For a single, confusing minute when he woke up, Toke thought he was back in the cornfield the morning after swallowing Zashiel’s feather. His head throbbed underneath the sticky heat of the summer sun, and dozens of tiny, sharp objects dug into his back. The logical part of his mind chased away those thoughts, though. The past week obviously hadn’t been a dream, which meant that he wasn’t still in the cornfield. Where was he, then?
He opened his eyes, squinting in the morning sunlight, and forced himself to sit up. His vision swam, making it difficult to think, but the sensation he noticed more acutely was the pain in his ribs. With a ragged moan, he sagged forward and put his hand to his chest. To his surprise, he touched the soft, white fabric of his Sorakine jacket.
He waited a few seconds for the pain to fade and then sat up straight. A quick look around revealed exactly where he was. Stone walls, smooth and sheer, rose up around him on all sides in a roughly circular shape. It was the spot Zashiel had chosen yesterday for him to train. The small pebbles on the ground also accounted for the stabbing pain he’d felt when lying down.
“How did I get here?” he wondered aloud. The previous night’s events were hazy, but the more he thought the clearer they became. They’d gone to Exton, and some guy with a spear had attacked him. Zashiel had interfered, and the spearman had… No, no, Toke shook his head. He must have taken a blow to the skull, because that could never happen.
The sound of flapping wings broke into Toke’s thoughts, and he looked up to see Zashiel descending toward him.
“You’re awake,” she said matter of factly when her feet touched the ground.
“How long was I asleep?” he asked, yawning as he scratched the side of his head.
“Not asleep,” she said. “Unconscious.”
“Well,” he said ruefully, fighting the urge to feel the bump the back of his head, “that explains the headache.”
“And you were out for about ten hours,” she said, answering his question. “It’s almost noon.”
“Noon?” Toke cried, alarm chasing the remaining grogginess from his head. “I missed class!”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Zashiel snapped. “Don’t you think this is a little more important?”
Toke shook his head, trying to stand back up. The pain flared in his chest again, and he sat back down with a groan.
“I’m working on borrowed time already!” he gasped, wincing until the pain faded to a dull throb. “I can’t let my professor down again.”
Zashiel snorted in derision and turned to face the other way. “How will you explain your condition? Or do people usually show up for class looking like they just fell off a cliff?”
Toke hesitated. She was right, of course. He’d dodged an arrow when Navras assumed his injuries had been caused by the Nails. It would be best not to push his luck any further.
“What do we do, then?” he asked grumpily. “Stay here until I’m all better?”
Zashiel shot him a scathing look. “I don’t exactly feel like sunshine and rainbows either, you know. And if I remember correctly, I took a much worse beating than you.”
“Well, you…” Toke’ voice trailed off, and he looked away guiltily. She was right again. Now that his adrenaline rush had died down, his wounds didn’t feel nearly as severe as he’d thought. Painful, yes, but his ribs obviously hadn’t been reduced to dust. Zashiel had been the one to get caught in the…
“Did that really happen?” he asked quietly, without looking up at her.
For a long moment, Zashiel was silent. Finally, she nodded her head and said, “Yeah, it happened. He created a Gravity Storm out of whatever was powering his suit.”
Toke shook his head and gave her a helpless look. “That’s impossible, though. I mean…” he spread his hands, perplexed, “How?”
“If I knew,” Zashiel said, bitterly, “I wouldn’t be putting myself through all this.”
The silence came again as they both pondered their conundrum. It was Toke who spoke up first.
“After some consideration,” he said tentatively, “I’ve decided to reconsider your theory on the Gravity Storms.”
Zashiel arched an eyebrow at him. “Come again?”
Toke sighed. “I think you’re right about the Storms being manmade.”
He expected this to lighten Zashiel’s mood a little. Even if all logic said otherwise, there was no way to ignore something when you saw it with your own two eyes. To his surprise, though, this only seemed to upset her even more.
“You mean you didn’t believe me before?” she demanded.
“It didn’t make any sense,” Toke said, raising his hands defensively. “But I was wrong, okay? I believe you now.”
Now Zashiel was red in the face with anger. Her hands were clenched into fists by her sides, and her wings stuck out rigidly as far as they went.
“Why did you agree to help me if you didn’t believe me?” she shouted, looking like she was only one wrong word away from beating him to a pulp.
Toke shrugged sheepishly. “I wanted to help somehow. Even if the Storms were natural, maybe there was something I could do.”
The glare on Zashiel’s face was so frigid that Toke could feel his blood turning cold inside his veins.
“Admit it,” she hissed. “You just wanted the powers.”
“I, uh…” Toke said, but faltered. His cheeks turned pink, and he had to look away.
“I can’t believe it,” Zashiel said, sounding more exhausted now than angry. She took a few steps and then slammed her fist into the canyon wall, bringing a small shower of pebbles down on her head.
“Look,” Toke said, trying to bring the discussion back on track, “now that we know you’re right, we can start trying to do something about it.”
But Zashiel wasn’t listening to him. She spun around, her eyes alight with fury. “You think this is all a game!!” she yelled. “That’s all it’s ever been to you!”
“I do not,” Toke protested, his own face growing hot with indignation while he tried to maintain a level of control. “This is a big problem and I wanted to help any way I could, whether you were right or not.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she retorted, pointing an accusing finger at him. “If all you wanted to do was help, you wouldn’t have let me turn you into a Juryokine. You wouldn’t have agreed to commit treason. You would have joined a rescue team, or tried to research the Storms, or… or…” she paused, her rage dulling her senses so much that she couldn’t think of a third thing. “But you didn’t, and you still let me give you those powers. It’d be fun to control gravity, wouldn’t it? You could impress all your friends by walking on walls and…” her voice broke again, and Toke noticed for the first time that it looked like she was on the verge of tears. “Your parents were right, Toke. You’re just a child!”
“I am not a child!” Toke shouted back, his patience finally running out. He forced himself to stand up, ignoring the pain in his chest. He teetered for a second on his feet, but then managed to gain his footing and pointed his own finger at Zashiel. “I’m an adult in everything but title. I have a plan for my life, and the means to make it happen. I may have messed up once, but Professor Navras believes in me enough to give me a second chance. If you hadn’t shown up and started begging me to help you, everything would be going perfectly right now!”
“Begging?” Zashiel echoed back, incredulously. “I do not beg. I asked for your help. I could have asked anyone in Yasmik for their help, but I chose you. That’s right, Toke. I didn’t need you, I chose you!”
Toke threw his arms up. “Then choose someone else! Obviously you’ve been wasting your time with me. Go find another sucker to do your dirty work. One who won’t think you’re a lunatic when you ask them to betray their government for a ridiculous theory.” He looked away sullenly. “We both know by now that I’m not cut out for this anyway.”
On the other side of the canyon, Zashiel put her hand over her eyes and shook her head. “You really think it’s that simple, don’t you? You think I can just walk down the street and pick whoever I want.”
Toke leaned against the canyon wall, the pain in his chest growing too sharp to ignore, and slid down it until he was sitting again. “Assuming they don’t turn you in right away, then yeah, I don’t see you facing many problems.”
“Smite it, Toke!” Zashiel hollered, punching the rock wall behind her again. “Making Juryokines is…”
Her voice cut off, like she’d just caught herself saying something she shouldn’t have. When Toke looked up at her, her lips were pressed so hard together they were only a thin line on her face, confirming his feelings.
“Making Juryokines is what?” he asked.
“It’s… harder than you think,” Zashiel finished after a minute of hesitation. Her eyes darted away guiltily, and a sinking feeling formed in Toke’s gut. She was lying to him. But why? Was there something about all this she hadn’t told him?
“It’s doesn’t matter anyway,” she said briskly, dismissing the topic with a wave of her hand. “I couldn’t let you out of this even if I could make another Juryokine. You know too much. You could run off and tell somebody.”
Toke was about to insist that he’d never tell on her, especially since that would incriminate himself, but she spoke over him. “For better or for worse, I’m stuck with you, so the only thing we can do is make the best of it.”
She walked to the other side of the circular pit, where Toke saw she’d laid out an assortment of supplies, and picked up a bottle of the bright blue substance she’d put on his head after he’d hit it during his Juryokine transformation.
“Take off your shirt and jacket,” she instructed him, squeezing a sizable glob of it into her palm.
“W-what?” Toke asked, his face turning red again.
“You cracked some ribs during the fight,” she explained. “This will heal them, but I have to apply it directly to your skin. Take them off.”
Still blushing, Toke reluctantly shed his jacket and then pulled his shirt over his head. Zashiel wasted no time in kneeling in front of him and rubbing the blue gel onto his chest, right where the pain was. He flinched and grunted, but just like with his headache the pain was gone before he knew it. After that, Zashiel applied more to the back of his head, getting rid of the aching bump, and then to the cut on his cheek. By the time she finished with his face, Toke reached up to feel his chest, and was mildly surprised to find his body had already absorbed every bit of the strange substance, leaving his skin completely dry.
“What is that stuff?” he asked, finally able to stand up without trouble.
“Chiyuka ointment,” Zashiel answered, screwing the lid back on. “It has a bunch of special steroids in it that stimulate your body’s healing abilities. It can heal minor wounds in seconds.” She paused, and glanced at his face. “Well, most of them, anyway.”
Toke felt a twinge of unease. “What do you mean by that?” he asked.
“I mean that it can’t heal scars,” she told him. “Like the one on your cheek.”
It felt like a river of cold water had washed over him, and Toke raised a hand to feel his cheek. Even though he couldn’t see it, he knew what he was feeling when his fingers ran over a thin, long bump a couple of inches below his right eye. He traced it from end to end, and his breathing became heavier.
“I’ve got a scar,” he whispered in disbelief, his eyes opening wide with horror.
Across the canyon from him, Zashiel rolled her eyes. “Grow up. It’s just a scar.”
“Grow up?” Toke echoed, incredulously. “Do you know what this means?”
“It’s dead tissue,” Zashiel snapped. “It won’t hurt you.”
“But it won’t go away!” Toke snapped back, almost yelling now. “And it’s right on my face, so people are going to notice. How am I going to explain it to them?”
This gave Zashiel pause, but then she just shrugged. “You’re supposed to be smart, right? You’ll figure something out.”
“But…” Toke said, wilting under her apathetic derision.
“Enough already!” Zashiel interrupted him, the scorn just as evident on her face as it was in her voice. “Even if they do ask about it, do you think the first conclusion they’ll jump to is that you got it fighting a spearman who can control the Gravity Storms?”
Toke looked away, embarrassed.
“So, what now?” he asked, because that was all he could think to say.
“First, we have to teach you to fight,” she answered without hesitation. “Your injuries are gone, so we’ll start now. Get your axes out.”
Toke instinctively reached behind his back, but then flushed when his hand brushed bare skin. He’d been so wrapped up talking to Zashiel that he had forgotten to put his shirt and jacket back on. Keeping his eyes low so as not to meet her gaze, he hurried to do so.
“Are you embarrassed by your body?” Zashiel asked after he’d zipped the jacket up to his chin. Her tone caught him off guard. She had asked without any trace of shame or hesitation, and it made his cheeks burn even redder than they had before.
“I’m, uh,” he stuttered, trying to think of the appropriate words to explain with. “I don’t look much like the other guys I know.”
When Zashiel arched her eyebrow at him, showing that she wanted more of an explanation than that, he grimaced. This wasn’t a topic he liked talking about.
“Um,” he began again, reaching back to scratch his head, “all the other guys I know are, well, bigger than I am.” Zashiel’s expression didn’t change. “Stronger,” he added.
“It takes effort,” the Sorakine said. “You don’t get strong by sitting at a desk and reading books all day.”
Toke ignored the jab, and continued. “Even when I was in basic schooling, my classmates were always bigger than I was. All of them, even the ones that sat around and read books all day.” He shrugged, trying to act like he wasn’t bothered by it anymore. “I’ve always been the little guy, you know?”
When he looked up at Zashiel again, he expected to see scorn on her face and a scathing remark on her tongue. Instead, he was surprised by how thoughtful she looked.
“It’s true,” she said at last. “You don’t have much muscle mass. But you also don’t exercise regularly, so in all truth you should be as fat as a pig.”
Toke cringed at her choice of words, but he was getting used to this. Zashiel was, if nothing else, blunt.
“It probably has something to do with your metabolism,” she went on. “You can eat a lot, not work it off, and still stay in moderately good shape.”
Toke looked down at himself in surprise. “Moderately good?” he asked.
Zashiel nodded. “You’re no warrior, you’re not even an athlete. Still, you could be a lot worse off than you are now.”
“So, what does that mean?” he asked slowly.
“It means that you’re ready to learn how to fight.” Zashiel reached behind her and drew her chakrams. “You’ll build up muscle as we train, and I’ll give you a set of exercises to do every morning before you go to class.”
“Oh, joy,” Toke muttered, his muscles aching just at the thought. Still, he obediently drew his axes and waited for her instructions. She produced a handful of rubber strips and tossed him a pair.
I’m going to end up just as banged up as I was last night, Toke thought with anxiety building up in his stomach as he stretched the rubber over his axe blades. Zashiel did the same, and then put herself in a fighting stance.
“Defend yourself!” she ordered, and threw herself at him. Toke didn’t even have time to raise his axes before she plowed into him with her shoulder, knocking him off balance. A sweep of her leg put him on the ground, and planted her knee on his chest to keep him from getting up again.
“Dead,” she said, touching her rubber-coated chakram to his neck before getting up and backing away a few steps.
“I wasn’t ready!” he complained, scowling at her.
“Do you think your enemies are going to wait for you to be ready?” Zashiel asked. “Did the spearman wait?”
Toke felt the previous session’s frustration begin to build up in him again as he got to his feet. This would be just as pointless as the last time. Before he could brood further on it, Zashiel was coming at him again. He raised his axes, thinking to fend off the attack she’d used last time, but instead his instructor lashed out with her weapons. One of Toke’s axes went flying out of his hand, and the other wasn’t in the right place to block the next attack. Zashiel’s weapon slammed into his chest, knocking him off his feet and onto his back a second time.
“Hold onto your weapons tighter,” she commanded, not bothering to pin him down this time. “And never expect your enemy to attack the same way twice. Only an idiot does that.”
“Does what?” Toke spat, rubbing his back gingerly as he stood up. “Attacks the same way twice, or expects them to?”
Zashiel’s eyes narrowed at his sarcastic tone. “Yes,” she snapped, and then attacked again in a flurry of motion. In less than a second, Toke was on the ground again, his legs and his ribs both aching from the blows he had hardly been able to see.
“Stop falling down so much!” Zashiel ordered, looking like her nerves were just as frayed as Toke’s were. “How do you think you’re going to fight if you’re on the ground?”
“Oh, like you’re giving me so much choice in the matter!” Toke yelled in outrage. It was bad enough that he couldn’t put up even a little bit of a fight. Why did she have to make fun of him for it, too?
“I’m the one you’re fighting,” the Sorakine snapped, her eyes hard and cold. “Knocking you down is to my advantage. Why would I let you choose to stay on your feet? Get up!”
“No!” Toke shot back, not budging an inch from his seat on the ground. “This is ridiculous, and you know it!”
“How is it ridiculous?” Zashiel asked, spreading her arms in exasperation. “What do you want me to do? Breathe on you and congratulate when you don’t fall over? The only way to learn how to fight is to fight!”
“I’m not a Sorakine!” Toke yelled at the top of his lungs. He got back to his feet now, but left his axes lying on the ground. “I’m a human. I’m not as strong as you, or as fast as you. Even if I already knew how to fight, I could never beat you. What… what…” he clenched his fists, knowing that nothing he said could adequately portray the levels of aggravation he was feeling. “What do you expect me to do?”
There was a long stretch of silence as the two of them faced off. Zashiel glared at him with her icy gaze, but said nothing. As the moments passed, Toke’s anger began to dissipate, and he wondered whether he had gone too far. When Zashiel finally spoke, breaking the tension, it was a relief.
“You’re wrong,” she said, her tone as hard as her eyes. “You’re not a Sorakine, but you’re not a human either. You’re a Juryokine. You might not be as strong as I am, but there are still ways you can fight me. Your powers give you an advantage no human or Sorakine could ever have. It’s just your own stubbornness that keeps you from figuring that out.”
This caught Toke off guard. That advice… it actually sounded helpful. His temper hadn’t wasn’t completely cooled off yet, though, and he wasn’t about to let her off the hook that easily.
“You’re a Sorakine,” he argued. “You have all the same powers I do.”
“But you have more agility,” Zashiel shot back. “Look at these.”
She spread her wings for him, displaying their full length— and, Toke realized for the first time, their bulk.
“In the air, I’ll always have the advantage over you,” she went on, “just because you can’t fly. But here on the ground, you should have the advantage. Even when I have them tucked in, these wings are extra weight on my back that you don’t have. When I alter gravity, it’s so I can fly. When you do it, it’s so you can walk on walls and ceilings. Don’t you get it? Everyone else is stuck on the ground, but you… any solid surface you see belongs to you!”
“But I…” Toke stammered, trying to come to grips with this revelation. “But I don’t know how to do any of that!”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to teach you!” Zashiel snapped. The anger on her face slowly melted away, though, and she looked at the ground self-consciously. “But, maybe you’re right. Maybe I have been going about this the wrong way.”
After another moment’s hesitation, she looked back up at Toke and lowered herself into a fighting stance again.
“Come at me,” she instructed. “But go slow.”
For a second, Toke wasn’t sure what to make of this. Telling him to move in slow motion wasn’t the only odd thing. In the past Zashiel had always taken the initiative and attacked first, claiming that the first one to strike was the one who would control the battle. The fact that she was allowing Toke to make the first move… could that mean she wasn’t focused on winning this time?
Regardless of her reasoning, Toke decided to make the best of it and did as she said. He came forward, swinging the axe in his right hand in a wide arc, moving slowly like she had instructed.
“Wrong,” Zashiel said suddenly, just as her hand moved. Though she moved with just as much careful slowness as Toke did, she had no trouble deflecting his attack. “Never make such wide movements. It leaves you open to retaliation.” She illustrated this point by bringing her other chakram up and pressing it against his chest. “Dead. Try again.”
Toke backed away a few steps, and then came forward again. This time he swung the other axe, keeping the one in his right hand defensively in front of his chest. Zashiel knocked his attack away again, but when her hand came out to hit him in the chest he managed to block it. The rubber covered steel made a dull clunk as they collided, but then Zashiel had brought her other chakram around and touched him on the throat with it.
“Dead,” she said for the third time, but her tone was softer than it had been before. It was a gentle rebuke, not a taunt, and as a result Toke didn’t feel angry when went back to his side to attack again. Rather, he felt intrigued. His cunning inventor’s brain had kicked into gear, searching for a way to overcome his adversary.
“It’s a puzzle,” he whispered to himself, and actually felt a smile tugging at his lips. This fight was a puzzle. He liked puzzles. Nothing made him happier than using his brain to discover the solution to a tough problem. Every puzzle had an answer, he just had to find it. And there had been something he’d noticed the last time they’d exchanged blows…
“What are you waiting for?” Zashiel asked, flexing her wrists, chakrams reflecting light across the walls.
That’s it, Toke thought, the last piece of the puzzle falling into place. He knew what he needed to do.
He stepped forward and swung one of his axes at her, just as he had the first time. He saw Zashiel’s mouth tighten in irritation, but she didn’t stop him. She stopped the axe with one hand, and attacked with the other. It hit Toke’s other axe, just as he knew it would. Zashiel’s movements stopped, obviously thinking the fight was over.
“I told you,” she said sternly, “never use the same attack twice.”
But Toke wasn’t listening to her. He gave a quick glance at the axe that separated Zashiel’s chakram from his chest, and twisted his wrist. The axe rotated with it, and the hook-like spike caught the inside of the bladed ring. Before Zashiel could realize what he was doing, Toke pulled his arm away, struggling in his excitement to keep moving in slow motion, and the chakram came free of the Sorakine’s hand, clattering to the ground between them.
An ecstatic laugh burst from Toke’s mouth just before Zashiel’s other chakram shot out and struck him on the neck.
“Did you think the fight was over just because you took one of my weapons?” she asked, but from this close Toke couldn’t help but see the glimmer in her own eyes. “The fight’s never over until the other person can’t attack anymore.”
“I know,” Toke agreed, unable to hide the pride in his voice. “But you’ve got to admit, that was a good move.”
“It took you three fights to figure it out,” Zashiel said, finally backing away. “In a real fight, you wouldn’t have even gotten a second chance. Besides,” she held out her empty hand and the chakram zipped back into it, “I could have gotten it back if I’d wanted to.”
Frowning, Toke went back to his side. He tried to keep hold of his excitement, but could feel it leaking away through the hole Zashiel had punched in it.
“Still,” she said, giving a nonchalant shrug, “I guess there’s something to be said for disarming a Sorakine. Not just anybody can do it.”
His confidence returned, and Toke gave her a sly grin. “So, I’m already getting better, huh?”
Seeing his expression, Zashiel smirked in amusement. “You tell me,” she said before turning into a white and yellow blur of movement. Before he could register what was happening, Toke’s feet were kicked out from under him, both of his axes were jerked from his hands, and he was falling. Just as his head was about to strike the rocky floor beneath him, Zashiel grabbed the front of his jacket, suspending him less than an inch off the ground.
“Okay,” Toke admitted after taking a few seconds to figure out what had just happened, “maybe I’m not as good as I thought.”
Zashiel laughed at this, an honest, good natured laugh, and released him, letting him fall softly onto his back. He laughed too, and picked himself up for another bout. For the next several hours, the two of them exchanged blows. Toke’s overconfidence quickly faded as he only managed to land a couple of lucky strikes on his wily opponent, but his spirits never sank to despair like they had before. He could do this, he kept repeating to himself every time he found himself disarmed or on the ground. He could.
“I think that’s enough,” Zashiel said at last. Toke lowered his axes, breathing heavily, and looked up to see that the small circle of sky above him was beginning to turn purple with the sunset.
“You did well,” Zashiel said, hanging her chakrams on her jacket. “Remember the exercises I gave you, and we’ll do this again tomorrow.”
Toke cringed a little at the thought of Zashiel’s exercises. They would build up his muscle in no time, but only if they didn’t kill him first. Still, he had to admit, between fighting Sorakines and Gravity Storm-wielding psychos, a lengthy workout in the morning was the least of his problems.
As Zashiel put her supplies back into the numerous pockets of her jacket, Toke reached up and felt his arm. His body ached, but not in the same way it had the previous night. This was a different sort of pain, the kind that came after a long day of hard work. This was a kind of pain, he was surprised to discover, that he didn’t entirely hate. But the stiffness in his muscles wasn’t the reason he was touching them. Was it just him, or were they harder now? Not by much, and definitely not enough to see, but he could swear that he was already…
“Come on,” Zashiel said, interrupting his thoughts. “Let’s get you back. You’ve been missing for a whole day. People are probably starting to wonder where you are.”
“Yeah,” Toke said, his face turning a shade pinker, and he hurried over to where she was waiting. As she wrapped her arms around him and took off, he briefly wondered if she had noticed him checking out his muscles. He hoped she hadn’t.
Cold winds buffeted them as Zashiel flew, a startling contrast to the warm, humid ones closer to the ground, and Toke pulled his jacket tighter around himself. With the visor over his face, he didn’t hesitate to open his eyes and take in the view again. Even at the incredible speed Zashiel was going, the landscape below them was breathtaking. All too soon, though, Zashiel angled out of her flight and landed back in their designated hideout. This time, Toke couldn’t help but look longingly up at the sky again when she set him down.
“Just be here when your class ends tomorrow,” Zashiel laughed. “Think you can keep yourself on the ground that long?”
Toke cracked a smile and turned to look at her. “Everything’s the ground for me, remember?”
“That’s true,” Zashiel agreed, and flexed her wings behind her. “It’s too bad you can’t fly, though. I can’t imagine what it would be like, stuck on the ground my whole life. The sky is freedom.”
“Yeah,” Toke agreed. Hesitantly, he added, “Hey, I’m sorry for not believing you before.”
Zashiel’s shoulders went rigid, and for a second Toke thought he had upset her again. Instead, she shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you believe me now.” She sighed. “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have believed that story if I hadn’t been there to see it. So, I guess I can’t really blame you.”
“The question now,” Toke said, “is how we’re going to stop him.”
“One step at a time,” Zashiel interjected. “First, we need to figure out how he’s doing this in the first place. More often than not, the key to the puzzle is in the puzzle itself.”
Toke looked at her in surprise. “That’s one of Professor Navras’ sayings. I didn’t think you knew anything about him.”
“Is he the one who said that?” Zashiel asked, giving him a curious glance. She shrugged. “Everyone knows about Dranibor Navras. You humans aren’t the only ones who power things with jidoryo.”
She paused. “Sorry, I meant the humans, seeing as how you’re not one anymore.”
A tingle ran down Toke’s spine. “Yeah,” he agreed, reluctantly, “I’m still getting used to that.”
“Well, I won’t keep you any longer,” she said, stepping aside so he could leave. “Be back here tomorrow and don’t forget to do your exercises.”
“Right, I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, heading for the street.
“Wait,” Zashiel’s hand shot out and grabbed his shoulder. “Leave the jacket here.”
With a start, Toke realized he’d forgotten to take off his Sorakine jacket. If there was one thing that would give him away, it was parading through town wearing that. He quickly unzipped it and handed it to her.
“I’ve already prepared a place for it,” she said, going further back into the alley. A storm drain sat in the street, just below the edge of the sidewalk. She pulled the grate out, and then placed the jacket inside.
“I blocked it off from the other drains,” she explained, putting the cover back down. “Nobody will think to look for it there.”
“Good idea,” Toke nodded, and turned to leave again. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The walk back to the university was a quick one that night. When he shut the big wooden door behind him, he was tempted to just go to his room and sleep. His body was practically begging for it, and he knew he would need it after the day he’d had. Instead, though, he turned the other way and headed for the inventors’ workshop. He had missed class entirely that day, something he’d never done before, and Navras was sure to be upset. Toke was working on borrowed time, after all. Even if he couldn’t explain the circumstances, the least he could do was apologize. As he walked, he tried to come up with a suitable lie.
To his relief, Virkhul was not at his desk when he arrived, and so he simply knocked on the classroom door. There was no answer, but when Toke tested the knob he found it unlocked. The workshop was dark, but that wasn’t unusual this time of night. Navras was known to stay late and work in his private office at the back of the room. As Toke approached, he saw light shining underneath the door.
“Professor?” he asked, knocking softly on the door. He had no idea what Navras was working on, but there were lots of reasons not to startle an inventor when he was working. A few seconds later, the door opened a crack.
“Toke?” the professor asked, and then opened the door the rest of the way. He pulled a rag out of his shoddy work coat and began to wipe oil from his hands. “I didn’t expect to see you today.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Toke said, his brain still scrambling for a lie to tell him.
Navras tucked the rag back into his pocket and stepped into the classroom and gave Toke a stern look. “If you were anyone else, it wouldn’t bother me. Everyone needs to skip class now and then. But you, Toke, are working on a tight schedule. If you don’t get your new battery done within a month, your chance to be an inventor will be gone.”
“I know, Professor,” Toke said, looking contritely down at his shoes. “I’m sorry.”
Navras walked to the wall and flipped on the lights. “Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to know why you…” he turned back around to look at him, and froze. “Your face!”
“What?” Toke asked, just before realizing he was looking at the scar on his cheek. He self-consciously covered it with his hand.
“Where did you get that?” Navras demanded, suddenly advancing on him. Toke saw the fire in the old inventor’s eyes, and couldn’t help but take but take a step back.
“I, uh,” Toke stammered. Navras grabbed his hand and, with surprising strength, pulled it away from his face. They both fell silent for a few tense seconds.
“It happened again, didn’t it?” the professor asked at last, his voice tense. “The Nails…”
Toke’s brain was struggling to catch up, and all he could do was stutter in reply, unsure of what he was even trying to say. Finally, Navras released his hand and backed away, shaking with silent rage.
“Professor,” Toke said hesitantly, “I’m sorry…”
“Smite it!” the old man roared, slamming both fists down onto his desk so hard that his reading lamp fell off and shattered on the floor. Toke turned pale when he saw blood dripping from his teacher’s knuckles.
“Smite it,” he said again, quieter this time. “This has gotten out of hand!”
“Professor, I didn’t mean to—”
“Why don’t they do anything about this?” Navras demanded, ignoring his hand as it continued to drip blood on the floor. He glanced at the fragments of the lamp and went to retrieve a broom and dustpan. “Why do they keep choosing to ignore it?”
“Who?” Toke asked, still afraid to stand too close to him.
“The government!” Navras snapped, sweeping the glass shards up and dumping them into the waste basket beside his desk. “This is beyond ridiculous. If the Nails were some upstart gang in an out of the way town, I might understand. But this is Yasmik’s capitol! Those maniacs are a serious threat.”
Navras finally seemed to notice the blood running down his arm now, and, sighing, sat down behind his desk and took a roll of bandages out of a drawer. While he was wrapping his hand, he asked, “Have you seen what they’ve started writing on buildings?”
Toke nodded, a nervous knot forming in his stomach. “We own this city,” he answered.
Navras shook his head. “I have growing suspicions that the Nails may not be just a street gang. They might be a cleverly disguised political movement.”
Toke arched an eyebrow at this, but composed himself when he remembered who he was speaking to. Navras was the most reasonable man he knew. If he really thought that, Toke was sure he had a good reason for it.
“Many people would think I was a fool for saying such things,” Navras admitted. “Even you.” He held up a weary hand. “Don’t lie to me, I saw the look on your face. I can’t fault you for thinking so, either. Even I’m not sure if I’m right yet. Remember, I said they were just suspicions as of now.”
Navras squared his shoulders and stood up, a resolute look on his face. “But I was a general in the Vlangurtian war. The only reason my men and I weren’t killed was because I never ignored the possibility of a threat. If I even suspected that something might happen, I made a point to investigate it until I was satisfied one way or another. The other officers, and even my own men, often said I was overly cautious, if not completely paranoid, but when Vlangur’s army arrived at our border mine was the only squad left after the Sorakines…”
Navras’ voice trailed off, and his eyes seemed to be far away. His mouth curled down in a scowl. Then, just as quickly as it had come, the professor was back in the present.
“Perhaps I’m wrong,” he said hurriedly. “Perhaps the Nails really are nothing but a street gang. But until I have undeniable proof to the contrary, I will entertain these wild thoughts of mine.”
Toke felt breathless. Looking at his professor, once again he saw the man he had once been. Strong and defiant, a warrior like Yasmik had never known before, or since. He was standing in the presence of a legend, and the thought alone made Toke’s knees want to give out from sheer awe.
Then, Navras seemed to realize where he was, and who he was, and his aura of heroism faded away, leaving Toke alone with the inventor he’d always idolized.
“Bah,” he said quietly, looking at his bandaged hand, “perhaps it doesn’t even matter. What would I do even if I were right? I’m old now. My days of fighting are behind me.”
“If you’re right, sir,” Toke spoke slowly, “then people need to know.”
Navras turned to look at his pupil, his face weary, and said, “Yes, they do. But it is no longer my place to fight such battles. That mantle must be passed to someone else.”
Before Toke could say anything further, the professor stood up, took him by the shoulder, and led him to the door.
“Don’t worry about missing class,” he said. “Under the circumstances, I think such a thing can be forgiven. Just try to be more careful. The streets are anything but safe these days.”
“Yes, sir,” Toke said as he was gently pushed back into the hallway. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Professor.”
After the door closed behind him, Toke turned and made his way back to his room, Navras’ words echoing in his mind. A political movement in disguise? It was an outrageous theory, one that he would have discarded at once if anybody but Navras had been the one to say it. Then again, it wasn’t the only outrageous theory he’d accepted that day. In fact…
He paused for a moment in the middle of the hallway. Zashiel was convinced that the Gravity Storms were the work of somebody in the government. Navras thought that the Nails could be a political movement. Could there be some connection? Like Navras said, it was a stretch, but he had seen things over the past couple days that had redefined what he’d thought was possible. But how were they connected? And why?
He had too little evidence to work with to suggest it to Zashiel. He would continue to help her figure out how the spearman was controlling the Gravity Storms, and investigate the Nails on his own. For that, he decided as he headed for his room, he would need Zashiel’s training.
NEXT TIME: Looks like Toke’s finally starting to take the mission seriously! And all it took was a near-death encounter with the spearman. What about Navras’ theory, though? Could the Nails have something to do with the Gravity Storms?