When Toke stumbled back into his dorm that night, sore and on the verge of passing out, he let out a ragged sigh. Zashiel had pushed him all day long, for over seven hours straight. The breaks, when she allowed them, had only been long enough for him to hydrate himself against the scorching heat. She hadn’t even let him eat a single bite of food, claiming the excruciating exercises would just make him throw it up.
“Smite,” he cursed, falling reverently onto his bed. His arms, his legs, and just about everything else were numb, a strange combination of feeling like stone and rubber at the same time.
Zashiel had made Toke race up and down the cliff he had fallen off of, giving him less time with every attempt. If he succeeded, he had ten seconds to rest. If he failed he immediately had to do it again, without even a chance to catch his breath. When she had progressed to making him crawl up the wall, the ragged stones had frayed his pants until his knees showed. He could wait until morning to bandage the scrapes, but he’d never be able to wear those pants in public again.
He had fallen from the wall more than once. While Zashiel would catch him if he were close to the top, she would ignore him if he were relatively close to the bottom.
“Pain is the most effective teacher,” she’d explained. “Remember what happened to cause it, and don’t make the same mistake again.”
“How am I supposed to avoid making the same mistake when I have no idea how I made the mistake in the first place?” he’d demanded while picking himself up, rubbing the shoulder he had landed up.
“That’s up to you to figure out,” she’d had said for the hundredth time that day.
But then, finally, the sun had set, and Zashiel had flown him back into Jerulkan. While he still kept his eyes shut, he was far more compliant this time. At least if he fell, the pain would stop. Even so, nothing could make him feel better after Zashiel’s parting words.
“Be here right after you get out of school tomorrow,” she’d ordered him, setting him down in the same alley they’d departed from, “and we’ll do it again.”
But now, as Toke finally let himself drift away in the painless, Zashiel-less void of sleep, he lost the will to care. So long as he could just get… some… sleep…
The alarm on his nightstand began to ring, jolting him out of his slumber. He reached out to hit it, and immediately regretted it. The muscles in his arm screamed in agony, but all that escaped his mouth was a weak moan. Sunlight streamed through his window, blinding him when he sat up.
Since when does the sun rise at ten o’clock at night? he thought, blinking dumbly at the window. He couldn’t have fallen asleep. He was still so tired! Every muscle inside him was sore, begging him to stay in bed and rest. After the day he’d just had, it was very tempting to give in and do just that, but one thing forced himself to swing his legs over the edge of the bed, groan, and stand up.
Dirt and mud stuck to his clothes, which in turn clung to his body from with sweat. He’d been to hell and back twice over the past two days, and he looked like it. Worse, he smelled like it. Collecting his soap and a fresh set of clothes, Toke made for the shower.
The hot water did a lot to sooth his aching muscles, and he let his mind wander as it poured over his skin.
“What have I gotten myself into?” he asked himself yet again. He wasn’t an athlete. Sports and exercise had never seemed as important as learning and building. He had figured out years ago that his metabolism was the only reason he was still in relatively good shape. Most people, if they spent as much time sitting around indoors as he did, would have grown fat and lethargic in a matter of months. Toke, on the other hand, was thin, if not a little frail. But even with his limited knowledge in biology, Toke knew that it was bad to overexert his body. Everybody had their physical limits. Those limits could be raised, but it was a gradual process. Pushing yourself too far could hurt you— very badly. Zashiel didn’t seem to know this, though. She was determined to turn Toke into an athlete as soon as possible.
No, he thought with a weary shake of his head. Not an athlete. A warrior.
“What am I gonna do?” he wondered.
“Hey,” somebody asked from the other side of the shower curtain, startling Toke out of his thoughts. “You almost done in there?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Toke answered. Time had gotten away from him, and he’d stood in the shower for over half an hour without realizing it. “Give me a second.”
Ten minutes later, he sat in the cafeteria, staring blankly at the muffins and eggs in front of him. He needed to eat, but the thought of what Zashiel had in store for him after class made him hesitate. He’d just throw it all up again, wouldn’t he?
Don’t be stupid, he chastised himself. What are you going to do, starve yourself?
He already felt a little nauseous just thinking about going back to the quarry, but he picked up one of the muffins and bit into it anyway. It helped— the taste of the sweet pastry and the blueberries inside reminded him how hungry he was, and soon he had devoured both muffins and was scooping up a spoonful of eggs.
“There you are!” a tray was slammed down on the other side of the table, startling Toke and almost making him choke on his food. Wayli stood there, looking like she was one wrong word away from beating the daylights out of him.
“We were worried sick about you!” she said, sitting down and pointing her fork at him. “You ran out of class, and nobody saw you for the rest of the day. Did you even go to the nurse like I said?”
“Uh, yeah,” Toke said, his brain coming up with a lie quicker than he would have thought possible. He lifted his hair a little to show that the bump was no longer there. “She put something on it and it was gone in a couple of hours.”
Wayli looked at it skeptically and asked, “So, where did you go after that?”
“I needed to get some fresh air,” he said, hoping the lie wasn’t too evident on his face. “Went for a walk.”
“For the entire afternoon?”
“I, um,” Toke scrambled for another excuse, but was saved when his other friend came to join them as well.
“Hey,” Boam said, glancing awkwardly from Wayli to Toke. When he looked at Toke his eyes fell to look at his plate, and Toke felt a stab of regret. He still hadn’t talked to Boam since he’d yelled at him on his birthday.
“Hey,” Toke returned the greeting. “Um, I’m sorry for what I said the other day.”
“It’s fine,” Boam said, giving his friend a smile. “You were upset. I understand.”
“I still shouldn’t have yelled at you,” Toke insisted. “I was just, well…”
“I heard your battery set the Permissor on fire,” Boam interrupted, a more sincere grin rising to his face. His eyes glittered with mischief again.
The last thing Toke wanted was to remember what had happened that morning, but Boam’s good humor was already beginning to rub off on him.
“Just a little,” he chuckled, ignoring the pit of shame in his stomach. “Mostly, it knocked him out of his chair.”
“That,” Boam said, pointing his spoon at Toke, his eyes ablaze with excitement, “is awesome! I wish I could have been there to see it!”
“So, how long is Adal giving you to make a new battery?” Wayli asked, apparently letting the matter of his disappearance slide.
“A month,” Toke answered.
“Can you build another one in a month?” Boam asked, leaning forward in concern. “It took you two years to build the last one.”
“I should be able to do it. Now that I’ve made one already, all I have to do is repeat the steps.”
“How are you going to make sure it doesn’t explode this time?” Wayli asked.
“I’ll start by reinforcing the lid better,” he explained. “I might even line the lid with rubber this time to give it more stability. The less the jido crystal can move around, the—”
“Boring,” Boam interrupted. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Toke glared at him and held up his hands. “If crystal no move, it no go boom.”
“Ah,” Boam said, nodding. “See, now that makes sense!”
“Glad I could enlighten you,” Toke said, dryly. Then he hastily finished off the last of his eggs. “I’ve got to go. Gonna be late for class.”
“If you plan on blowing anything else up,” he heard Wayli call from behind him, “let us know so we can be there!”
Even though he was thankful for the distraction his friends had provided, Toke wished they hadn’t made him laugh so much. His muscles were still sore, despite the long shower, and laughing only made it worse. Doing his best to ignore the pain, he made his way to Navras’ workshop.
“You’re in trouble, young man,” Virkhul said from behind his desk, grinning maliciously at him as he made for the door. “The professor doesn’t like it when people leave class early.”
Toke paled a little, hoping the secretary didn’t notice. He had ditched Navras’ class without any explanation, hadn’t he? And only a day after the professor had stuck his neck out to give him a second chance. He had a legitimate reason, but it wasn’t like he could tell Navras about him and Zashiel.
“Better get in there,” Virkhul said, busying himself with a pile of paperwork. “No use drawing it out.”
Taking a deep breath, Toke turned the doorknob and went inside. The class was proceeding as usual, with all the students working on their projects while Navras walked the room, offering help or advice when needed.
“Please take your seat, Toke,” he said, noticing the young man at the door. Toke sighed with relief. It was like Navras had already forgotten about his episode the day before.
Of course, he should have known better than that.
“I will want to speak with you after class,” the professor added once Toke sat down.
Toke grimaced. That would happen later, though, he decided. If he wanted to finish his new battery in time, he would have to devote all of his focus on it. With that, he got back up and retrieved his materials. The half-made cylinder, the rubber cube, and the other metals he still needed for the caps. Retreating back into the void, he lost himself in his work for the rest of the class. When the bell finally rang, he sat back and looked at his progress with satisfaction.
“You’re coming along much quicker than before,” Navras said from behind him, startling Toke. He hadn’t realized the professor was standing behind him.
“I know what I’m doing this time,” he agreed, holding the battery up for his teacher to see. The bottom cap had already been welded to the cylinder. Tomorrow he would begin the process of coating the inside with the first layer of rubber.
“I seem recall you going through no less than eight failed attempts before you were satisfied the first time,” Navras mused.
Toke nodded. “It was all trial and error. I had to keep trying until I finally found a way that worked.”
“Much of invention is,” Navras concurred, handing the battery back to him. “But now that you’ve discovered the best way to do it, all you have to do is replicate it.”
“Not quite,” Toke said, regretfully. “It still wasn’t the best way, was it?”
“It was unfortunate that you didn’t discover that flaw until it was brought before the Permissor, but all you can do now is keep improving.”
As he spoke, the last student hurried from the classroom, and Navras turned to look at him gravely. “But that’s not what I wanted to discuss.”
Toke lowered his eyes in shame. “I know, sir. I’m sorry about what happened yesterday.”
When he looked up, Navras was nodding his head, already accepting his apology.
“I swear I haven’t been drinking, Professor.”
“I know, Toke,” Navras said. “I couldn’t smell any trace of alcohol on you, so I knew you hadn’t been drinking.”
Toke wanted to feel relieved that his teacher didn’t think he had been drinking his troubles away, but found that he was more confused, instead.
“Then why ask, sir?”
“Because,” Navras said, giving his student a stern look, “I was hoping that would shame you into telling me what you had really been up to.”
Toke bit his lip and found that he couldn’t meet his instructor’s gaze anymore.
“If the Nails ever do that to you again, tell me immediately.”
For a few seconds, Toke could only stare blankly at the old inventor.
“What?” he finally asked.
“That is what happened, isn’t it?” Navras asked. “Judging by the state you were in, I assumed you had been robbed by one of those thugs.”
Gradually, Toke’s brain began to work again. The gears in his head started to spin, and he realized that this was the perfect alibi. He should have thought of it sooner, but after his transformation and Zashiel’s insane scheme, a street gang like the Nails seemed downright trivial in comparison. Still, if they would alleviate any suspicions Navras still had for him…
“Yeah,” he admitted, trying to act sheepish about it. “There were two of them.”
“Did they take anything from you?”
Toke almost felt ashamed. The professor’s concern was completely sincere, and he was lying to him. But it wasn’t like he had a choice, did he?
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t have any money on me. They searched me, but then left me there when they didn’t find anything.”
“They just beat you,” Navras mused. “Thank goodness for small mercies, then.”
Toke nodded, too. When Navras didn’t say anything else, he asked, “Is that all, sir?”
“There is one more thing,” the professor said. “I have done some investigating into the Sorakine girl you told me has been harassing you.”
Toke froze, all the color fading from his face.
“She has been seen coming in and out of Jerulkan several times over the past few days,” Navras went on. “The speeds she had been flying at suggest that she is either in a hurry, or,” he paused and gave Toke a meaningful look, “she is trying to keep from being seen.”
Toke’s hands went numb, and he hid them below the table, hoping Navras hadn’t seen them shaking. He tried to say something, but all that would come out of his mouth was a strangled grunt. It was just a coincidence, he tried to tell himself. Navras didn’t know anything.
“After doing a little digging,” the professor continued, “I believe I have even found her name. Zashiel Kal’Brynden.”
“Sh- she never mentioned her name,” Toke managed to say.
“Well, as long as she isn’t bothering you anymore, I suppose we don’t have to worry about her,” Navras said, the tone of his voice indicating that this was the end of the conversation.
“Yes, sir,” Toke spluttered, rising from his seat as fast as he could without looking suspicious. He made for the door, his knees feeling weak beneath him. “Thank you for your concern, sir.”
Toke was halfway out the door when the professor’s voice stopped him again.
“Toke,” he said, warningly, “no matter what she says to you, do not get involved with her.”
A foreboding chill ran down Toke’s spine. Unable to think of anything to say, he swallowed nervously and nodded his farewell before shutting the door behind him. It was a small relief to find that Virkhul was not at his desk, because Toke wasn’t sure if he could handle being taunted again. He felt like he was on the verge of either fainting from terror, or losing his temper.
Forcing himself out of his stupor, Toke left the classroom behind. It was only a coincidence that Professor Navras had said anything. He was just a teacher worried about his student. Still, he couldn’t help but walk a little faster when he imagined the old inventor following him, watching him.
He was supposed to go meet Zashiel. Be there right after class, she had told him. After Navras’ cryptic warning, though, he wanted nothing more than to retreat to his dorm and hide under the covers. Forget all about Zashiel and her conspiracies. Except, he thought, pausing in the middle of the hallway, he could only do that so long as his new powers didn’t act up. How long would it be until he lost control had some kind of accident? At best, he’d be revealed. At worst, he could kill himself. His stomach roiled, and he had to lean against the wall to keep from losing his balance.
“What have I gotten myself into?” he murmured again, rubbing his head with his hands.
He stayed there for five minutes, delaying the inevitable, before finally heading for the front door. His stomach growled, but he ignored it. Eating lunch would only make him even more late. Besides, judging by the previous day’s exercises, he wouldn’t be able to keep anything down for long anyway. He stopped just long enough to guzzle down two cups of water, and then was off.
Stepping outside, the sun wasted no time in blasting him with heat again, and Toke was glad he’d taken the time to drink something before leaving. He hurried to their meeting place as quickly as he could, but he found himself looking back after every few steps. He knew he was just being paranoid, but he couldn’t get rid of the thought that Navras might be tailing him. If the professor found out he’d gone directly against his advice and was doing secret dealings with a Sorakine, what would he do? He’d kick Toke out of the class, that was for sure. And that was assuming he didn’t turn him in to the authorities for plotting treason. With a quiet moan of despair, he made himself walk even faster.
He came to the alleyway, but then paused. Even if Navras wasn’t watching him, it wouldn’t be good for the other passersby to see him either. Trying to act casual, he crossed his arms and leaned against the brick wall.
Don’t mind me, he thought, watching the crowd as it passed him. I’m just some little punk slacking off. Keep on walking.
Luckily, they all seemed to agree with his unspoken advice and walked right past him without a second glance. A minute later, there was finally a gap in the crowd big enough for him to slip into the alley without attracting attention. With one more cautious glance around, he turned and bolted into the narrow space between buildings, and didn’t stop until he had ducked behind the trash bags.
“About time you got here,” Zashiel greeted him.
“Sorry,” he said, looking nervously back out towards the street. “I was trying not to let people see me.”
“No, it’s fine,” Zashiel said, to Toke’s surprise. “You’re right, the fewer people who see you doing this, the better. It’s good training for when you have to act as my spy later, too. Without stealth, you’ll be as good as dead.”
Toke leaned back against the wall, suddenly feeling sick. “Thanks. I really needed to hear that.”
Zashiel shot him a glare. “If you’re afraid of things like that, you never should have agreed.”
Toke glared right back at her this time, his frustration rising. “Not like I have any choice now, do I?”
“You could have chosen to walk away,” Zashiel snapped back. “I wouldn’t have stopped you. But now that you’ve come this far, you couldn’t go back even if I let you, Juryokine.”
That last word stung, as if Zashiel had poured all of her contempt into it. Funny, it had never sounded like an insult before…
“Fine,” he spat, bitterly. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Without a word, Zashiel got to her feet and picked Toke up again. Toke squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to let her see how scared he was, and she bent her knees and launched herself into the air. The wind tore at him as she blasted over the city’s rooftops and out into the wilds, never slowing until she descended into the Quarry, her feet touching down just as gracefully as before.
“Today,” she said once Toke’s knees had stopped wobbling, “you’re going to practice switching your gravitational anchor while latched onto another anchor.”
“I haven’t even gotten the hang of keeping hold of one anchor yet,” Toke protested.
“Pain is the most effective teacher,” she said for the hundred-and-first time. Toke reached up and rubbed his bruised shoulder, wondering what kind of shape it would be in by nightfall.
She just doesn’t understand, he thought, giving her the dirtiest look he could muster. She was born being able to do this. She has no idea how hard this is for me!
“If you’re done feeling sorry for yourself,” she snapped, “climb that wall halfway to the top and wait for my instructions.”
His face burning with embarrassment, Toke did as he was told. The sensation of feeling other gravitational anchors pull on him was becoming increasingly familiar, so much so that he could almost ignore it. It only took him one try to latch onto the wall, and he climbed it easily. When he was halfway up, he turned and looked at Zashiel.
“Now, go to the corner where that wall meets the other,” she called up to him. He obeyed, and she continued, “Feel the pull from that wall.”
Toke could feel it. It wasn’t as strong as the one coming from the ground, but it was there.
“Now, anchor yourself to that wall and step onto it.”
Toke looked back down at her, but didn’t say anything. Even if it was getting easier to stand on the walls, he didn’t trust himself enough to release his current anchor for another one while he was so high up. All it would take was one mistake and he’d lose his anchorage altogether and fall. Still, it wasn’t as if Zashiel was giving him a choice. He raised one foot and placed it on the wall, as if he were about to tie his shoe, and then altered his gravity. He did it as quickly as possible, his breath catching in his throat, and suddenly found himself in an uncomfortable pose. He had been putting all his weight on the foot beneath him, but now he was leaning heavily on the foot he’d placed on the wall— which had just become the floor. He quickly righted himself, and then looked down at Zashiel for further instruction.
“Walk one lap around the entire canyon,” she said. “When you get back to your starting point, start running.”
Toke groaned inwardly. More running. Splendid. There was no point in complaining, though. The best he could do was walk as slowly as possible and hope that he would never get back to his point of origin. All too soon, though, he had made a lap and Zashiel gave the order for him to start running. Resisting the urge to use his high vantage to spit on her, he broke into a jog. He came to the corner again, and this time he was able to step up onto it without any hesitation. The next one was just as easy, and so was the next. After his first full lap, the enthusiasm he’d felt the day before began to return. Zashiel had told him this would be hard. Maybe, he thought with a sly grin, he was just naturally gifted. He began to speed up, ignoring the heat and the ache in his bones, until he was going at a full on sprint, his confidence growing with every step.
But then he was reminded why that enthusiasm had been so short lived. He reached the next corner, but realized too late that he had mistimed the step. His toe slammed into the wall, flaring with pain, and in his distraction he released his anchor on the canyon wall. With a yelp, he went tumbling down.
“Not bad,” Zashiel said, and suddenly he was suspended upside down less than a foot above the ground. His nose almost touched the pebbles below him. Craning his neck, he looked up to see Zashiel holding him by his ankle. “But you lost focus.”
“I know I lost focus!” he yelled irritably. He could already feel the blood rushing to his head. “I wouldn’t have fallen, otherwise!”
Zashiel shook her head, as if holding him upside down was the most natural thing in the world. “I meant with your running. You didn’t step up in time, and you ended up kicking the wall instead. You need to pay better attention.”
“Okay, fine, I… will you just put me down, already?” he demanded, grabbing his shirt to keep it from falling down below his head.
Instead of setting him down, Zashiel tossed him into the air. He screamed as he flipped over, completely out of his own control, until Zashiel’s hand lashed out and caught him by his shoulder. Now they were at eye level, even though the Sorakine girl was a good four feet above the ground. Her wings flapped lazily behind her to keep them airborne. Despite how he felt about the situation, Toke couldn’t help but be impressed by how she could be light enough to practically float in midair, and yet still be strong enough to toss him around like a ragdoll.
“You’ve got the hang of it, though, more or less,” she went on, ignoring the rude way he’d just spoken to her. “Let’s move on to something else.”
“What?” Toke asked as she lowered them both down to the ground.
“Jumping,” she answered. “Since you can’t fly, you’re going to have to rely on other means of getting around quickly. Remember what I told you about being able to change how hard gravity pulls on you?” Toke nodded. “If you weaken it enough, you’ll be able to jump like a grasshopper. Watch me.”
Zashiel tucked her wings tight against her back, and for the first time gave a demonstration of what she wanted him to do. She bent her knees like she was about to take off, and jumped. She launched more than ten feet into the air before her momentum wore off, and then landed neatly on the ground again. She didn’t stop there, though. She jumped again, even higher this time, and added a double backflip.
“Now you try,” she said when she’d landed. “Feel the pull of gravity, and command it to let go.”
“I can’t jump as high as you can,” he reminded her. “You’re stronger than I am.”
“Yes you can,” she argued. “I can jump higher with my natural strength, but you can still match me if you make yourself light enough.”
Toke nodded, and closed his eyes to concentrate. He could feel the pull of gravity, as always, but how could he loosen its grip on him? It was one thing to change anchors, but weakening his gravitational pull without latching onto anything else seemed like something else entirely.
It’s all inside you, he thought to himself. You’ve just got to figure out how to use it.
He slowed his breathing, trying to focus even harder. Weaken, he told the gravity. Weaken.
He felt something then. It was subtle, and he wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been searching for something out of the ordinary. Every time he urged gravity to loosen its grip on him, he felt lighter. Just a little bit, but lighter nonetheless. He pushed it to go further, and the sensation became stronger. And then it was gone. And then it was back. Gradually, he became aware of how he was doing it. It was like breathing, almost. Weakening gravity’s pull on him was like exhaling, and letting it take hold of him again was like inhaling.
Then, once he felt like he was adequately in control of it, he bent his knees and jumped.
His eyes snapped open at the sudden feel of wind rushing past him, and when he looked down he was shocked to see the top of Zashiel’s head more than fifteen feet below him. It had worked! His journey upwards continued for a moment more, but then he lost his momentum and began to fall.
“Whoa!” he shouted, his arms and legs instinctively flailing about, trying to find something to grab onto. There was nothing to stop his descent, though, and so he crashed back into the canyon, his legs buckling beneath him from the impact.
“Good,” Zashiel said, looking down at him as he winced and slowly got back to his feet. “You figured that one out pretty fast.”
Trying to rub some feeling back into his leg muscles, which had gone numb after the fall, Toke reluctantly nodded his head.
“I think I’m getting better,” he admitted, though he hated to do so. Encouraging this lunatic could only lead to even worse things in the future. Still, he had to give her credit for being able to teach him this stuff at all.
“Then tomorrow we can move on to the next phase of training,” she replied, as if she’d been waiting for his consent.
Toke’s stomach turned to lead. He looked up at his Sorakine instructor. “What’s the next phase?”
Instead of answering, Zashiel reached out and made Toke stand up straight. Just like she had when they’d first met, she began feeling the muscles in his arms, from his shoulders to his wrists, and then began to move them both around, putting them in different positions.
“What are you doing?” Toke demanded, trying to pull his arms away but failing.
“Getting a feeling for your strength and dexterity,” she answered, letting him go at last. “Now, get up on the wall and run another ten laps around the canyon.”
Toke refused to move, though, and her eyes turned cold in disapproval.
“What is the next phase?” he asked again, stubbornly.
She answered him, and the one, single word that came out of her mouth was enough to turn Toke’s blood to ice inside his veins.
NEXT TIME: Toke’s learning to use his powers faster than expected, but does that mean he’s ready to start fighting? I hope so, because something tells me Zashiel’s a pretty tough teacher.