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“Smite, what a day,” Casto muttered to himself, brushing a strand of raven black hair out of his eye as he climbed the stairs to his second floor apartment.
Three weeks. Twenty one measly days of working at the power plant outside Mankortia, and yet he could barely remember a time when his muscles didn’t throb and his legs didn’t ache. What would it be like to have music stuck in his head again, and not the endless grinding of the massive jido grindstones? His feet felt as heavy as one of those house-sized stones as he trudged upstairs. At first, he'd hoped that the nonstop labor would help him shed his lanky figure, give him some muscles that the ladies might admire. Predictably, the one thing he wanted out this smiting job was the one thing it didn't give him.
Casto's stomach growled, but he wasn't sure if he had it in him to make dinner before collapsing in bed. He barely had the energy to do anything these days. The cloud of body odor that clung to him was testament to how long it'd been since he'd last showered. Most likely he'd throw his filthy work clothes in the corner —it'd been weeks since he'd done laundry, too— and then pass out for the night, dreading the rising of the sun that would force him to get up and do it all over again.
“Move out, they said. Get a job, they said,” he muttered to himself as he fumbled to get his key into the lock. “Your life will mean so much more once you’re out on your own, they said.”
Smite it. He may have been twenty three years old, but right then he'd have given anything to move back in with his parents.
He pushed open the door, yawning, and stepped inside. Exhausted as he was, his eyes passed right over the man sitting at his kitchen table, waiting with hands clasped. Instead, he turned, closed the door, locked it, and—
“Good evening, Mr. Gnasher.”
Tired he may have been, but at that moment Casto jumped nearly high enough to hit his head on the ceiling. He spun around, falling back heavily against the door when he realized his apartment was filled with a dark green light.
“Who the smite are—”
He didn’t get to finish, because the intruder gave a dismissive wave of his glowing hand, like he was brushing dust off something, and Casto’s table immediately seemed to come to life. It lunged at him, its feet leaving the ground as if it had been thrown. Casto barely had time to yelp in surprise before it struck him, the impact like being hit by a speeding autocarriage, and he was mashed firmly against his apartment’s door.
The table fell to the floor, and Casto fell with it. He slumped forward on top of it, and then slid down to the floor to lie beneath it with a moan of pain. The intruder still stood there at the other end of his kitchen, hands folded calmly behind his back. Even with the light coming out of his hand, his face was cloaked in shadow.
The man took a step forward, and Casto sprang to— he banged his skull on the table and collapsed again. Another step closer. With his head spinning, Casto rolled out from under the table and stumbled to his feet.
“Peace, Mr. Gnasher,” said the intruder, now standing on the opposite end of Casto’s table from him. “I’m only here to talk.”
“Who the smite are you?” Casto gasped. It was difficult to breathe now, even harder to talk. “What do you want from me?”
“My name is of no importance, but I have spent a long time trying to find you, Cassitoka.”
Casto’s heart was beating painfully hard inside his chest. He could feel the intruder’s eyes on him, even if he couldn’t see them. That green glow… it reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on…
The Gravity Storms.
Oh, smite, he thought, heart sinking into his stomach.
It had been a year since the last Storm had struck, the day when that weird flying ship had nearly blown up Hashira. Casto had never seen one of the infamous Storms, but he’d heard plenty. There were a dozen different stories about what happened in one, but the one thing they all agreed on was that they began with a mysterious green light… just like the one in the intruder’s hand.
And what had he called Casto? Cassi-something? It almost sounded like his name, but with some extra letters added, and—
“Don’t try to run,” the glowing man said. “Or I’ll be forced to resort to violence.”
Casto froze. He hadn’t moved yet, but he’d been about to start inching his way back toward the door.
“Y- You already threw my table at me,” he protested.
“A precaution, Toke, to let you know who I am and what I’m capable of.”
That name rang in Casto’s ears. It was so familiar. Infuriatingly familiar. He could feel the words hovering at the edge of forgetfulness, just out of reach.
“As I said, I am only here to talk. You’ve done a wonderful job of hiding yourself over the past year.”
The tone of the man’s voice was almost conversational, but Casto detected a … thirstiness to his words. The stiff way he stood made it look like he was standing at casual attention, the way some of the brown nosers at the power plant did when the manager walked by. But there was something else to him, too. He wasn’t just stiff, he was rigid. Like a dog that had just seen some tasty morsel fall from his master’s table, but had been forbidden to snatch it up, so instead it watched the helpless scrap of food, unblinking, waiting desperately for when it would get to pounce…
Casto’s hands began to shake. He was that scrap of food, wasn’t he?
They both remained standing, since Casto’s chairs had been left behind when his table had gotten thrown across the room, but Casto didn’t think he could sit in the presence of this man anyway. All trace of weariness after his long day at work was completely forgotten.
“Let’s talk about a year ago, when you crashed the Terracaelum. Firstly, I would like to extend my heartfelt compliments for that. To think that you managed to take down Dranibor Navras at all is astounding, but on the back of a flying ship? Incredible!”
“Flying ship?” Casto’s eyes widened with horror. “You- You think I’m him!”
The intruder cocked his head, curious. “I think you are who?”
Suddenly, it all came back to him, and he realized why that name had sounded so familiar.
“C- Cassitoka Gnasher!” he gasped, pressing his back against the wall in a vain attempt to create more distance between him and the shadowy figure. “You think I’m the smiting Juryokine?”
For a long moment, the intruder didn’t move or say anything. Then he rounded the table to where Casto stood. The young man cowered, back pressed against the wall, but he didn’t dare raise a fist against him. Slowly, his face came into view.
Young, somewhere around Casto’s age, but his wispy black hair made him look like a recovering drug addict. A long, thin scar ran across his left cheek, ending somewhere beneath his eye— that black, beady, hungry eye.
The man’s hand —the glowing one— shot out and grabbed Casto by the chin. It was cold and warm at the same time. Metal? Some kind of machine?
“D- Don’t hurt me!” Casto begged, his legs giving out underneath him. The intruder’s arm didn’t even sag beneath his weight. “I’m not the Juryokine, I swear! I’m not who you’re looking for!”
The man didn’t say anything at first. He turned Casto’s head left, then right, inspecting him the way a farmer would inspect a new horse. Then, clicking his tongue, he shook his head in disappointment.
“No, it would appear you are not,” he said, letting him go and stepping back. “Another dead end. How unfortunate.”
“Does that mean—”
Again, Casto didn’t get to finish, because the intruder’s hand lashed out again, striking him on the neck. A gruesome snap filled the apartment, and Casto fell without a word.
“Unfortunate indeed,” the intruder said, turning and leaving the young man’s corpse lying there by the door. “Emerge!”
There was a sound like a fishing reel being unraveled, and three men descended from the ceiling. In their hands, they all clutched two metal rods, about a foot and a half in length. A cord ran from each of them up to the ceiling. Once their feet touched the floor, they each pressed a button on the sides of the rods, and the cords retracted into them, capping them with small but wickedly sharp grappling hooks.
“It wasn’t him,” the intruder said without looking at them.
One of the men stepped forward hesitantly. “I- I’m sorry, sir. I thought it was him for sure this time!”
The intruder clenched his glowing fist, and the grappler cringed. Finally, though, the man lowered his fist and sighed.
“It doesn’t matter. Just another mess to clean up. I’ll admit, though, that this case was intriguing. The name so similar, the ages so close, the same color of hair…”
“He even worked at the power plant,” said one of the other grapplers.
The man nodded. “It was worth a look. More’s the pity that it was another dead end.”
He crossed the room, grabbed the edge of the table, and dragged it back across the room to where it had sat before. Then he plucked the dead man off the floor, as if he weighed only a few pounds, and dragged him across the apartment as well, stopping in front of one of the room’s narrow windows.
“You men know the drill,” he said, sliding it open. “Nobody must know we were here. Someone pen this poor man a suicide note.”
Then he threw Casto out the window.
None of them flinched when they heard the already-dead man hit the ground outside. They waited a few seconds, and when nobody raised an alarm, the intruder nodded to the other three to get to work.
“You,” he said, pointing at the one who had provided the lead.
The grappler froze. “Y- Yes, sir?”
The intruder was barely half the grappler’s age, yet there as unmistakable fear in his eyes when he saw that glowing green gauntlet pointed at him. That made the intruder smirk.
“We have another lead already. Two subjects, reportedly connected to the target. You are to follow them and determine whether they truly know his location or not.”
The intruder turned away, but could clearly hear the sigh of relief the grappler gave. The other two were scurrying about the apartment, removing every trace of their trespass with professional swiftness. One of them slapped a hastily written note onto the table, the writing a perfect imitation of poor Casto’s, explaining how he had given up. Life was too hard, the rewards were too few, and please don’t cry for him. Surely he was in a better place now.
“Anywhere is a better place than this,” the intruder muttered under his breath.
“Where will I find the subjects, sir?” the grappler asked when he didn’t immediately provide details.
He stepped up and placed his right foot on the windowsill he had just thrown Casto out of. A pair of axes dangled from his belt, unused but practically thirsting for blood.
“At Yasmik’s southern border,” he answered. “If they’re right, the Juryokine is somewhere in Vlangur.”
Before the grappler could ask anything else, he anchored himself to the building across the street from Casto’s apartment, fell through the window, and vanished into the night.
NEXT TIME: Ooh, so mysterious, much threatening! Who is this guy, who is he working for, and most importantly… what does he want with Toke?