Whoa, whoa, is it Friday already?
Even better! It’s my birthday!
So here’s your birthday present: an early update!
That’s how birthdays work, right?
Water sloshed underneath Toke's feet as the boat crept sluggishly up the crowded canal. With an agitated sigh, he sat back on the tiny bench and let his fingers trail through the water, glancing downward when an orange scaled koppafish darted up to the surface to investigate.
“That's good eatin',” said the boatman, methodically cranking the paddle at the back of the short, wide boat. His bleached white hair reflected the morning sunlight almost blindingly “If you catch 'im, I'll fry 'im up and we can split 'im, Cap’n.”
There was a small stove set up in the middle of the boat, between Toke and him. It made Toke nervous, carrying burning coals on a craft made entirely of wood, bobbing up and down on the waves the way they were. There was a thick fog rolling off the lake today, though. The fire was one of the canal boats' ways of making themselves seen when visibility was low.
“No thanks,” Toke said, flicking his fingers and frightening the fish away.
The boatman watched the fish swim away in disappointment, but then perked up when they approached an alleyway where the water branched off from the main road. “That’s a back road, ‘im. Not nearly so crowded,” he said. “We could probably get there a lot faster if we took 'im, Cap’n.”
Toke wasn’t sure why the old man insisted on calling him Captain. He supposed it was because Toke was the one paying his fare. Then again, he owned the boat, which should have made him captain.
“Stick to the main roads, please,” Toke said for the third time. He needed to stay where he was surrounded by other people, at least for now. The fog was like a wall, reaching high above his head and obscuring his vision, though he could still hear voices coming from all around him. Occasionally another boat would emerge from the mist, like a ghost returning from the afterlife. Toke's hands itched to take out his axes.
Doku was a city built on the surface of the Hakshalla River, the buildings standing on stilts that reached all the way down to the riverbed. That meant there were no roads, at least not the kind of roads Toke was accustomed to in Yasmik. These streets were made of water, and instead of autocarriages, everyone got where they needed to go by boat. Even so, traffic here was just as heavy as it had been in Jerulkan. The gentle rise and fall of the waves beneath him was a calmer, more organic feeling than the rumbling of an autocarriage's engine, and one that made him feel like he was going to be sick.
A whole year of living in Vlangur, he thought. You'd think I'd be used to this by now.
It was strange, when he thought about it. He was able to run on walls and ceilings, jump between gravitational fields with a mere thought, and had even flown in the arms of a Sorakine, and yet the thing that made his stomach turn somersaults was sitting in a nearly motionless boat. The boatman stopped at a crossroads, listening, and then dinged the bell that sat beside him, alerting whoever else might be approaching that he was crossing. A fruit stand came into view through the fog, bobbing up and down in the water just like the boat. The owner stood inside, hollering about his assortment of exotic fruits.
“Aye, toss me an orange!” the boatman called, raising a hand with a shiny silver coin in it. He took his hand off the paddle, bringing the boat to a stop.
“No, keep going,” Toke said, twisting around in his seat. “No delays.”
The boatman hesitated, his hand pulled back halfway, ready to toss the money to the vendor. The vendor looked much the same as he prepared to throw the orange to the boatman. That was the way of things in Vlangur, and the reason Toke had learned it was a good idea to keep his head down when sailing through a busy marketplace.
One of the reasons, anyway.
With a weary sigh, the boatman put his hand to the crank and urged the boat onward. Toke faced forward again, but couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt for the man behind him. He was obviously working hard, and Toke wasn't exactly being the ideal customer. Reaching out behind him, he felt the gravitational field of the fruit vendor's stand. With a little concentration, he was able to single out the fields of the individual fruits. He gave a quick tug, and...
“Ah!” the boatman grunted when a bright orange missile flew at him out of the fog, striking him on the back of the head. He turned around just as the fruit fell into the lake, and then snatched it up before it could float away. “Thank you!” he called back into the fog. “Good man, 'im. Good man.”
Toke faced forward again as the boatman started cranking the paddle again, peeling the orange with his free hand. The paddle was a cumbersome thing, half as wide as the boat itself. A cylindrical device extended from the back of the boat, from which extended into four long planks of wood. When the boatman turned his crank, the paddle turned with it, its long blades scooping into the water and pushing the boat forward. Toke had never used one, and had no real desire to try, but he couldn't imagine that using such an unwieldy device was easy. The resistance in the water alone had to make cranking it difficult, but the boatman seemed perfectly content, paddling his way through the city with a lazy smile on his face.
It would be so easy to automate, Toke thought. Just attach a jido grindstone to the crank, and it'd turn itself. Smite, it'd be even easier just to use one of my...
He cut that line of thought off, biting his tongue as if he had been speaking it out loud. No, he couldn't entertain thoughts like that. Not after what they had done. A wave of emotion rolled over him, threatening to drown him more than the calm canal waters ever had, and Toke clenched his fists, trying to block them out. His knuckles turned white, his nails dug into palms, and then... his right hand unclenched.
“Smite,” Toke muttered under his breath, looking disdainfully down at the disobedient appendage. He tried to clench it again, but it stubbornly refused to do more than curl its fingers into a weak fist. It was a strange feeling, like his hand was only half connected to his body, and it was a feeling he had long since grown tired of. With a sigh, he gave up and let it hang uselessly over the side of the boat. His fingers trailed through the water, as limp as the waterweeds that grew on the bottom of the canal, and probably even less useful.
“So, why you wantin' me to take you here, Cap’n?” the boatman asked, trying again to strike up pleasant conversation. They were leaving the busy marketplace behind, and the vendors on the sides of the canals were fewer and farther between. There were bridges spanning the canals here, raised high enough for people to cross while boats passed underneath.
There was a bag sitting on the floor behind Toke's seat, and he gestured at it with his left hand. “I have some goods that need delivered.”
The boatman chuckled. “To the ol' Dammon place?” His voice was cheery, but Toke could see the way his eyes shifted left and right. Something wasn't right here. Toke's resisted the urge to look around, keeping his eyes trained on the fog directly ahead of them, and took a deep breath to calm himself.
“Yep,” he answered, trying to keep his voice casual. If the boatman expected any more information than that, he wasn't going to get it. The boatman finally seemed to get the picture, and they rode the rest of the way in silence.
A few minutes later, a large building emerged from the fog, looming above them like some kind of river monster peeking its head out of the water. Four stories tall, it dwarfed all the smaller buildings around it. It was a magnificent building, almost as big as the Capitol had been in Yasmik, and yet that majesty was offset by the fading paint and chipped wood that adorned it. According to Toke's investigations, it had once been a resort for the country’s richest and most important politicians before a Vlangurtian priest’s son had hung himself in the penthouse. Now the superstitious Vlangurtians gave the hotel, and even the buildings close to it, a wide berth.
The boatman drifted close to the building, but then stopped.
“What's wrong?” Toke asked, turning back to look at him.
“Can't get no closer, Cap’n,” he answered. “This place… ‘im is cursed.”
Toke looked past the boatman, and... was it his imagination, or was that shadow another boat approaching? Either way, he needed to move quickly.
“This is fine,” he said, standing up in the boat. He took the pack with his weak right hand, his grip just strong enough to keep it from slipping free, and with his other hand he tossed the boatman three silver coins.
“Uh, thank you, Cap’n,” the boatman said, skillfully snatching them out of the air, “but what are you—”
Before he could finish, Toke weakened gravity's hold on him and jumped. The jump carried him high into the air, so that he and the boatman lost sight of each other in the fog, and then his weakened gravity lowered him slowly onto the rotten, rickety dock that led up to the Dammon Hotel. Toke locked eyes with the boatman, who sat frozen with one hand on the paddle crank. And then, in a flurry of motion Toke wouldn't have expected from the old man, he spun his boat around and drove it away from the haunted hotel, into safer waters. Toke watched him go, and then eyed the lingering shadow in the mist.
Yes, it was definitely them. No one else would have followed him to a place like this.
Turning on his heel, Toke tried to act casual as he made his way up to the old hotel doors. They were rotting and smelled like driftwood, but they still stubbornly hung onto the hinges they had been placed on years ago. Shifting the pack to his shoulder, Toke pushed against one of the doors with his left hand, and it swung open with a defiant groan.
“Mom? Dad?” he called, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. “Zashiel? I'm back!”
He stepped into the middle of the old foyer. A thick layer of dust coated everything, throwing up clouds every time Toke took a step, and the whole place smelled of damp and mold. The furniture was all still there, though Toke wouldn't have trusted any of it to hold his weight. The place was in good condition, considering how long it had been abandoned. Then again, unlike in Jerulkan, looters wouldn't dare touch a place thought to be cursed. He was probably the first person to step through those doors since the day the hotel closed down.
“Hello?” he called again, wandering further inside. There was a staircase leading up, and Toke tested his weight against the steps before going to the second floor. “Are you guys here?”
Toke reached the second floor, where a large window at the end of the hallway offered an eerie view of the swirling mists, and waited. Sure enough, a few seconds later he heard the door downstairs open again. Heavy footsteps stomped through the foyer, following the prints he had left in the dust. Toke's eyes narrowed. Zashiel had been right.
Be calm, he thought, taking a moment to compose himself.
He put his hand on the railing and prepared to go back down, but paused. This wouldn't work if they thought he was scared of them. Face neutral, no emotion. Like Zashiel, he told himself. Even though he was pretty sure nobody could pull off Zashiel's cold, uncaring look as well as Zashiel herself, he set off down the stairs anyway once he was satisfied that didn't, at least, look like he was going to mess his pants.
There were three large men waiting for him.
“There he is!” said one of them.
As one, all three of them raised their weapons. Clubs, Toke noted with a quick glance. A simple, crude weapon, easy to use for those not skilled enough for a more elegant weapon, but no less dangerous if they could get close enough. They each had a shield, too. Round, wooden bucklers that were just as good at bashing in an enemy's head as they were at protecting the wielder.
“Can I help you?” Toke asked, trying to look as confused and innocent as possible.
“Cassitoka Gnasher,” the man closest to him said, “You're under arrest.”
Toke blinked, trying to look confused. “Come again?”
The leader of the three thugs gripped his club with white knuckles. “We've been sent by the Yasmikan government to hunt you down and bring you to justice.”
Toke cocked his head. “If I tell you I've never heard that name in my life, would you turn around and leave?”
“We heard you call for Zashiel when you came in. We know it's you.”
“There are only two ways you're leaving this building. With your hands in chains, or your head in a bag.”
The hunter in front stayed where he was, but Toke saw the other two spreading out to flank him.
“How much is my bounty this time?” he asked.
“You have the... what?” the man asked. The look of surprise on his face was almost enough to make Toke laugh.
“My bounty goes up every time one of you mooks fail to catch me,” he explained. “Last time it was twelve million. How much are they offering you this time?”
The goons exchanged glances, and one of them shrugged. “Fifteen million,” their leader finally answered.
Toke whistled. “They raised it by three million all at once? I must have really hacked them off after I beat that last team.”
“Ain't many left brave enough to come after you.” It was the second guy, who had managed to get behind Toke, who spoke now. “But we know your secret.”
Toke turned to look at him, genuinely curious. “And what secret would that be?”
“If you ain't got your Sorakine friend here, you ain't nothin' special. There's three of us here, and the Sorakine ain't. What you gonna do?”
“Resist the overpowering urge to correct your grammar,” Toke replied, dropping his pack on the floor, “and then this.”
With that, he reached out, anchored himself to the bounty hunter's shield, and increased his weight so that the buckler was jerked out of his hand. It flew towards Toke like a discus, which he caught with one hand. He spun around on his toe with it, keeping its momentum strong, and then released it at one of the other hunters. It was flying even faster now than when Toke had pulled on it, more than enough to crack the man's head open, and—
The hunter deflected the flying shield with his own. It hit the floor and rolled to the other end of the foyer, leaving him unscathed.
“Ah, well,” Toke said, watching as it spun on its side before falling over like a discarded coin, “you weren't supposed to do that.”
“We're not like the thugs you've been fighting up till now,” the leader said, eagerly rapping his club against his shield. “And you don't have Zashiel to back you up now, either.”
Toke frowned. The situation appeared more serious than he'd originally thought. He'd expected to beat these guys without any trouble, like he did most of his human opponents, but these ones were obviously better trained. They were probably real soldiers, pulled from their ranks in Yasmik's military for a secret mission.
“Not yet, I don't,” Toke said, turning to face him again. “But what makes you think she isn't about to come crashing through one of these windows any second now?”
A knowing smile spread across the hunter's face. “She's a little occupied at the moment. We made sure of that before coming after you.”
“What's that supposed to...” Toke's words trailed away as realization dawned on him. “You brought a smiting Sorakine, didn't you?”
The lead hunter chuckled. “She should be taking care of your friend right about now.”
Anger rose up inside Toke as he glared into the thug's eyes. He wasn't too worried for Zashiel, truth be told. Even though she'd never been granted full warrior status after her training, Zashiel was still more than a match for most other Sorakines. Still, what if they'd sent a Seraph? As amazing as she was, she still couldn't hold up against one of Hashira's top elite.
“Now, why don't you drop whatever's in that bag and put your hands on top of your head?” the hunter asked. “You're worth thirteen million dead, but I'd rather have the whole fifteen.”
Toke shrugged and did as he was told. “All right, I guess you win. Come and get me.”
The three goons hesitated and shared another look. They may not have been the smartest men on Fissura, but they knew enough to be nervous about how easily Toke had given up.
“Cover me,” the leader said, stepping forward. The hunter to Toke's left put away his club and shield and pulled out a shortbow and knocked an arrow. The leader crept towards Toke, cautiously putting away his shield and bringing out a pair of manacles.
“Come on,” Toke urged him. “Let's get this over with already, okay?”
Grunting in irritation, the bounty stepped forward, dropped his club, and grabbed Toke's wrists. As soon as he did, Toke anchored himself to the ceiling. His feet shot up off the ground as he fell upwards, and then came to a halt when the hunter's arms stretched as far as they could go.
“Wha—” he managed to choke out just before Toke anchored himself to the floor again, simultaneously increasing his weight and landing on top of the hunter. In the space of a second, he became more than five times heavier than he should have been, and the hunter crumpled to the floor under his weight. Toke sprang back to his feet and then leaned to the side when he felt the other hunter's arrow's gravity field coming towards him. It shot past him, missing his cheek by an inch.
Spinning around to face the other two hunters, Toke jumped and anchored himself to the archer, who yelped as he was pulled off his feet. The two of them met in midair, Toke putting his foot directly in his face before changing his anchor again and falling up to the ceiling. He lightened his weight at the last second, landing softly, and looked down at the last hunter.
“Ain't nothin' special, huh?” he asked, a cocky smile rising to his lips.
“Shut up!” the larger man demanded, glaring up at him, his face red with anger. “Get down here and fight me like a man!”
Toke casually strolled over so that he was standing directly above the hunter. The hunter looked up, and the scuttled out from underneath him. Smiling, Toke stepped so that he was above him again.
“Stop that!” the hunter yelled, moving again.
“You want me to come down?” Toke asked, and spread his arms. “But the view is so nice up here!”
He knew he shouldn't be goading the bounty hunters. They were only doing their job, after all, chasing down Yasmik's most dangerous criminal. It was a fate Toke had accepted knowing full well what he was doing, and what was to come. Still, a whole year spent on the run from his own country's government didn't leave much opportunity to enjoy himself, and so he found it difficult to stop antagonizing the man below him. His temper tantrums were just so smiting funny!
“I don't care 'bout no view!” he howled, waving his club like a madman. “Get down here, you dropper!”
“Hmm,” Toke put his hand on his chin in thought. “Nah. Why don't you come up here?”
Toke increased his weight again, the rotten ceiling groaning underneath him, and then made a second anchor to the bounty hunter. The hunter yelped when his feet left the floor, rising into the air towards where Toke was waiting for him. His arms and legs flailed wildly, the movement making him spin and flip as he slowly drifted farther and farther away from the ground.
“Let me go!” he screamed.
Toke couldn't help but laugh. “Well, all right. If you...”
His voice trailed away when he heard the boards underneath his feet crack under his increased weight. His face paled.
Then the ceiling collapsed underneath him, sending him falling up into the second floor of the hotel. Toke and the hunter cried out in unison as Toke instinctively tightened his anchor to the other man, turning his slow journey upward into a very quick one. Toke released his anchor to the ceiling, falling to the floor on the second story—and then jumped when the floor shuddered beneath him.
“Oh, me poor head.” came a muffled voice.
“Oops again,” Toke said, barely able to feel his anchor to the bounty hunter through the floor. He released that anchor too, and was rewarded with a cry of fright, and a second bang.
“Krag, you all right?” one of the other two hunters exclaimed, and Toke heard the sound of footsteps.
If his head is half as hard as it is empty, I didn't do any real damage to him, Toke thought getting back to his feet.
“He went upstairs, get him!”
More footsteps, this time coming from the stairway. Going back to the hole he'd made, Toke stepped over the edge and gently fell back into the foyer.
“Down here!” he called. He heard their boots slide to a halt on the dusty floors above, and then do an abrupt about face and head back for the stairs again. He waited until they reached the last step, and then jumped back up through the hole in the ceiling. “Up here!”
“Smite it!” the leader yelled. “Cut that out and fight us already!”
Getting on his knees, Toke poked his head out the hole—and then quickly pulled it back in when an arrow came whizzing towards his face. He rolled over onto his back, safely out of range of any more arrows, and stopped to catch his breath.
I got distracted, he thought, giving himself a mental kick. Careless.
Below him, he heard the two remaining hunters thundering up the steps again. Zashiel wouldn't approve of this behavior. To her, being a warrior was the highest of honors, not something to be taken lightly. Seeing him toy with the bounty hunters probably would have earned Toke a solid thump on the head.
Right, let's finish this.
He rolled back to his feet and looked down the hole again. His pack was still down there, right where he'd dropped it, but a quick anchor pulled it up to the second floor with him. He tugged at his shirt, popping the buttons free, and then pulled it off, revealing his stark white Sorakine jacket underneath. He raised the hood, letting the black visor obscure his eyes. From his pack, he pulled his twin axes, twirling them expertly between his fingers just as the door was kicked in. A cloud of dust filled the room, and Took used that to hide him as he anchored himself to the ceiling.
He wasn't a moment too soon, because two arrows zipped through the room just as his feet touched down, burying themselves in the wall behind where he had just been standing. Toke released the anchor, using his ability to sense gravity to tell him where his enemies were in the cloud of dust. He anchored himself to one of their shoes, pulling the hunter off his feet, and then turned to engage the other. The leader had his club and shield out again, and Toke had to take a step backwards to avoid getting his skull smashed in.
“I'm getting my smiting money!” he roared, advancing on Toke again. He was bigger than Toke, and obviously stronger. Even after months of Zashiel's rigorous training, Toke still hadn't managed to build up muscle mass like most people who fought for a living. Still, what he lacked in strength and size, he made up for with speed and agility.
Toke swung his axes once to put the hunter on the defensive, and then threw himself backwards in a half-flip, landed on his left hand, and kicked the hunter with both legs. His feet connected with the thug's chest with enough force to push him backwards into the wall, and Toke turned his attention on the other one, who had gotten back up. This was the one who Toke had stolen his shield from, and he'd never retrieved it, so he came at Toke with his club in both hands, swinging it as vigorously as if he thought he could cut Toke's head off with it. Toke bent over backwards to dodge it, and when he came back up he swung one of his axes to deflect a second blow. The blade bit deep into the tough wood, and Toke increased his weight to make it harder for the larger man to move him. While the hunter was distracted, Toke let go of his axe, dropped to the floor, and swept the hunter's legs out from under him.
“Dropper!” yelled the first hunter, and Toke felt a strong arm wrap around his neck, immediately cutting off his oxygen. His first reaction was to struggle, but he pushed that urge away, knowing all it would do was make him run out of breath even quicker. Instead, he increased his weight again, and stomped on the hunter's foot. The force and weight together were enough to make another hole in the floor, and the hunter cried out in pain. More importantly, he let go of Toke. Gasping for breath, Toke spun around and slammed the heel of his foot into the hunter's jaw, sending him sprawled out on the floor.
A sharp twang came from behind him, and Toke didn't have time to move before the arrow struck him in the back. His Sorakine jacket stopped it from piercing his skin, but the force was still enough to make him stumble forward a couple steps. He felt the hunter rushing at him, and he performed a gravity-weakened backflip over his head, landed behind him, and then anchored himself to the wall in front of them. He fell forward, wrapping the other man in a bear hug, and together they went tumbling horizontally towards the wall. Toke spun in midair so that when they struck the wall, hard enough to crash straight through the other side, his opponent took the brunt of the impact.
Landing in a pile of wood, plaster, and dust, Toke did a handspring, pushing off against the hunter's chest, and landed facing the hole in the wall with both axes held at the ready. The hunter groaned, but didn't get back up.
Two down, one to go.
The final bounty hunter, the one who'd been in charge, stepped up to look at Toke from the other room. His expression was stiff calmness, but his face was pale with rage.
“Those were my brothers,” he said, tightening his grip on his club and shield.
Toke shrugged. “You were coming after my friends and parents. I think that makes us even.”
“It does not make us even!” the hunter yelled. “We're not criminals like you!”
Just like it always did, Toke's chest seemed to clamp down on his heart like a vice when he heard that. “That's... I'm not a criminal.”
The hunter snorted and spat at Toke's feet. “Yeah, and I'm a bunny rabbit.”
There was no point in telling him otherwise. He'd never believe him. Nobody in Yasmik would—or Hashira, for that matter. He would be wasting time and breath trying to convince him. It would be better just to end the fight right now.
“I wasn't trying to crash that machine into Hashira,” he said instead, unconsciously lowering his axes. “I was trying to stop it. Profe.... Dranibor Navras built that thing, and he was the one flying it. I killed him, and then steered it away from Hashira.”
The hunter hesitated, looking at Toke with speculative eyes. Toke heart leaped inside his chest, and for a second he hoped that—
“I don't care,” said the hunter, and then charged at him.
Toke tried to get his weapons up in time, but the hunter's accusations had distracted him, and the larger man drove his elbow into Toke's chest. He kept going, dragging Toke across the room, until he hit the wall, and then swung his club and struck Toke on the side of the head. Toke fell to the floor, stars dancing in front of his eyes, and saw the hunter raising his club again in both hands. He anchored himself to the wall on the other side of the room and slid across the floor, right between the hunter's legs. The floor was rough, and splinters dug at his clothes, but he ignored them and didn't stop until his feet touched the wall. He stepped further up onto it, and then looked up at the hunter, who was standing at a ninety degree angle to him now.
“I'm not a criminal,” he said again. “I don't care if you believe me or not, but I'm telling the truth. And I'm not going to just lie down and let you kill me for a crime I didn't commit!”
The hunter spat again. “I just want the money, kid. I don't care if you're innocent or guilty.”
That was that, then. Toke bent his knees and jumped for the hunter, anchoring himself to the opposite wall halfway through, intending to land a good hit on him when he passed. Instead, the hunter dodged out of the way and swung an overhead blow with his club. He wasn't able to aim with Toke moving as fast as he was, but he still managed to whack him hard on the side, knocking him to the floor again. Toke grunted with the pain, but then rolled out of the way before the hunter could pin him to the ground with his boot, and got back to his feet.
He had been telling the truth, Toke realized. His brothers may have gone down as easily as any of the other people he faced, but this one... he was something else. Still obviously human, but he reacted with speed and struck with power in such a way that it was difficult for Toke to get the better of him. Toke was far from helpless—he'd been trained to fight by a smiting Sorakine—but he didn't have the winged warriors' incredible strength and reflexes.
He was still a Juryokine, though.
There was an old bed sitting against the wall, left behind when the Dammon Hotel had been hastily abandoned. Toke increased his weight again, anchored himself to it, and gave a mighty pull. The bed rocketed towards him, even lifting up off the ground, and the hunter wasn't able to turn around in time to see it. It collided with him, taking the large man with it as it hurtled toward Toke. Toke broke his anchor with it at the last minute and dove out of the way. The bed smashed yet another hole in the wall, going straight through into the next room. Back on the floor again, Toke held his axes up and carefully approached the hole.
“Smite you!” hunter yelled, and Toke dodged again as an arrow flew out of the cloud of dust.
“Smite yourself!” Toke muttered, curling into a somersault and rolling back to his feet. “Can't you just lose consciousness already?”
The hunter stepped back into the room, his skin covered with dust and plaster, giving him a ghostlike look. His leather armor was torn, and Toke could see blood leaking from three different cuts on his face, but the rage in his eyes told him that he couldn’t even feel his injuries.
“I'm gonna kill you,” the hunter growled, reaching up to wipe blood off his brow before it got in his eye. “Forget the fifteen million, I'm gonna kill you, you dropper!”
A pit formed in Toke's stomach. He wasn't afraid of losing against a mere human like him, not really. What scared him was what he might have to do to win.
I told him I'm not a criminal, Toke thought as the hunter gathered himself to attack again. And I want to keep it that way. I won’t become a murderer for him!
With a shout, the hunter charged at Toke again. Toke jumped into the air, anchored himself to the wall behind the hunter, and came flying towards him again. If he could just land one solid hit on his head, he'd have to lose consciousness. He wouldn't be human otherwise, Toke figured. But just as Toke kicked out his leg, the hunted dropped to the floor, letting Toke pass harmlessly above him. Toke yelped in surprise, but skillfully righted himself to land on the wall, and then anchored himself the hunter's shoes and pulled them out from under him. The hunter fell again, his face hitting the floor with a crack that made Toke's skin crawl.
And then he got back up again.
“All right,” Toke whispered. A plan was already forming in his head, but he didn't like it. “Fine.”
He dropped off the wall and ran into the hallway.
“Hey, wait!” the hunter called. “Where are you going?”
“Getting out of here!” Toke yelled back.
The hunter screamed in rage. “Get back here, you little dropper! You can't escape from me!”
Toke ignored him and ran further down the hallway, towards the big window. There, he drew one of his axes back behind his head and threw it, shattering the glass. A quick tug with his powers brought it back to his—Toke felt the shift in gravity too late, and the hunter's shield collided with the back of his skull. Toke was thrown to the ground, head striking the wall, and the world spun wildly around him. Shadows darkened his vision, but he could still see the hunter advancing on him.
“Two things no one ever does,” he said as he drew nearer. Toke had a hard time understanding him through the buzzing in his skull. “No one ever hurts my brothers, and no one ever gets away from me.”
“Get... up,” he whispered to himself. “Get up!”
Toke had flown on top of the Terracaelum. He'd fought the most dangerous man in Yasmik, won, and saved the entire Sorakine race. He wasn't going to die now... not like this... not to this muscle headed thug!
With a shout, Toke put his hands underneath him and thrust upwards, the force sending him flying to his feet, and he swung both axes at the hunter. The hunter swung his club in retaliation, knocking the axe in of Toke's left hand away, but Toke spun with the momentum, extended his right arm, and struck the hunter's club with all his might...
Pain lanced through Toke's arm, and he screamed. His fingers went limp like noodles, and the axe went flying from his grip. It skittered down the hallway, all the way to the staircase. Before he could gather his senses again, the hunter's fist slammed into his face, propelling him backwards, right out the broken window. Toke grabbed the windowsill with his left hand, his right still hanging uselessly by his side. More pain erupted in his jaw, and he hoped he hadn't knocked any teeth loose.
At least this one didn't break my nose, he thought, hanging from the windowsill by the fingers of his left hand.
Dangling from the window, the water below him invisible in the fog, Toke looked up and saw the hunter standing over him. Without a word, he raised his boot and positioned it over Toke's foot. Toke watched. He couldn't be sure how high up he was with the fog shrouding his vision, but he got the distinct feeling that it was high enough for the landing to be unpleasant, even if it didn't kill him.
“Goodbye, Juryokine,” the hunter said, and brought his foot down.
Toke let go of the window, but only fell for a split second before he anchored himself to the wall and stood up, facing the hunter.
“See you later,” he replied.
The hunter's eyes widened when he realized what Toke was going to do, but by then it was too late. Toke jumped, his altered gravity carrying him horizontal to the ground below, and then released his anchor to the wall and replaced it with the hunter. Again, Toke fell for half a second, but then his anchor pulled the hunter towards the window. The huge man caught hold of the windowsill, bringing them both to a stop, and Toke bounced like he was on the end of a rubber cord before flying back upward. His fist struck the hunter's chin with enough power to lift his feet from the floor and slam his head into the ceiling, making a sizable crack in the plaster.
Toke released his anchor and fell back onto the wall outside. The hunter tottered like a drunk, blinking stupidly, and reached up to feel his head. And then, finally, blessedly, he fell forward, out the window and into the fog. Toke counted three seconds, and then heard a distinct splash.
Toke breathed a sigh of relief. That had been too close. The hunter had been telling the truth, he wasn't like anyone he'd ever faced before. Most humans fell to his Sorakine-honed skills with ease. It was exceedingly rare that one of them could so much as hit him, much less engage him in real combat for so long. In fact, now that he thought of it, the only people who had lasted that long against him always had some kind of advantage, like Sorakine strength, or Navras with his armor.
Toke shook his head and stepped inside to retrieve his axes. Once they were hanging safely from the loops on his back again, he set off, walking higher up the hotel's wall. He produced a cloth sack from his pocket and dipped his fingers in. When he withdrew them, the tips were coated with a thin film of blue paste, which he quickly applied to his jaw. A moment later, he sighed with relief when the pain ebbed away and the swelling went down. So the hunter had been a good fighter, he chastised himself, thinking more clearly now that he wasn't doing so around a dislocated jaw. So what? He had more important things to worry about. Namely, Zashiel facing another Sorakine somewhere else in Doku.
Reaching the roof, Toke stepped up onto it and paused. The mist still crept about the canals, but up here the sun was shining. The Dammon hotel was the tallest building in this part of Doku. Only the topmost parts of the roofs of the other buildings peeked out of the fog.
Perfect cover, Toke thought. Nobody'll be able to see this.
He reached behind his back, grabbed a loose strand of fabric in both hands, and pulled on them. Two flaps, like sails as white as snow, extended from his spine. Made from the same material as his Sorakine jacket, the flaps were soft and flexible, yet almost as strong as steel. Gripped tight in his fists like they were, with his arms extended by his sides, the fabric was as taut as the membrane of a bat's wing.
“Hold on, Zashiel,” he muttered under his breath, and took a running start at the edge of the building. “I'm coming to help!”
Then he leaped off the building, flapped his arms, and flew.
NEXT TIME: Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a… wait, planes don’t exist here. It’s a guy in a tacky white jacket? What? No, I’m not on drugs! You’re on drugs!