“I can’t believe this,” Toke whispered.
He sat in the chair beside Wayli’s bed, hunched over so that his chin almost rested on the mattress. Boam stood with his back against the wall behind him, not saying anything.
Wayli’s eyes were closed, and the skin around one of them was a dark purple. Her lips were swollen too, and the doctors had already applied a cast to her right arm, which was suspended upwards at an angle to keep her from rolling over on it. She was breathing peacefully as she slept, the painkillers dulling her mind so much that she hadn’t been able to stay awake. She’d gone to sleep long before had Toke arrived.
“They said she was out walking alone,” Boam spoke up, his voice numb. “The Nails jumped her, took her money, and then beat her when she called for help. Broken arm, cracked ribs, three stab wounds.”
Toke felt like he would throw up.
“It’s dangerous to go walking around Jerulkan at night these days,” said Professor Navras. He stood by the doorway with his arms folded behind his back. When he’d heard Boam, he had immediately offered to give them a ride to the hospital.
“This is my fault,” Boam muttered, and Toke turned around in his seat to look at him. He had never seen his friend so downcast. “I was supposed to go with her, but I told her I was too busy. So she decided to go by herself.”
“Don’t say that,” Toke said, getting up to stand beside him. He put a hand on his shoulder. “If you had been there, you would have just gotten hurt too.”
“And maybe Wayli would have gotten hurt less.”
Toke frowned, but couldn’t think of anything else to say. Across the room, Navras cleared his throat.
“We have a saying in the Yasmik military,” he said. “Think once of what has been done, and twice of what is to come. It means you shouldn’t dwell on what’s already happened, focus on the future and what you can do to stop it from ever happening again.”
Boam looked up at him, looking like he wanted to say something, but then he hung his head again with a sigh. Toke grimaced and patted his back before sitting down again. Wayli looked peaceful lying there in that bed, but he remembered how the doctor had said she’d been crying when she was wheeled in.
“It wasn’t from the pain,” he had said. “She kept going on about how ‘it was over.’”
The doctor hadn’t known what she meant, but Toke did. With her family homeless and jobless, there was no way they could pay her hospital bill and keep her in school. As soon as she was released, she would be on her way home, never to be seen by Toke or Boam again. The thing that hurt Toke the most was that, even with her eyes swollen shut and her arm broken, leaving her education unfinished was the thing that tormented her more than anything else. The thought was too much for him to take, and he looked at his lap so Boam and Navras wouldn’t see his face when he started to cry. He reached out and grabbed a handful of Wayli’s blankets, just because it felt better to grip something. He imagined it was the neck of the Nail that had hurt his friend, and not a lifeless piece of fabric. If only…
“This is outrageous,” the professor muttered, shaking his head. “That gang is out of control, and good people are getting hurt. Somebody needs to do something about it.”
Toke looked up a little. Navras was right, somebody needed to do something. Toke was a Juryokine, trained to fight by a Sorakine warrior. Maybe he could do something. He couldn’t undo what had happened to Wayli, but maybe he could stop it from ever happening again.
Scooting his chair back from the bed, he stood up.
“Where are you going?” Boam asked. “She needs us—”
“I can’t do anything for her here,” Toke answered, heading for the door. Before his friend could protest more, he was out, and he didn’t look back. A fierce, grim determination burned in him now as he left the hospital and stepped back onto the sidewalk. He immediately turned in the direction of the school, almost hoping a Nail would jump out and try something.
He went to his dorm and slammed the door behind him before anchoring himself to the ceiling. He knelt down to unscrew the vent again, but in his agitation he couldn’t get a good grip on the screws. With a grunt of annoyance, he grabbed the metal web and yanked it free, sending flecks of dust and drywall scattering all over his room. He dropped it, ignoring the clatter it made when it hit the floor, and retrieved his jacket and the harness. A minute later, he had it safely hidden under his shirt, and he vanished into the night again.
Half an hour of aimless wandering later, he heard the sound of flapping wings, and Zashiel touched down next to him. They were both in an alley, safe from the eyes of anyone looking in from the street. He kept staring fixatedly at the wall, even when she spoke to him.
“I found a few books,” she said, dropping a heavy looking bag on the ground. “I tried to read a couple, but they’re too technical for me to understand. So, are you…” she paused when she saw the look on his face. “Toke, are you all right?”
Toke didn’t reply, and Zashiel slowly turned to see what he was glaring at. On the wall, painted right over the dark red bricks, was an image of a nail. Above it, in bold black letters, was written, “This city belongs to us!”
“Toke, what happened?” Zashiel asked, turning to face him again. He still ignored her, refusing to take his eyes off the perverse graffiti. “Toke?”
Slowly, Toke moved. Instead of answering, he reached underneath his shirt and brought out one of his axes. Then, with speed and strength Zashiel’s training had given him, he slung it forward, burying the blade deep inside the brick wall.
“They hurt a friend of mine,” he finally said, his voice quivering with emotion. “I want to hurt them back.”
Zashiel was quiet for a long moment, and when she spoke her voice was heavy with concern. “That isn’t like you, Toke. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
Toke nodded, still not taking his eyes off the wall. “Nobody hurts my friends. Not now that I can do something about it. I’m going after them tonight, and I’m bringing them down. Are you helping me or not?”
Zashiel nodded solemnly and lifted her hood up. “I can tell I’m not going to change your mind, so I may as well come with you and make sure you don’t get yourself killed.”
Zashiel didn’t share his newfound hatred for the Nails, and that was okay with him. She had killed one of their members just for stealing someone’s pocket watch. That meant she would be prepared for what was going to happen.
“Just be careful,” she told him as he unpacked his jacket and put it on. “Everyone still thinks you’re a terrorist, so the police will be all over the place as soon as they hear that you’re there.”
“I’m not worried about the police,” Toke said as he flipped his hood up. “I can take them out as easily as I will the Nails.”
“It would be better to avoid taking out the police at all,” she argued. “Besides, if word gets out that you’re running around Jerulkan, the police won’t be the only ones who show up.”
That thought made Toke pause, just as he was about to step up onto the wall. “If Klevon shows up,” he finally said, “then I’ll deal with him too.”
“No, Toke,” Zashiel snapped, lifting off the ground to hover just above him. “Klevon is a Sorakine Seraph. You’re getting stronger, but you’re not that strong. Don’t ignore your limits. Now let’s go.”
She took off, flying to the top of the building and waiting for Toke to catch up. When he joined her, he crouched on the edge of the roof, looking across the city like a gargoyle. After a minute, he jumped to the next building across the street, and Zashiel followed.
“What’s your plan?” she asked, landing on the roof and folding her wings.
“Find one, and follow him back to their hideout,” Toke answered. He pointed into an alleyway three buildings away. “There.”
“That looks like one of them,” Zashiel replied, following his line of sight to a thug with a cloth sack covering his head. He lurked in the shadows, invisible from the road, waiting for the next innocent pedestrian to walk by. From his perch, Toke could even see the glint of a knife in the weak streetlamp light.
Without having to be told, Toke jumped across the street again, and took up a position directly above the Nail. Zashiel stayed back a ways so that her wings wouldn’t give them away. And then they waited…
Come on, you dropper, Toke thought, his hands already itching to grab his axes. Do something!
It was almost like spying at the Capitol again, except this time he wasn’t looking for information. He was waiting for an opportunity to hurt somebody. He considered jumping down right then, but that wouldn’t work. If he wanted the Nail to lead him all the way back to his hideout, Toke would have to catch him at just the right moment.
Fifteen minutes later, something finally happened. A man walked past the alleyway, glancing at his watch and not paying any attention to his surroundings. The Nail moved to intercept him, and Toke moved to intercept the Nail.
“Hey, dropper!” the mugger said, throwing his shoulder into the man’s back. With a twist, he threw the man into the wall, and brought up his knife. “Gimme your—”
The Nail’s knife flew from his hand and went clattering out into the road. The Nail looked at his hand in shock for a few seconds, and then looked up just in time to see Toke pull his axe back to his hand. Toke was standing upright on the wall, at a ninety degree angle to the people below him.
“What the?” the Nail exclaimed, backing away and giving his victim all the encouragement he needed to escape.
Toke didn’t say anything. He jumped from the wall, and fell lightly to the ground in front of the mugger, gripping both of his axes in his hands.
“Hey, man,” the Nail said, backing away a few steps, “I don’t want no trouble. Just let me go, ‘kay?”
He bent down and picked up his knife. Toke let him do it. It was part of the plan. He held the knife up in a threatening stance, and Toke almost smiled with amusement. This idiot had no idea who he was dealing with.
“If you touch me,” the Nail warned him, “I’ll kill you, you hear?”
Toke snorted, but still didn’t say anything. He reached out with his powers, found the knife, and pulled it out of the mugger’s hand. It flew across the distance between them, and he knocked it aside with his axe just before it struck him.
“Smite,” the Nail said, taking another step backwards. He was scared. Perfect. Now Toke needed to terrify him. A quick jerk of his head gave Zashiel the signal, and she landed behind the Nail. He spun around, and she immediately spread her wings, flaring the light.
“Oh, smite!” the Nail shouted, falling down and scooting away from the Sorakine woman on his rump. In his panic, he forgot about Toke, and backed right up into him. He looked up, and Toke looked down, both of them seeing each other upside down.
“Run,” was the only thing Toke had to say. Without another word, the Nail got up and ran as fast as he could, vanishing around the corner.
“Follow him,” Toke said, “but stay out of sight.”
He jumped back up onto the building he had just been on, and jumped from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of the thug. Zashiel flew behind him, staying a whole building away from him to keep from being spotted. Below them, the Nail zigzagged through the streets and alleyways, always heading in the same general direction. He knew where he was going, and Toke prayed to whoever was listening that the destination was the Nails’ hideout, and not the muggers home.
They had long since crossed into the bad part of Jerulkan. The roads were filled with cracks and potholes, and most of the lamps weren’t working. It seemed like half of the buildings were abandoned, and those that weren’t looked like they were ready to collapse from disrepair. The perfect place for a gang to make their headquarters, Toke thought. He stopped atop a dilapidated old house and peered over the edge just as the Nail came to a warehouse. This structure was different from the others because, even though it was falling apart with age, boards had been nailed over all the windows, and a pair of strong looking doors barred the way in. The Nail paused, looked around, and then knocked on the door. A few seconds later, it opened, and he disappeared inside.
Toke remained where he was, and Zashiel came to join him. “There it is,” he said, pointing at the warehouse. “Now we need to get inside.”
“Don’t,” Zashiel said, putting her hand on his shoulder. When he looked at her to argue, she said, “Just hear me out for a minute, okay?”
Toke glared at her from behind his visor, the urge to jump down and storm the place almost too strong to ignore.
“It’s not like they’re going anywhere,” she snapped impatiently.
That was true, at least. He and Zashiel had all night to do this, so with a huff he nodded to her.
“Have you thought this out?” she asked, looking down at the Nails’ hideout.
“I told you, I’m not scared of them,” Toke answered. “Or of the police, if they show up.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Zashiel squeezed his shoulder so hard that he had to fight not to wince. “What are you going to do to them when you get inside?”
“I’m going to pay them back for what they did to my friend,” Toke said, his patience growing thinner by the minute.
Zashiel rounded on him, and he could feel the cold stare coming from under her hood. “How, Toke? By killing them?”
The accusing tone in her voice made Toke’s face burn with embarrassment, but he forced himself to look directly into her visor when he answered. “Why not? They’ve killed lots of people, and hurt even more of them. Killing them would be doing this whole city a favor.”
Zashiel shook her head. “That’s not you talking Toke, that’s your anger. You might be a good fighter, but the Toke I know wouldn’t decide to kill people that easily.”
Toke snorted, and smirked incredulously. “Seriously? This coming from you? The first thing you ever said to me was that you killed a Nail for stealing a locket. Now you’re going to tell me that killing the whole gang is going too far?”
Zashiel sighed and looked down at the warehouse again. “No,” she said at last, “that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just telling you to think about it first. If you think killing the Nails is the right thing to do, then I’ll go in there with you and help you do it. But, there’s something you need to know, first…”
She backed away from the edge a few steps and lowered her hood. Toke hissed in surprise, and looked around, suddenly paranoid that Klevon was somewhere nearby, watching them.
“Put that back on!” he snapped. “Somebody could see you!”
“We’re fine, Toke,” she said. “Take yours off too. This needs to be said face to face.”
Hesitantly, Toke stepped away from the edge and lowered his hood as well. The night breeze ran through his hair, refreshing, but he still felt remarkably naked with his face exposed.
“Killing somebody is a one way road,” Zashiel said, looking Toke directly in the eye. “When your enemy dies, he isn’t the only one. Something inside of you dies along with him. Do you know what that is, Toke?”
He shook his head.
“Your last shred of innocence,” she went on, putting a hand over her chest. “Nobody is completely innocent, but there’s always small piece that stays with you, no matter what happens. The only thing that can change that,” she turned her hand around, and poked Toke in the chest, “is killing another person. When you take someone’s life, and accept your responsibility for it, that last piece of innocence goes away,” she waved her hand past Toke’s face, fluttering her fingers, “and you can never get it back.”
She stepped backwards again, her eyes still fixed on Toke’s. “I lost that innocence years ago. Do you want the truth, Toke? The honest to the skies truth? If I could get it back, if it were at all possible, there is nothing I wouldn’t do to make that happen. I can’t make the decision for you, but I can say that I genuinely don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”
Toke pressed his lips together into a thin line, and felt some of his anger leak out of his heels.
What am I doing? he thought, suddenly feeling ashamed of himself. Wayli had her arm broken, and now I want to kill an entire gang of people? Zashiel’s right, that isn’t me!
“Sorry,” he said, looking sheepishly down at his feet. “I… got carried away.”
“They hurt your friend, so you want to hurt them back,” Zashiel said, putting her hand on his shoulder again. “That’s natural. You have to learn to recognize where a mission turns into revenge.”
“So, what should we do?”
“This is your mission,” Zashiel said. “You’re the only one who can decide that. So,” she led him back to the edge of the building, and pointed at the warehouse, “do every single one of the Nails in there deserve to die because of what happened to your friend?”
“No,” he said quietly.
“What do you think they deserve?”
“To be caught, to be sent to jail,” he said, still feeling numb. “And… maybe to be hurt. Just a little.”
Zashiel clapped him on the back. “That’s more like it, Toke. Let’s go in there and teach them a lesson.”
Toke nodded his agreement, and they both put their hoods up.
NEXT TIME: Zashiel may have calmed Toke down, but they’re still going to take down the Nails. What’s waiting for them inside that warehouse, though? Just a gang of street thugs? Or could it be something more?