Chapter Forty Eight
Finally, at long last, Finch laid her head down on the floor and passed out. Toke stood over her, breathing heavily. It felt like he had been fighting for years, but at the same time he wasn't the least bit tired. Winded, yes, but he felt like he had enough energy to fight an army and then run a marathon afterwards. Power flooded every cell in his body like nothing he had ever experienced. His wings twitched behind his back, eager to be put to use.
He looked down at Finch, and then at the metal bar still grasped within his hand, the urge to kill her surprisingly strong. She was his enemy, an enemy who had plagued him for the past few weeks, following him across an entire country. If it had just been him, he might have forgiven her, but she had put his family and friends in danger too. She deserved to die. She needed to die.
That was why Toke forced his fingers to unclench and let the metal bar clatter back to the floor.
“You're not my sister,” he whispered, looking down at her mangled and bloody figure. “So it's not my place to kill you.”
Instead, he knelt down, grabbed her by the front of her jacket, and spread his wings. Power rippled through them, and when he thrust them both down he shot up into the air like one of Treyn's fireworks. He still had to weaken his gravity, but not nearly as much as he'd had to as a human. The hold vanished beneath him as he and Finch reemerged onto the deck—where Shen stumbled backwards in horror.
“You- You actually did it!” he exclaimed, as if that were the last thing on Fissura he'd expected to happen.
Toke ignored him. Throwing Finch onto the floor, he began to rummage through her jacket, one fist held ready in case she decided to wake up, until he found what he was looking for. The tube of Chiyuka ointment. He pulled it out, holding it almost reverently as the rain beat down on him from above. His hand was shaking.
He was afraid to look.
“I'm not too late,” he whispered. “I'm not!”
You will be if you just sit there telling yourself that!
Taking a deep breath, Toke forced himself to look at his fallen friend. Zashiel still lay where Shen had left her, and now the entire front of her jacket was stained a dark, sickening red. He got to his feet and dashed over to her, sending Shen scuttling away like a whipped kitten. Toke let him go. There would be more than enough time to deal with him after this was over.
“Zashiel?” he asked, heart pounding in his throat. Of course she didn't answer. Her skin was unnaturally pale, and if she was breathing, it was so shallow that he couldn’t see it. He tightened his grip on the Chiyuka bottle, nearly cracking the glass. After all that... Had it been for nothing?
No. Her wings were still glowing. To his surprise, a surge of confidence—or was it stubbornness?—washed through him, chasing away his doubts and fears. They were glowing, and he was going to make sure they stayed that way! He had beaten Finch. He had transformed into a Sorakine. He was going to save her. Even if fate rose up against him, he would fight the universe itself before he let Zashiel be taken away from him!
He snapped the top of the glass tube off, not even bothering to unscrew the lid, and dumped its contents into his palm. Then he mashed his hand against Zashiel's throat so hard he would have choked her if she'd been... as if he could force the miracle ointment to work faster by rubbing it in harder. And rub it he did, heedless of the gore and the blood that coated his hands, turning the blue ointment scarlet before it had even been fully absorbed into her skin.
“Smite it, Zashiel,” he growled as he worked. “Don't you smiting do this to me. Don't you dare!”
His hand was on her throat, but he couldn't feel a pulse.
“You're supposed to be my protector, right? Well, that means you can't die like this!”
She really wasn't breathing...
“You can't... You can't die unless you're protecting me from something!”
“Because how stupid would that be?” There were tears running down his cheeks, mixing with the raindrops. “You're a smiting warrior! Dying in your sleep isn't... isn't your style.”
He stopped rubbing. All the ointment had long since been absorbed by now.
“Zashiel, please,” he begged her, grabbing her by her jacket and shaking her. “Please, don't do this to me!”
He fixed his eyes on her as if nothing else in the world existed. Give it a minute, he told himself. Just one minute, and he would have his answer. Chiyuka ointment would heal any living tissue it touched, but apply it to dead tissue and you may as well be smearing it on a rock. If Zashiel was still alive, then any second now her wound would begin to reknit itself.
The gash in her throat still stood out, bright red against her pale skin, but the bleeding had stopped. Was that because the wound was healing, or had her heart simply stopped beating? Toke reached out with a quivering hand, but stopped before he could touch her. His hand was shaking, so he did the only thing that felt natural, and made a fist.
“Smite it, Zash! Wake up!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, and punched her in the chest as hard as he could.
The sound was so unexpected that Toke almost thought he'd imagined it. It was a frail, weak thing, easily missed in the raging storm... but then it came again. Refusing to believe his ears, Toke sat up, gawking. At first he couldn't see any difference. She was still lying there with her throat sliced open, staring blankly at the clouds. No, he was going crazy, his mind inventing sounds to try and fill that massive, empty void that had suddenly opened up in his soul.
But no, there it was again. Coughing. Coughing!
“She's coughing!” he yelled, leaning down and taking her by the shoulders. Coughing. Oh, what a beautiful sound! It meant she was alive!
But for how long, he realized? The Chiyuka ointment had done its work, but there was only so much such a small amount could do. The slice in her neck was still wide open, and as her heart began to beat harder, it also began to spill fresh blood down her already bloodstained neck. Toke's breathing began to turn ragged. He couldn't lose her now, not when hope had been allowed to raise its tiny, feeble head! But what could he do? Healing her this far had taken every drop of Chiyuka Shen had left them. Without more, Zashiel was still going to...
Toke snapped his head down to look at the dying Sorakine girl, but it hadn't been her who had spoken.
He followed the voice, and realized it was coming from the seats.
“Inaska?” he asked in disbelief. She was still lying on her side, draped over Limbasko as if she were asleep, but when he said her name he saw her raise her hand weakly. He raced to her side. “Inaska, are you all right?”
Please let her be all right. I can't lose two in one night!
He cupped his hand under her cheek and raised her head to look at him. Her eyes were unfocused, still under the effects of whatever sleeping potion Shen had drugged the crew with, but they still managed to fall on Toke.
“I can... save... her,” she whispered.
Toke stared at her. “Zashiel? You think you can...” Immediately, adrenaline rushed back into his veins. “You think you can save her? How? Tell me!”
She turned her head to look at the door leading to the crew's cabins. “Take me...”
Toke didn't think twice. He scooped her up in his arms—surprisingly easily, in his new body—and charged the door full pelt. He didn't even bother stopping to open it, instead opting to knock it right off its hinges with his newly superhuman shoulder.
“M- My room,” she mumbled. Her eyelids were flickering, like she was about to fall back asleep. “Toke? Zzzat you?”
“Yes, it's me,” he promised her, kicking down her door as well. “Stay with me just a little longer!”
“Yer shiny,” she whispered, and then giggled.
“Inaska, focus!” he begged her. “You said you could save Zashiel. How?”
With what looked like all the effort in the world, Inaska raised her hand and pointed at the chest that was set against the room's back wall, just like in every other cabin. Toke gently set her down in her cot, then knelt to open the—
“Not in... behind,” she said.
Toke froze, and then grabbed the chest with both hands, heaving it away from the wall. And there, carved into the wall itself, was a hidden cubbyhole. It was tiny—it had to be to keep from cutting straight through the ship's hull—but there was still room for a collection of small glass bottles.
“Inaska, what is this?” Toke asked, confused.
“Take them all,” Inaska told him. “Use... Use them on... her.”
Hesitantly, Toke selected one of the bottles and held it up in front of his eyes. Whatever was inside was a light blue color, some kind of thick... liquid...
Toke's eyes widened. “This is Chiyuka ointment!”
“Tajwyn,” Inaska whispered.
Toke hastened to grab all the bottles. They were small, but altogether they equaled more than a full tube of Chiyuka. “This is incredible! Where did you get all this?”
When she didn't answer, Toke turned to see that her eyes had closed, succumbing to the drug again. He hurriedly leaned down and kissed her forehead in thanks, and then dashed back out the door. He winced when his new wings collided with the doorframe, yanking a few feathers out, but the pain was quickly forgotten. He had no idea where Inaska had gotten all this ointment, but he loved her more than ever for having it. He burst out into the storm again, and slid on his knees across the slick deck to where Zashiel was still fighting to breathe.
“Okay, Zash,” he said, unstopping one bottle and reaching to upend it on her wound. “Stay with me. You're going to be fine!”
Just before he could pour it on her, though, her hand shot up and grabbed him by the wrist.
“You did it,” she whispered.
Her voice was raspy, like most of the air she was using to speak was escaping through her wound, but he could still make out what she was saying.
“I know, I'm fine,” he reassured her as quickly as he could. “Now just lay still and let me—”
Toke sighed, and looked at where Finch still lay, in even worse shape than her sister, and nodded.
“She's fine,” he said. “I didn't kill her.”
To his surprise, Zashiel sighed with relief. “Th... Thank...”
“Thank me when you're back on your feet!” he yelled, and poured the jar of cream onto her throat. As soon as it touched her skin, Zashiel's hand fell limp again, her head rolling to the side and her eyes closing. He didn't bother rubbing it in this time. When that bottle was empty, he threw it away and repeated the process with the next one. Eight bottles total, none of them holding more than a handful of the sweet, precious ointment. It took him less than a minute to pour every drop Inaska had saved onto Zashiel's throat, and then he dropped the final bottle and sat back, gasping for breath harder than after he’d fought Finch. He watched as the ointment slowly seeped into her skin, and... and...
Yes. Slowly but surely, the wound began to close. Feeling completely drained, Toke collapsed onto his back. He smiled up at the storm. He'd done it. He'd won. He was tempted to just lie there and sleep for the next twenty years—he was definitely tired enough—but he didn't let himself close his eyes. There was still one thing left he had to do.
“You!” he declared, sitting up and turning to face Shen.
The old man froze, kneeling over Finch's unconscious form, obviously planning on taking his gauntlets back. Toke got to his feet, the happiness he'd just felt quickly being washed away by rage.
“N- Now, Cassitoka,” he spluttered, holding a hand out wardingly, as if that could ever be enough. “Don't do anything rash!”
Toke spread his arms for Shen to see. “Well, I did it! You wanted a Sorakine, so here he is!”
Shen nodded formally. “Indeed. Then our business is concluded.”
“Oh, is it?” Toke grinned humorlessly and took a step toward him. “I think we still have a few things to discuss.”
Shen backed away, nearly slipping on the wet deck. “I have what I want! I'll leave you alone, I swear it!”
Toke ignored him and raised both fists.
Shen's eyes widened. “All I wanted was to bring back proof to the cul—to your followers! I'll go back to Yasmik. You'll never see me again!”
Toke flexed his right fist, the one that had been all but useless just a few minutes ago, and relished the sound of his popping knuckles. Shen gulped and went as pale as a ghost.
“You're right about one thing,” Toke agreed, advancing on him. “I'm never going to have to look at your face again!”
He reached for Shen, intending to break every bone in his body like the little toothpick-man he was, and Shen yelped in fright—and then whipped something out of his robe. It flashed across the distance between them faster than even a Sorakine could react, and he felt a sharp, stinging pain in his neck.
“What in the...” he grunted, and stopped to pull it out.
It was a feather tipped dart.
“Oh, smite,” he exclaimed as realization dawned on him. Even as he dropped that dart, three more struck him, all precisely on his veins. He gathered his strength to pounce on the old man, but his legs gave out underneath him and he collapsed face down on the deck. Smite it! Toke would have kicked himself if he'd been able to move. Shadows were already creeping in on the edges of his vision, his thoughts... coming slower...
“Well then,” Shen said, clearing his throat and straightening his collar as if this had all been nothing more than a mild inconvenience, “that was certainly close. This has been fun, Cassitoka, but I'm afraid I can't allow you to take your revenge on me tonight.”
Toke fought against the drug. He couldn't just go to sleep. Not now, not after everything he'd just done!
“I have work to do back in Yasmik, after all,” Shen went on. He stopped by Finch and pulled the gauntlets off her listless arms. “Guiding the sheep, enlightening the ignorant...” He turned and gave Toke a grin. “Building an empire!”
“Dropper,” Toke rasped.
Shen slipped the gauntlets onto his own arms, breathing excitedly as he felt their power flooding back into his body, and then reached down and grabbed Finch by her hair.
“I'll keep my word, boy. Should you stay here in Vlangur, live a long and happy life, you will never see me again.” He began to make his way toward the side of the ship, dragging Finch behind him, but then stopped, frowning in consideration. Apparently making a decision, he knelt down over Toke again. “I suppose you deserve something, though, after the show you put on for me tonight. So here's a secret...”
He leaned in close and whispered into Toke's ear, “A storm is coming.”
Despite himself, a shiver ran down Toke's spine.
“I don't know who they are or what they want,” Shen went on, “but I know they call themselves Towerfall, and I know... that they are coming for you.”
Thunder rumbled, and Toke couldn't do anything but look helplessly up at Shen as the old man grinned.
“Yes,” he crooned, “aren't you just Mr. Popular? Now if you'll pardon me, I need to be far away from this boat by the time everyone wakes up.” He stood up and took Finch by the hair again. “And if you don't mind, I'll be bringing her with me. Who knows what I'll be capable of with a real Sorakine warrior under my control!”
No! Toke tried to reach out and grab Shen's ankle, but his body wouldn't obey. No, no, not that! Zashiel would be crushed when she woke up! He could barely keep his eyes open, though. There was nothing he could do.
Then a shadow emerged from the darkness behind Shen.
“Don't worry, Toke!” Boam declared. “I've got him!”
The writer, a good foot and a half taller than Shen, raised something into the air—one of Toke's own axes. Shen spun around, eyes wide, for once caught entirely off guard. Toke didn't blame him. He wasn't really seeing this. He had obviously already fallen unconscious.
Boam laughed at the look on Shen's face. “I told you I could help, Toke! What do you think of me now?”
He swung the axe with a whoop, and for half a second Toke dared to feel hope—until the axe collided with Shen's metal arm. Then, all at once, that hope was replaced with dark, heavy dread.
Shen flicked the axe out of Boam's grasp, and then grabbed him around the neck with both hands.
“No... No, Boam!” Toke managed to croak. He fought to move, to anchor himself to something, anything. Anything to stop Shen before he—
“You,” Shen growled, “have no place at all in my plans.”
He twisted Boam's head around the way a farmer would wring a chicken's neck, and even from this far away Toke could hear the snap. Boam's body went limp in Shen's grip, and the old man cast him aside like a broken doll.
Boam Redland... one of the only friends Toke had ever had... fell to the floor and looked at Toke with wide, lifeless eyes. Toke knew the minute he saw him that there was no hope. Even if he hadn't used all of Inaska' tajwyn cream on Zashiel, it was already too late.
Boam was dead.
And with that, Toke finally let the drug sweep him away, into the cold, dark land of forgetfulness.
NEXT TIME: If this were an episode of Fullmetal Alchemist, I’d say that we just witnessed the perfect example of Equivalent Exchange. Nothing can be made without losing something of equal value. Nobody can be saved…without also losing somebody. How will Toke react to this? Be here next week to find out!