Toke sat, staring out of the cell door where Professor Navras just been standing, for several minutes. He couldn’t have moved from that spot even if his hands hadn’t been chained to the wall.
It was him, he thought over and over, the words looping endlessly through his head. It was him all along.
It couldn’t be true, of course. This was Professor Navras! There was another explanation. Toke had missed something during their talk, something that would make everything clear.
He’s working against the spearman! he thought desperately, his eyes still glued to the last place he had seen the professor. Somehow, he managed to break his shackles and is going after him. This’ll all be over in a few minutes.
But, the other half of his mind argued, where did he get the key? And why didn’t he set you free before he left?
To protect me, he insisted. I’m his favorite student. He doesn’t want to risk me getting hurt.
He could have taken Zashiel.
He’s an old man. He couldn’t fight the spearman all by himself.
HE’S MY PROFESSOR!
Try as he might, though, Toke couldn’t deny what he was most afraid of: that Navras being the spearman made sense. He had been a spearman during the battle of Zetheran Pass. When Toke had begun building his batteries, Navras had been there every step of the way. Navras was the only one genius enough to replicate Toke’s invention. And he hadn’t just copied it, Toke realized. He had perfected it. While Toke was trying to make his batteries stop blowing up, Navras had, somehow, figured out how to cause Gravity Storms with them.
“Toke?” Zashiel called from her unseen cell. “Are you okay?”
“It’s my fault,” he replied, his voice void of emotion.
Chains clinked as Zashiel shifted. “Toke, you can’t think like that. Yasmik needs you!”
“He’s using my batteries to make the Gravity Storms,” Toke said, speaking more to himself than to her. “All those people who died… it’s my fault!”
“You can’t just give up!”
“Excuse me,” Brin spoke up. “Will somebody please explain to me what just happened?”
“I just figured out how big of an idiot I am,” Toke spat. “The answer was staring me in the face all along. I was just too busy looking around it to realize it.”
“So your teacher, Navras…”
“He was the spearman the whole time.” Toke leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “It’s the only answer that actually makes sense. And he made me think Virkhul was the one behind it all!”
“That man who sits outside his classroom?”
Toke nodded, though he was sure his father couldn’t see it. He should have known something was wrong the minute he found Navras chained up next to him. Thinking back, the old inventor hadn’t been one of the ones Klevon had pushed into Adal’s office.
“I am so stupid,” he whispered, low enough that only he could hear. In his heart, he knew that he was being too hard on himself. Who in their right mind would have suspected Yasmik’s greatest inventor for the murder of an entire city?
“Why is he doing this, though?” Mr. Gnasher asked. He was pacing his cell now.
Toke shrugged as best he could in his shackles. “Who knows? Who cares?”
“Toke!” Zashiel shouted. “What the smite is wrong with you?”
Toke’s face turned red, his temper rising despite the situation. “I don’t know, maybe the fact that the man I’ve idolized since childhood turned out to be a mass murderer?”
“So what?” the Sorakine shot back. “You’re just going to give up? Let him kill even more people?”
Toke’s anger washed away, replaced with shame. “I- I can’t be the one to stop him,” he argued. “It’s because of me that he’s doing this in the first place!”
“It is not your fault!” Evanya shot back. She sounded even more distressed now than ever. Toke didn’t blame her. “What he’s done is on him, not you!”
“Okay, fine!” Zashiel interrupted him. “It’s your fault. All your fault. You are officially Navras’ partner in crime.”
Toke would have expected those words to shame him even more. Instead, to his surprise, Zashiel’s tone made him angry again.
“But does that mean you just sit here and let him have his way?” she went on. “Of course not! You take responsibility for the problem you caused, and you fix it!”
Toke looked up. “What do you want me to do, Zashiel? We’re both chained up.”
“I’m…” Zashiel hesitated. “I’m trying to break free. But if I can’t, it’ll be up to you.”
“If you can’t get loose, then what makes you think I can?”
“I don’t know!” Zashiel snapped again. “You’re supposed to be a genius, aren’t you? Well, think of something!”
Toke gave his shackles a halfhearted tug. Still just as tight as before. He sighed and slumped down, his hands the only thing keeping him from lying down.
“Toke?” Zashiel’s voice asked again. It was different this time. Gentler.
“Yeah?” he responded.
“Do you remember what you told me the morning after you first saw the spearman? You told me that you were willing to die to stop him. That’s when I knew I had chosen the right person to turn into a Juryokine. You were a weak, skinny child who couldn’t run twenty feet without fainting. But when you told me that, I was talking to a warrior.”
Toke narrowed his eyes and looked the other way, as if that would block out her voice.
“Well, what changed?” she asked. “Now we know who the spearman is. If anything, we’re closer to beating him now than ever! So what are you doing giving up? That’s the child you used to be talking. I want to talk to the grownup!”
“That’s enough of that!” Brin interjected, his fear evaporating the leniency he’d shown earlier in an instant. “My son is not a warrior, do you hear me? He’s an inventor. Who gave you the right to turn him into something he isn’t supposed to be?”
“That’s not your decision to make!” Zashiel argued.
“Well, it wasn’t yours either!” Brin was shouting so loud Toke thought his voice would go out. He stopped, breathing heavily. Zashiel didn’t reply for several seconds.
“No,” she agreed in a calmer tone than Toke had expected, “it was his.”
Brin huffed in his throat and turned to his son. “Toke, you listen to me right now. All this, whatever you’ve been doing, it was a mistake. When we get out of here, we’ll find a way to set things right with the government. But it is over, do you hear me? No more of this jury-kind vigilantism. Honestly, what you were thinking, I’ll never know.”
Toke didn’t reply. He was too deep in thought. Hearing his father speak to him that way, like he was nothing more than a child… it angered him. It angered him even more than Navras’ betrayal and Zashiel’s taunts put together. After everything he’d been through, how dare Brin treat him like that? Like he still needed his mommy and daddy to make all his decisions for him? That, more than anything, made him want to not give up. To show his parents that he could do whatever he wanted, even when they didn’t approve of it.
Especially when they didn’t approve of it.
But how am I going to get out of here? he thought, looking up at his restraints. I’m not strong enough to break these. Those things could probably support my weight.
And, just like that, the answer came to him.
But can they support five times my weight?
Toke fixed his eyes on the wall across from him. With the amount of kaosuryo energy running through those pipes, he wouldn’t have been surprised if they rendered his powers useless. But, fortunately, when he felt outwards he could clearly feel the wall’s gravitational field across from him. Without wasting anymore time, he anchored himself to it and increased his weight as much as he could.
Immediately, Toke’s feet left the ground, and he fell towards the wall— until his shackles halted his progress. His altered gravity combined with his increased weight was so jarring that it almost dislocated his wrists. He bit his tongue, but couldn’t stop a grunt of pain from escaping.
“Toke, what are you doing?” Brin demanded.
Toke didn’t answer. He was too focused on his task, and he’d noticed something. His shackles had stayed attached to the wall when he’d fallen, but he had heard them creak. Giving his hands a jiggle, he found that they were looser than they had been before.
Yes! he thought, and did it a second time. He was prepared this time, and kept himself from falling so hard that it hurt his arms— but sure enough, the shackles came a little further out of the wall. He released his anchor on the wall again, and prepared to do it a third time.
What am I going to do when I break out?
The thought gave him pause. Professor Navras was behind this, he couldn’t deny it anymore. But he still had a lingering doubt in his head. What if there was another side of this he just wasn’t seeing? As much as the evidence said otherwise, Toke couldn’t bring himself to think of his teacher, his hero, as a mass murderer.
I’ll… I’ll talk to him, he decided. I’m still his favorite student. He brought me here so he wouldn’t be forced to kill me. If I ask for an explanation, he’ll give me one. And he will have a good reason for all of this.
With that somewhat comforting thought, Toke anchored himself to the wall again. This time, his weight proved too much for the shackles to take, and they popped free, falling to the floor with a clang.
“What was that?” Zashiel asked.
Toke took a moment to rub his sore wrists, and then called out, “I’m free!”
“Can you break down the door?” she asked, the excitement rising in her voice.
Toke eyed the bars. It was hard to see in the darkness, but the hinges looked strong. It would take more effort to break them than it had to break the manacles.
“Yeah,” he said, slowly. “I think so. Hold on…”
His inventor’s brain had kicked in, and it was analyzing the door in a way a normal person would never be able to. The hinges were strong, yes, but there was only a single bolt keeping the door locked. It would, he decided, be easier to break the bolt than the hinges.
Walking to the back of his cell, Toke stepped onto the wall and looked up at the door above him.
“Toke, whatever you’re doing, I demand that you—”
The void formed within Toke’s mind, and his father’s angry voice faded into nothingness.
With my trajectory, and the way the door is built, he thought in the self-created silence, if I can hit it right there, my weight should put enough strain on the lock to break it in a couple tries.
Taking a deep breath, Toke decreased his gravity long enough to stand on his hands and point his feet at the door. Then he anchored himself to the doors, while simultaneously increasing his weight as much as he could. He fell across the length of the cell, and collided with the door with enough force to rattle his bones. Zashiel’s training kept him from collapsing, and he bent his knees to absorb most of the impact. All the same, his teeth felt like they were trying to weld themselves together.
Again! Toke told himself. He jumped up, decreasing his weight so that his hands touched the wall again, and then thrust himself back downwards. He landed on the door, and this time was rewarded when a loud CRACK broke through his void. His arms windmilled for balance as the door swung open underneath him, coming to a stop when it hit the wall behind it.
“You did it!” Zashiel exclaimed.
Toke dropped to the floor, his legs a little wobbly after the punishment he had given them, and turned and finally saw Zashiel. Just like she’d said, she had no fewer than ten shackles holding to her the wall.
“Hold on,” he held up a hand. “I’m going to look for a key.”
He walked past her cell, to where the hallway turned a sharp corner a few feet away.
“Toke,” his mother called after him, “get back here!”
He ignored her, and continued around the corner, using the glowing green veins to see. His hands twitched nervously, and he had to remind himself several times that he didn’t have his axes on hand. Luckily, whatever Navras was doing had kept him from coming back to the prison, which left Toke all alone. Almost immediately, he came across a tall, narrow locker set into the wall, with the door slightly ajar. Walking up, Toke slowly opened the door, cringing when the hinges squealed.
Calm down! he told himself. If he didn’t hear you break out of the cell, he wouldn’t hear a squeaky hinge. Remember what Zashiel taught you. Breathe slowly!
A few seconds later, he felt sufficiently calm and went back to his task. Looking inside the locker, he found the ring of keys Navras had taken from his pocket. Not only that, but two stark white jackets had been thrown onto the floor.
“No way,” he whispered, picking one up to inspect it. “This is…”
It was way too easy, he realized. Finding the cell keys and his equipment in the same place? Toke hesitated, and almost dropped the jacket. Only a fool would put all the things a prisoner needed to escape so close together, and Navras was a certified genius.
“Smite,” he said under his breath. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the jacket. It wasn’t burning his fingers. When he hesitantly sniffed it, he couldn’t detect any chemicals. The fabric looked intact. Even his axes were there, strung around the loops on the back. There was only one explanation…
For one frightening minute, Toke was tempted to drop his jacket, go back to his cell, and close the door. He hadn’t wandered out of his depth, he’d jumped into the middle of the smiting ocean. He was out of his league. He couldn’t take down Dranibor Navras, the most brilliant mind Yasmik had ever known. What was the point in even trying?
Because, Zashiel’s voice came unbidden to his thoughts, it’s the right thing to do.
“Toke!” the voice’s real life counterpart called. “Are you okay? Did you find anything?”
Toke went as still as a statue. He still didn’t want to believe that Navras was a villain, but if he was, then fighting him was the right thing to do. Zashiel was right, no matter what the professor’s intentions had been, they were closer to stopping him and the Storms than they ever had been. He wasn’t some child who needed his parents to make decisions for him. Not anymore. He was a warrior. He was a Juryokine.
He put on the jacket and zipped it up.
“Yeah,” he finally answered, grabbing the keys and Zashiel’s jacket. “I’m coming.”
He hurried back to Zashiel’s cell, and began inserting keys into the lock.
“You found our jackets too?” Zashiel asked, feeling the same suspicion he had.
Click. The lock sprang, and Toke pulled the door open.
“Yeah,” he said. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong with them, either.”
He knelt down in front of her, preparing to start undoing her shackles.
“Toke,” she whispered, her eyes meeting his, “that’s not right. Why would he—”
Toke stopped with his hand halfway to the first clasp. His hand began to shake.
“Navras knew I would break out,” he answered, his throat hoarse. “He wants us to come find him.”
Zashiel understood the weight of that, he could see it in her eyes. Navras considered himself enough of a match for them that he hadn’t just let them escape, he had armed them. Even worse, Toke wasn’t convinced the inventor was wrong.
“But what choice do we have?” he asked, trying to sound more confident than he really felt. Zashiel gave him a grave nod, and he set to freeing her.
A few minutes later, Zashiel was standing up, stretching to work out the stiffness in her joints.
“Here,” Toke said, holding her jacket out. Just like his own, her chakrams dangled from the back. While she was getting dressed, Toke went back into the hallway and stopped in front of his parents’ cell. When they saw him, Brin and Evanya both jumped to their feet and came to the bars.
“Are you okay?” his mother asked. “Did he see you?”
Toke shook his head. “I don’t think he’s anywhere near us right now.”
Brin nodded excitedly. “Good, good! Then now’s our chance. Open the door, and we can get out of here!”
Toke paused, and looked from his parents to the keys in his hand.
“No,” he said after a few seconds. He took a step back and dropped the keys on the floor. “You two need to stay in there.”
His father’s face went pale. “What… you’re leaving us here?”
Toke nodded, and his face flushed red with shame. “Zashiel and I aren’t leaving. We’re going after Navras. If we win, we’ll come back for you. If not…”
He hesitated, and looked up at the glowing green vein above his head.
“If we lose, there won’t be anybody else to stop him from destroying Yasmik. But I have a feeling you’ll be safe here. I think he built this base the same way he built his armor. Somehow, the Gravity Storms won’t affect it.”
“If you win?” Brin snapped. “Do you have any idea how stupid you sound?”
“Not stupid,” Zashiel said, coming to stand beside him. “Brave. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Mr. Gnasher, but your son’s a lot stronger than you’ve ever given him credit for.”
Brin looked at them both in bewilderment, but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“But he’s just a boy,” his mother whimpered.
“No, he’s a warrior.” Zashiel put her hand on Toke’s shoulder. “And he’s one of the strongest I’ve ever met.”
She squeezed his shoulder, and Toke realized just how much those words meant. To a girl born with strength and reflexes unimaginable to normal people, who had grown up around others like her… to say that she held such a high opinion of a mere human…
“Earlier, you told him to do what he thought was right. Are you going to change your minds now that he actually has a chance to do it?”
Brin and Evanya exchanged glances, and Toke could see their grim acceptance of the situation in their eyes.
“Toke,” his father said, speaking slowly, “is this what you think is right?”
Toke nodded. “People are dying because of this. It would be wrong for me not to do anything.”
Brin sighed, and extended a hand through the bars. His mother followed suit. After a moment’s hesitation, Toke stepped up to the door and let them wrap their arms around him. The awkward hug pressed his face against the cold metal bars, but he didn’t complain.
“It’s your decision,” Brin whispered, pressing his own face against the bars. “You’re an adult now.”
“We love you, Toke,” his mother added. “Be careful!”
“And son,” his father stepped back and took a long look at him— possibly the last he’d ever get, Toke realized, “we’re proud of you.”
Tears began to prick Toke’s eyes, and he stepped back out of his mother’s embrace.
“I love you too,” he said, his throat feeling almost too tight to speak. Looking down, he kicked the key ring toward the door. “If I don’t… If something does happen, then wait until you think it’s safe, and get out of here.”
“You’ll have to go into hiding too,” Zashiel added. “Now that word’s gotten out about Toke being the Juryokine, people will start coming for you as well. Not just humans, either. Sorakines too.”
Brin’s face went pale in the dim green light. His mother, however, scowled at the Sorakine girl through the bars.
“Young lady, I’m holding you personally responsible for Toke’s wellbeing,” she said, her voice colder than Toke had ever heard it. So much so that even Zashiel took a step backwards. “It’s your fault he’s here, so you had better make sure he doesn’t get so much as a scratch, do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” Zashiel said with a solemn bow of her head. “And I promise, I’ll be dead before I let anything happen to him.”
Any other time, Toke would have taken that as a reassurance. Now, though, he was struck by just how likely her death could be— followed swiftly by his own.
“All right,” he said, cutting off those distressing thoughts before he lost his nerve, “we need to go. Navras said his plans were almost complete. Who knows how much time we have?”
“Right,” Zashiel agreed, and turned to lead the way. “Let’s go.”
Toke gave his parents one last glance before following her.
Here we come, Professor, he thought, as a sense of grim finality came over him. You’d better not disappoint me.
NEXT TIME: Toke’s made his decision. He’ll give Navras one last chance, and if he fails the old inventor is going down. But do Toke and Zashiel have what it takes to beat him this time? And what is Navras’ master plan, anyway? Remember, if you’re tired of waiting for updates, you can purchase the entire book for $2.99 on Kindle and $16.00 for a paperback.