a whimper, and Toke spun around to see another stack of crates get turned to splinters under Finch's wrath. These ones were full of costumes, and smashing them sent bundles of clothes flying all across the hold. Thinking quickly, Toke decided to use that to his advantage, and jumped over Finch's head. She growled and tried to snatch him out of the air, but when her fingers came within an inch of brushing Toke's foot, he curled into a flip and landed behind her. Then, reaching out with his powers, he anchored himself to every scrap of falling clothing he could find. They whipped straight toward him, shirts, pants, and dresses, like an army of half-dressed ghosts, and in doing so collided with Finch instead. They didn't hurt her—Toke hadn't expected them to—but in their efforts to get to Toke, they ended up wrapping themselves around Finch, blinding and disorienting her. Toke heard her cursing as her face was enveloped by a big, baggy shirt, and she grabbed at it with her gauntleted hands, trying to pry it loose.
Now was his chance!
Turning to face her, Toke extended the reach of his powers, and anchored himself to another stack of boxes. These, too, came sliding toward him, toppling when the angle of the anchor put them off balance, and slammed into Finch from the side. The raging Sorakine stumbled under the impact, but didn't fall. She must have figured out what Toke was doing, because she spun around to face him, even with the shirt still covering her eyes, and threw a wild punch at him. Toke stepped out of the way, and then leaped over her again. To his surprise, excitement began to course through his veins. Whether she had meant to or not, Finch had given him an advantage by bringing him down here.
Nearly endless ammunition.
Toke landed on top of a stack of crates, and then jumped again, kicking it over in the process. They crashed to the floor, and he heard Finch scream with rage, but he didn't stop. He could do this. He could beat her. But he had to keep moving.
He stopped and landed ten feet away from her, while she was still facing the direction where he'd been five seconds ago, and sent another heavy crate careening towards him. Toke had to increase his weight to make it come to him, rather than him falling towards it, and that made his injured legs cry out in protest, but he ignored it. This pain was nothing compared to what Zashiel must be feeling upstairs.
The box smacked into Finch from her left, this time throwing her off her feet entirely. Toke was already moving again, toppling another stack directly above where she had fallen. He could do this! One box after another, each one weakening Finch a little more. Treyn would probably skin him when he found out what Toke was doing with his props and costumes, but at least the crew would be alive and well.
He landed again, turned to pull another box into Finch—and found one flying toward him instead.
The heavy wooden crate hit him straight on, and he went flying backwards with it into another wall of crates. Those ones seemed to implode, raining planks, splinters, and nails, burying him beneath them. Everything went dark. For one frightening second, Toke thought he had been knocked out—or even worse, killed. But no, he could still feel the shattered crates all over him, their oppressive weight keeping him from moving. He was trapped, and if the pain racing across his body was any indication, severely injured as well.
Toke tried to move, but it was no good. He was practically entombed in here. One of the crates was right on top of his chest, leaving him only able to take short, shallow breaths. Not good. He wouldn't be able to survive on that little air for long. He had to escape, had to...
Shen was right, he realized. I can't beat her like this. I need my strength, I need...
He had to do it. He had to transform. Only then would he be strong enough to take on Finch with any hope of winning.
He closed his eyes, though it didn't matter since he couldn't see down here anyway, and searched. Not for the void, but the other thing. The well of power he had felt earlier while fighting Kuerlo. Yes, there it was, with all that energy still pulsing inside it. He grabbed trap door separating him from it and heaved, letting the strength pour into him. Then, back in the real world, he braced his hands against the crate holding him down and—
It flew off of him like it only weighed as much as a pillow. Toke froze in surprise. Had he just...
No. Finch stood over him with Navras' gauntlets on her arms and murder in her eyes. They glared at each other for a few seconds, both of them breathing heavily, and then Finch reached down for him. Toke still had his Sorakine strength burning inside him, though, and he reacted faster than a human should have been able to, catching Finch off guard. In one swift motion, he grabbed a splintered plank off the ground beside him, threw himself forward, and buried it in Finch's leg.
For the first time, Finch opened her mouth and screamed in pure, legitimate pain. The board—more like a stake—sank a good three inches into her calf, and she collapsed on top of Toke. He pushed her out of the way, scrambled to his feet, and took off running.
Focus. Focus! Let the rest of it out.
The power was raging inside him, but apart from the initial burst of strength he didn't seem to be changing. He had cracked the door, just like he had done so many times before, but it wasn't going to open the rest of the way on its own. He would have to—
He froze midstep.
“W- What?” he exclaimed, looking down at his feet. He thought for a second that they must have gotten stuck to the floor somehow, but no, he could move them all he wanted. They just weren't taking him anywhere. It felt like something was pulling him back in the direction he'd just come from.
He managed to turn around to see her limping toward him. She had pulled the plank from her leg, but blood was still pouring liberally from the wound. He was shocked that she could still move it, much less walk.
Her powers were strong, just as strong as Toke's. All that kept him from falling into her was his own anchor on the floor. His brain went into overdrive, scrambling for a strategy, a trick, anything he could use to turn this into an advantage. He couldn't escape, and rushing in close to her in this condition would be suicide. There had to be something, though!
She paused halfway to him, right next to Dabba's cage. The lion shied away from her. Smart animal. Finch looked at Dabba, then at Toke, and then grabbed one of the cage bars and snapped it free like a dry twig. The end came to a wickedly sharp point, which Finch tested on the tip of her armored finger before eyeing Toke. He gulped.
Both Toke and Finch jumped in surprise as Treyn's voice suddenly echoed through the hold. It sounded like it was coming from everywhere at the same time, but Toke couldn't see the captain anywhere. Then there was a clank, and Toke spun just in time to see the lock fall from Dabba's cage—and then the door opened.
With a roar, Dabba shot from his cage, pouncing on top of Finch like she was a mouse, and he was a hungry cat. Finch gasped in shock, collapsing beneath the lion's weight, but managed to get a hand around his neck before he could sink his teeth into her throat. He still batted her with his paws, claws digging fresh wounds into her face. She ignored those. She still had the metal bar in her hand, and Toke watched as she tilted it up toward Dabba's chest and—
“No!” he yelled, charging at the two of them. Finch's anchor was gone—he'd been too surprised before to realize it—so he anchored himself to the bar and gave it a pull even as he ran. He couldn't tear it out of her hand, not with those gauntlets, but he still managed to divert her aim so that when she thrust it upwards, Dabba only suffered a small cut along his flank.
Finch growled, somehow sounding even more animalistic than Dabba, and flung him to the side. Dabba went flying, as powerless against her strength as Toke was, and crashed into another wall of crates. Toke heard Dabba whimper as they collapsed on top of him, but couldn't spare the time to worry because Finch was coming for him again!
The Sorakine girl got to her feet and swung the metal bar at him. Toke ducked underneath the attack, and then reached out and grabbed hold of it. Finch actually smiled when he did that, and that made a shiver run down Toke's spine. Luckily for him, he wasn't about to get into a tug-o-war with her for the bar. Instead, he increased his weight and thrust both his legs forward, kicking Finch's out from under her. She yelped as they both fell down, and Toke put his foot right on her stomach and thrust upwards. He still had his Sorakine strength, so the kick propelled Finch up, up, up, until she struck the ceiling above them. The bar fell from her surprised fingers.
Toke followed her, anchoring himself to the ceiling and snatching the bar out of the air as he fell. He landed hard on the ceiling, making his legs flare with pain again, but used his momentum to bring the bar down on Finch's head with as much momentum as he could. He was rewarded with a satisfying thwack, and Finch's eyes rolled back in her head. He raised it to hit her again. He could do this. He could—
Finch's eyes snapped open, and her hand whipped up, shielding her head. The bar hit the metal glove, bringing Toke's attack to an abrupt stop as shockwaves coursed up and down his arm. His wrist—his injured wrist, which had been behaving itself up till now—suddenly flared with agony. The bar went tumbling from his limp fist, and his anchor gave out, sending him falling down to the floor along with it.
Focus! he yelled at himself. Push the pain aside. He could be injured later. Right now, he had to survive!
He managed to flip himself over and land on his feet, though his legs gave out again as soon as they touched the floor. He collapsed onto his side, and could only look up and watch as Finch descended—and slammed her metal-clad fist into his head.
“How do you like it?” she yelled.
Toke couldn't respond. He could barely even understand her. Being punched by those gauntlets... with a Sorakine wearing them... even protected by a Sorakine jacket, it was a wonder his head didn't pop like an overripe fruit after one strike. Even so, his head snapped downwards, bounced off the floor beneath him, and the world went spinning chaotically around them. So chaotically that Toke felt like he would go flying away if he didn't anchor himself down as hard as possible.
Blood was running from at least half a dozen different wounds on her face now. Even in his haze, Toke knew that she would walk away from this utterly unrecognizable as the woman she had been before. Her face would heal and make scars, and her reflection would turn into someone else's. He doubted she cared. Nothing mattered except victory and completing her mission.
With both hands, she grabbed him by the front of his jacket... and then tore it in two. Toke gasped. Was that possible? He would have sooner expected Finch to put on a dress and sing for him. Even so, Toke suddenly found himself with his only means of protection gone, his chest completely exposed. Finch was breathing heavily, like a bull.
“I'm going to kill you,” she muttered, raising the metal bar. “But not before... before...”
“Finch, please!” Toke begged her. Was he being a coward? Possibly, but he knew that if he died the rest of the crew would soon follow. Inaska would follow. “Don't do this!”
“Not... before... I hurt you!” she screamed, and knelt down. She dropped the bar, and grabbed Toke's injured wrist with one hand, the other pinning his bicep to the floor.
Toke's heart leaped into his throat. “No, please! No, no, no, n-AUUUUGH!”
She twisted, and the scream tore from his throat. Pain like searing fire lit up every molecule in Toke’s body. Finch didn't stop there, though. She twisted again, and again. Toke could faintly hear the popping of his own bones beneath his screaming. His arm... she had turned it all the way around... twice! He tried not to look at it, but couldn't stop himself. The sight would have made him vomit if he hadn't been using his mouth for screaming already. His skin, black and gray like a corpse...
“Scream!” she yelled into his face. Her eyes were entirely devoid of sanity at this point, and she twisted his arm a third time, forcing him to obey. “Suffer, you murderous smiting freak!”
The world began to go black and, to Toke's surprise, the pain began to fade. At first he was relieved. But no! No, he couldn't pass out now! If he passed out, Finch would kill him, and then Zashiel would die. And Inaska, not to mention his mom and dad, and Wayli and Boam. He had to stay awake. He had to fight through the pain, find some way to wind, some way to...
He found himself before the well again. All that power, just waiting to be used. Would it matter? In his current condition, could he still hope to fight Finch?
Yes, the answer came to him. Even if you lose, you have to try. That's what it means to be a warrior. A hero. That’s what it means…
To be a Juryokine!
Reaching out with invisible hands, Toke grabbed the lid to the well... and threw it open all the way!
There was a flash of yellow light, as bright as the sun and every bit as blinding. Caught off guard, Finch let Toke go and scrambled away from him, shielding her eyes. Toke lay there for a few seconds, stunned. That light... it was coming from him! Slowly, he sat up. He felt inexplicably different, but at the same time completely unchanged. Power coursed through him. He could feel every bit of it, like having veins full of raw jido energy. And yet, if felt completely normal. Like he had been this way all his life. He raised his hands in front of his face. A warm, golden glow emanated from them, but even as he watched it began to fade. His arms were now rippled with more muscle than he'd ever had before, and he could feel even more than that hiding inside of him, unseen. He knew just by looking at himself that he was even stronger now than he had been before.
And his hand... his injured hand... he clenched his fist, and grinned when he didn't feel a twinge of pain.
“Wh- Wh- Wh—”
Toke looked up to see Finch standing there, staring at him like he was some kind of monster.
“What have you done?” she whispered.
Toke stood up, and Finch recoiled like he had thrown a punch at her. Even though his skin had stopped glowing, he realized he was still radiating light. He craned his neck around, not the least bit worried about Finch, and saw two beautiful wings covered with brightly glowing feathers. They sprouted from between his shoulder blades the same way they did for Zashiel. They were entirely unfamiliar, like he'd spontaneously grown two brand new arms, but he found he had no trouble moving them. And they were strong. Even after Zashiel's warnings, he knew that if he wanted, he could take straight to the skies right here and now.
He turned back around to look at Finch.
“S- Stay away from me!” she screamed when he balled his fists.
Toke stared her down, grinning despite the dire situation. Zashiel was still bleeding to death up top, but that almost didn't seem to matter now. He felt good. Better than he had felt in months. Like every wound and sickness he'd ever gotten had all been nothing but a bad dream. He felt like he could do anything.
Not the least of which was beat the eternal smite out of Finch.
“Come here!” he yelled, and charged at her.
Finch took a step back like she wanted to run away, but her proud Sorakine nature took over. She couldn't—wouldn't—run from an enemy, no matter how dangerous. Toke almost wished she would, so that he could chase after her and try out his new wings. Instead, she threw a punch at him, which his new reflexes let him sidestep almost without thinking about it, and he responded by thrusting his elbow right into her face.
The impact was strong, solid... satisfying. Up till now, he knew his punches had been less noticeable than being hit by a wad of paper, so the sight of her stumbling into a wall of crates after one good hit made Toke's heart soar. That wasn't enough, though. It would never be enough so long as she stayed standing.
“Let's end this,” he said as she faced him again.
Even through the bloody mess that was Finch's face, Toke could see the fear shining in her eyes. To her credit, though, she still refused to back down.
“You can't win,” she said, her voice shaking audible. “Sir Klevon went to them on my behalf before I left. They will give me strength. They won't let me fail!”
Toke cocked his head. “Who?”
Finch opened her mouth to answer, but thought better of it and snapped it closed again. Toke stared at her, but then his eyes widened with realization.
“Your gods?” he guessed, and judged by the way Finch immediately stiffened that he had guessed right. He barked a laugh. “The gods only Klevon is allowed to know about? The ones you don't even know the names of?”
Finch's face was turning an alarming shade of red. Toke grinned at her.
“If this is all the strength they can give you, maybe you should take up atheism.”
With a scream, Finch threw herself at him. Toke ran to meet her halfway. One of the Sorakine girl's gauntlets flew at his face, and he ducked underneath it with time to spare. He sprang back upwards, driving his fist into her chin as he went, and heard a stomach-turning crackle from somewhere in her jaw. Finch's eyes widened with pain, but Toke didn't give her the chance to retaliate. He spun on one foot and kicked her in the side of the head. Finch stumbled, but didn't fall. She glared at him, probably not even able to speak at this point, and flexed her fists. Toke knew what was going through her head. So long as she had the gauntlets, she was stronger than him. So long as she was stronger than him, she had a chance to win.
The metal bar from Dabba's cage lay on the floor just behind her feet. While Finch raised her fists again, Toke anchored himself to the bar and gave it as strong a pull as he could, making it fly up off the ground. It struck Finch's legs from behind, and the Sorakine girl gave an undignified squawk as they were swept out from underneath her, landing her on her back again.
“Yes!” Toke exclaimed, catching the bar. There was fire in his veins. It burned, but it was a good burn. It raged inside him, demanding victory!
With a war cry that he almost didn't recognize as his own voice, Toke leaped so high that his head nearly brushed the ceiling, and then hurtled back down at Finch—and slammed the bar into her head.
Finch's skull cracked once when the bar struck it, and then a second time when it bounced off of the floor. And, to Toke's astonishment, she continued to glare at him with icy cold hatred.
“Smite... you...” she whispered, “dropper!”
And then, finally, she closed her eyes and passed out.
NEXT TIME: Hell. Freaking. Yes. Am I right, readers? Now all Toke—Toke the freaking Sorakine—has to do is get up top and save Zashiel. Does he have enough time? At the least the hardest part is over now…right?