Chapter Twenty Four
“Take it easy, Toke,” a familiar voice said as the young man began to drift back to consciousness. He was sure he knew that voice from somewhere, but it was warped by the aching throb in his head.
With a groan, he opened his eyes, and the lights above him awoke a new explosion of pain in his skull. In the split second he’d had them open, he had seen a room with faded gray wallpaper. It wasn’t enough to tell him where he was, though.
“You have a concussion,” the voice spoke up again. “Lie there and don’t move.”
His head was clearing, despite the lingering pain, and Toke could discern a couple details about whoever was speaking. It was a man’s voice, a grown man. That ruled out Zashiel, naturally. He remembered the string of events leading up to him being knocked out. Wayli in the hospital, chasing the Nail, taking on the entire gang… killing Permissor Adal’s son.
I didn’t kill him, Toke told himself, fighting off the initial wave of guilt. He killed himself.
That didn’t solve the mystery of where he was now, though. After he’d fallen off the building with Lampa, he had seen somebody, hadn’t he? That meant that whoever it was must have been there, watching the entire time. His first thought went to the police, and then, even worse, to Klevon. But that couldn’t be right either. Klevon wanted the Juryokine dead, and the police thought he was an assassin— an assumption probably not helped by the fact that Lampa was now dead. Toke was lying on a table that had, if he wasn’t mistaken, been covered with sheets and a pillow to be more comfortable for him. So, if it wasn’t Klevon or the police, then who…
“Sit up, Toke,” the voice interrupted his thoughts. “I need to check your wound.”
Toke… Whoever this was, he knew his name. Unable to resist anymore, he forced his eyes open, ignoring the blinding light, and sat up.
“Don’t move so quickly,” said the last man on Fissura he’d expected to see in front of him. “You’ll only make it worse.”
“Professor Navras,” Toke gasped, and almost passed out again from the shock. The old man’s hand shot out and caught his shoulder, keeping him from falling backwards and hurting his head more.
“Yes,” Navras said, his face grave, “and I’m afraid you have a lot of explaining to do, Cassitoka.”
For once, being called by his full name seemed like the least of Toke’s problems.
“I’m not an assassin, sir,” he said, even as the professor began to dab salve onto a bump on his head. “I was just spying on Permissor Adal, not…” he paused when he saw the look on Navras’ face. “That’s not much better, is it?”
“I’m afraid not,” Navras agreed, and took a step back. “You’re lucky I was the first one to find you out there, and not a police officer.”
A thought occurred to Toke. “Why were you the first one to find me, sir?”
“Because I followed you,” the old inventor said, going to a sink by the wall to wash the salve off his hands. “After what happened in the hospital, I was worried that you would try to do something reckless. As it turns out, I was right to be worried. What on earth were you trying to do, Toke?”
Toke swung his legs out over the table and took a quick look around. The room looked like a small office, with a desk in the far corner and several pictures and memorabilia hanging from the wall.
“Trying to take out the Nails,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
“A noble cause if I’ve ever heard one,” Navras said, wryly. “But hardly the responsibility of a twenty year old inventor student, is it?”
“Well,” Toke said, hesitantly. How much was it safe to tell him? Then again, he realized with a sinking feeling, Navras had probably worked out most of it on his own already. “Lately, I’ve been doing some other things on the side.”
“That’s putting it lightly,” Navras finished drying his hands and threw the towel into the corner. “Stop playing games with me, Toke. What’s going on?”
Toke sighed. “Remember that Sorakine girl, Zashiel, I told you was following me, Professor? I know you told me to stay out of her business, but she… well, she was really persuasive. Have you ever heard of a Juryokine?”
Navras shook his head. “I can’t say that I have.”
Toke gave him a quick rundown on what a Juryokine was and how they were made. “Zashiel had a theory that the Gravity Storms are manmade, and she wanted my help in proving it.” He waited to see his professor’s reaction to this, but Navras kept his face neutral. “She said that the most likely people to be doing something like this would be our politicians.”
“And so you swallowed a feather given to you by a Sorakine you barely knew so that you could commit treason?” Navras asked, his raised eyebrows the only indication of how displeased he was.
“Um,” Toke hummed in his throat, and scratched the back of his neck. “If it helps, sir, she’s managed to convince me.”
“I’m not concerned with her theory,” Navras snapped. “What concerns me is that my best and brightest student apparently doesn’t have enough common sense not to become the most wanted man in Yasmik!”
Toke flinched at those words. The professor stood up and began pacing the room.
“You were caught spying on a Yasmik politician, and then fought your way out of the Capitol. Then, not even a week later, you murder the son of the man you were spying on!”
“I didn’t murder him!” Toke yelled, and then immediately clapped his hand over his mouth and looked warily at the door.
Navras stopped pacing, and gave him a grave look. “You will have a hard time convincing his father of that. The evidence is against you.”
“Lampa was the leader of the Nails,” Toke explained, talking so fast his words ran together. “I didn’t know it was him. I didn’t mean to kill him. That was his own fault!”
“Toke,” Navras held up a hand, and the expression on his face looked very, very tired, “calm down. I believe you.”
Toke took a deep breath and made himself relax. “Sorry, sir. I’m just a little on edge, I guess.”
Navras stared at him for a few seconds, and then his expression softened— though not by much. “If nothing else, you did this for a good reason. The same can be said for becoming a Juryokine as well, I suppose.”
The Gravity Storms. Toke looked at his professor, and an idea came to him. Who knew more about jidoryo than Dranibor Navras? Maybe he could help them!
“Zashiel and I made a couple discoveries,” he said slowly, testing to see how his teacher would react. “I think we might actually be closing in on something.”
Navras gave him a flat stare, and then shook his head and sat down in a chair against the far wall. “I can tell you’re not going to calm down until you’ve told me everything. You may as well begin.”
He may as well begin, the professor said. There was so much to tell, though, that Toke didn’t know where to begin.
“First of all,” he said, “I think we’ve found out who’s causing the Storms.” He waved his hand when Navras opened his mouth to interrupt. “We don’t know who he is, exactly, but, well, he’s kind of hard to miss. He wears armor that glows the same color of green as the Gravity Storms, and he carries a spear. Zashiel has seen him three times, and I’ve seen him twice. We even fought him, and,” Toke hesitated, and subconsciously ran his fingers along the scar on his cheek. “Truth be told, sir, he was the one who gave me this. Not the Nails.”
This, finally, seemed to get Navras’ attention. “You have a suspect, then? And one who is clearly connected to the Storms, if what you say is true.”
“I’m telling the truth,” Toke insisted, leaning forward. “I even saw him using his suit to make a small Storm around himself. You…” he faltered. “You believe me, right?”
Navras sighed, and leaned back in his chair. “Unfortunately, I do. I have wondered for a long time whether the Gravity Storms were natural or not. If they were, then it would make no sense for them to only now begin occurring. If they are indeed manmade, then that can explain quite a lot. The question is, how is this spearman doing it?”
“Actually, we have a theory about that too.” Toke paused to think about how to explain it. “We just came up with this one today, though, so we’re not sure how feasible it is. We found out that when you charge the juryo in a Sorakine’s feathers with jidoryo, it creates a chemical called kaosuryo that throws gravity into chaos. What’s more, it turns the juryo green.”
“Green like the Storms,” Navras concluded. He began to stroke his beard in thought. “That makes sense. Combine the colors blue and yellow, and you get green.”
Toke sat upright in astonishment. “You mean the Storms are green just because the colors are mixing together?”
“It seems as likely as anything else you’ve told me today. But the question remains, how is he accomplishing this?”
Toke shook his head. “We still don’t know. The Sorakines have these flying green balls called dodgers that use kaosuryo, but the Storms would need almost infinitely more power to do the damage they’re causing.”
“I agree,” Navras confirmed. He hummed in his throat. “Perhaps there is some validity to this plan of yours after all, Toke. I would like to help you, if you’ll let me.”
Toke, who had taken a minute to look around the room they were in, whipped his head around to look at the professor again. “Help?” he echoed back. “You… you want to help me and Zashiel catch the spearman?”
“For more reasons than one,” the old man said, nodding. “You are trying to do something good here, Toke. I respect that. But you’re flailing about in the dark, with no clear direction of where you need to go. Perhaps I can be of service there.
“Furthermore,” he said, folding his hands behind his back and giving his pupil a stern look, “you know how I feel about Sorakines. I would be much more at ease if I were to be close to you while you work with her.”
“She’s a good person, Professor,” Toke protested softly, but the look on Navras’ face told him there would be no changing his mind. “Thank you. I’m sure she’ll be happy to have more help, too.”
Not really, he thought as his gut twisted nervously inside him. But we need his help. Otherwise, we won’t get anywhere.
“You won’t need to worry about me exposing your secret,” Navras said, heading for the door on the other side of the room. “But I think it would be prudent for the Juryokine to stay out of sight for a while. I’m not the only one who saw you chasing Lampa Adal last night.”
“Oh, right,” Toke whispered, all his worries coming back to him. He’d been so distracted by filling Professor Navras in that he’d actually forgotten about the Permissor’s son.
“You can be sure that Adal will not take this lightly,” Navras warned him. “Efforts to catch the Juryokine will triple, at least. And I suspect that you will not receive any sympathy from the general public anymore, either.”
Toke stood up. “But he was leading the Nails!” he protested. “It’s not like I murdered a civilian or something.”
Navras sighed and shook his head. “And you can be sure that Adal will refuse to let that fact become common knowledge. As far as anyone who wasn’t there to see it is concerned, you hunted down and killed the Permissor’s son after a failed attempt to kill the Permissor himself.”
“Great,” Toke groaned. “That’s exactly what I need.”
“That’s what you get for not being cautious,” Navras reprimanded him. “Were in you in the army, I wouldn’t be so lenient. As things stand now, you are acting alone, and your very life is dependent on your anonymity. So I say again, your secret is safe with me.”
He stepped through the door and held it open for Toke.
“Thank you, sir,” the young man said, following his teacher out of the room. He stopped short when he found himself in the workshop at school. “That was your private office?”
“It was,” the professor said, now guiding him to the door. “I am not in the habit of allowing people in there, but I figured tonight was a special occasion.”
“Thank you, sir,” Toke said again, with even more feeling behind it this time, if that was possible. It was said that the only complete chronicle of Professor Navras’ projects, including the ones that never made it to the public, was inside his private office. Suddenly, Toke wished he had devoted a little more time to looking around.
“You should get back to your Sorakine friend now,” the professor said, and Toke didn’t miss the hint of bitterness in his voice. “She is probably wondering what happened to you.”
Just as he opened the door and was about to usher Toke into the hallway, he paused.
“Oh, of course!” he said suddenly. “Your jacket!”
“What about my—” Toke reached up to feel the fabric of his protective garmet, and froze. “Right,” he stepped back inside the classroom, “I should probably take it off first.”
While he unzipped the jacket, Navras jabbed him in the chest. “You have to be more careful, Toke. Little slip ups like that are what’s going to get you killed.”
“I will, Professor,” Toke said as he folded it up and stowed it in under his shirt. “I promise.”
Navras sighed, looking like an anxious parent, reluctant to let his son out of his sight. “See that you do, my boy,” he said softly. “Now go.”
Toke turned and jogged down the dark, empty hallway while Navras closed the workshop door behind him. A quick glance at a wall mounted clock told him that only an hour had passed since his confrontation with the Nails, which meant Zashiel would still be out there, searching for him. Stepping out of the school, into the muggy summer night, he briefly considered putting his jacket back on and taking to the rooftops to look for Zashiel, but decided against it. If everyone knew he was responsible for Lampa’s death, then Zashiel wouldn’t be the only one looking for him. Better to keep his feet on the ground and wait for the Sorakine girl to find him.
And find him, she did. After less than ten minutes of wandering around Jerulkan, a bright yellow blur shot out of the sky and landed in front of him.
“Where have you been?” Zashiel demanded, her face bright red with anger. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?”
“No, not here,” she cut him off and dragged him into an alleyway by his arm. When they were both sufficiently hidden from the streets, she demanded, “Now, what happened? Everyone’s saying you killed the Permissor’s son!”
“Would you believe me if I said that the Permissor’s son was the leader of the Nails?” Toke asked, cringing as his gut twisted with guilt again.
Zashiel fell silent, and that didn’t help. Without Navras’ questions to distract him, Toke’s mind had nowhere to go but back to his encounter with Lampa.
“I… I wasn’t trying to kill him,” he said without waiting for Zashiel to ask. His knees grew weak, and he had to lean against the wall. “It was an accident.”
He could see Lampa’s eyes like it was happening all over again, right in front of him. The terror, the inescapable knowledge that he was going to die… Toke tried to breathe out, but it came out as a half-choked sob as tears stung his eyes.
“I’m not a murderer,” he said, more to himself than Zashiel, and slid down the wall until he was sitting. He felt a hand touch his shoulder, and he raised his head to see Zashiel looking down at him with more compassion on her face than he’d ever seen before.
“Tell me what happened,” she said softly, kneeling down to be at eye level with him.
Looking into her eyes like that, Toke almost broke down completely. Fortunately, he was able to hold it together.
“I chased him across the slums,” he explained. “Thought I had him. Was gonna tie him up with that cord you gave me, but then he tried to push me out the window. I had the rope in my hand, and when I went out, he… he…” Toke had to stop, the words becoming too difficult to force out of his mouth.
“Oh, Toke,” Zashiel said, and lunged at him. The next thing he knew, her arms were wrapped around him, and his face was buried in her shoulder. She swayed left and right, almost like she was rocking a baby. Toke knew that he should feel embarrassed. All he’d wanted, for as far back as he could remember, was to be treated like a grownup. Was it wrong, then, that he actually didn’t mind being held by Zashiel like this? It was… comforting, and he soon put his arms around her as well, letting his emotions pour out.
“It wasn’t your fault, Toke,” Zashiel was murmuring. “You’re not a murderer.”
A few minutes later, Toke finally got himself under control. He gently pulled away from Zashiel, and cleared his throat awkwardly.
“Sorry,” he said, his voice a little hoarse. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Don’t apologize,” Zashiel interrupted him with a stern look. “I’d be more worried if you didn’t cry the first time you saw somebody die.”
She stood up and flexed her wings, which must have been growing stiff after sitting still for so long. “I’m sorry you had to go through that,” she said. “That’s exactly what I was trying to avoid tonight.”
Toke stayed sitting down, and drew his knees up against his chest. With the back of his hand, he wiped his eyes dry. “So, what do we do now?” he asked.
Zashiel sighed and shook her head. “We have to keep moving forward, Toke. We’re so close to cracking this mystery, I can feel it.”
It might be sooner than you think, Toke thought, remembering the conversation he’d had with Professor Navras earlier. He considered telling her about it, but decided against it. Not yet, at least. She thought this was their secret mission. If he was going to reveal that somebody else had joined in on it, he wanted to wait until he had thought of a way to say it that wouldn’t upset her.
“But it’s going to be even harder now,” she went on. “Attacking Permissor Adal is one thing, but now you’ve killed his son. Besides killing his wife, things can’t get more personal to him now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had assassins of his own tracking you down before sunrise.”
Toke went pale. “People already think I’m a terrorist. Are you saying one of Yasmik’s politicians is going to…” he paused, and swallowed, “going to pay to have me killed?”
Zashiel shrugged, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. “That’s how these things work, Toke. You may as well get ready.”
Toke looked at her for a few seconds, and then hung his head with a sigh. “So, what are you saying? What should I do?”
“The best option would be to get you out of the city,” she said, right off the bat. “I could leave you in the crater we train in, and come get you when this all blows over.”
“But what about—”
“We could work on figuring out the Storms from there,” Zashiel cut him off. “If you can do that, then I can handle the fieldwork from here on out. But,” she paused, “I don’t think you’re going to agree to that.”
Toke looked up at her. “Why not?”
Zashiel raised her eyebrows. “You should know better than me. What happened to your invention?”
Toke’s eyes shot open as fast as if Zashiel had punched him in the gut. “Oh, smite,” he whispered. “How am I going to look the Permissor in the eye?”
“That’s something you’re going to have to work out on your own,” his friend answered. “But if it’s really that important to you, you’ll find a way to not only look him in the eye, but to smile too.”
Toke groaned, and leaned his head back against the wall. “And my parents will be here in a couple days, too. I can’t just disappear. That’ll look too suspicious.”
Zashiel hummed in her throat. “I guess you’re right. The Permissor still has no idea who you are, though. If you don’t do anything to make him suspicious, you’ll probably be fine.”
Toke nodded wearily. “What about Klevon, though? Is there any way he could trace this back to me?”
“There are a couple,” Zashiel answered after a moment’s hesitation. “Which is why I’m going to be keeping an eye on him for the next few days. If I have reason to think he’s onto you, then I’m taking you into hiding whether you want it or not.”
Toke sighed, and nodded his agreement. “I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, and Toke pondered his predicament. After a while, he groaned.
“This would all be a lot easier if I didn’t have to deal with my parents too,” he said. “They always add another level of stress to whatever they get involved in.”
Zashiel snorted, and leaned against the wall across from him. “It’s a shame we can’t tell them the truth. That would really blow their minds, wouldn’t it?”
For the first time that night, Toke chuckled. “They probably wouldn’t survive the shock!”
He expected Zashiel to make another witty remark, but the Sorakine girl was quiet as a thoughtful look came over her face.
“When will they get here?” she asked, suddenly.
Toke shrugged. “Probably tomorrow.”
Zashiel pushed herself away from the wall, and a wicked smile rose to her lips. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Um,” Toke slowly stood up too, “that smile kinda scares me, Zash. What are you thinking?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, the grin staying right where it was. “You go back to the school and get some sleep. Leave everything to me.”
Before he could protest, Zashiel launched herself into the sky without so much as a goodbye. Toke watched her fly away until she was just a yellow twinkle amongst the stars, and then turned and began to make his way back to the school.
“I don’t care what happens or who’s trying to kill me,” he muttered to himself. “That girl will always be the scariest thing in my life.”
NEXT TIME: Navras is in the know now, but Toke and Zashiel’s movements are going to be limited until people stop looking for Lampa’s murderer. Looks like Zashiel’s got something in store for the Gnasher parents, though. I wonder if they’ll survive?