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Toke's heart lurched. That wasn't the voice he had expected. He'd never heard that voice before in his life. The glowing intruder laughed at his reaction, and the bright green light dimmed enough for Toke to see who he was facing off against. To his surprise, he found that the man wasn't wearing a complete suit of armor. Only the sleeves and gauntlets adorned his arms—the rest of his body was covered with a flowing blue robe. That wasn't what surprised him the most, though.
“You're not Navras,” he said softly.
The intruder laughed again. His head was topped with gray hair like Toke's old professor, but it was cut short and combed backwards. His face was narrow but rectangular, with a knowing smile and gleaming eyes that spoke of schemes and plots—nothing like the calm, wise look that, even in the grip of insanity, Navras had carried so naturally.
“Who are you?” Toke demanded. He glanced warily at Zashiel's door, which stayed firmly closed. Surely she couldn't sleep through something like this.
Without answering, the intruder extended his hand and Toke was suddenly overcome by a feeling of being weightless while simultaneously weighing a thousand pounds, as if the air around him had become a solid object and was trying to crush him. It was a sensation he'd felt before, the last time someone had used that armor's power on him. He was jerked forward, flying through the air, until the man caught him around the neck. The enhanced strength granted by the armor allowed him to lift Toke off the ground as if he were as light as a feather.
“I’m hurt that you don’t recognize me,” he said. His voice was so smooth and oily that Toke almost expected him to try to sell him something. “But what am I saying? Of course you don’t know me! You may call me Shen.”
He began to back out of the store, bringing Toke with him. Where was Zashiel, he wondered desperately? He opened his mouth to shout her name, but Shen's hand clenched more tightly around his throat. Not tight enough to choke him, but just enough that Toke wasn't able to call for help. In desperation, he reached behind his back and wrapped his fist around one of his axes, but before he could draw it a surge of the armor's energy flashed through his body. It was both tingly and incredibly painful, like struck by lightning, and Toke's hand went limp as he gasped like a fish out of water.
“W- What do y- you want?” he managed to ask through lips that didn't want to obey him.
Shen smiled at him. “To check on my investment.”
“Y- Your what?”
“Tell me,” he said, his voice suddenly as brisk and businesslike as a doctor’s, “have you been experiencing any changes recently?”
“What are you—”
“Answer me, Cassitoka!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
Toke gasped for breath, hoping that his outburst might have wakened Zashiel. Shen, too, eyed the candy shop warily, but when nobody came out he turned back to Toke.
“I think I believe you,” he said with a disappointed frown. “But just to be sure, let’s see what you’re capable of!”
He released Toke, dropping him onto the dock outside the candy shop. For half a second, Toke was simply relieved that Shen hadn't crushed his throat—but then he thrust his open palm at him, throwing him into the air with another burst of energy. He flew across Doku's docks, parallel to the canal, flipping and spinning uncontrollably.
Smite! he thought, but his brain was already busy working out a plan. As soon as Shen had pushed him, Toke had been put outside of the armor's kaosuryo field. He weakened his gravity and reached out with his powers, anchoring himself to a building as soon as he had decelerated enough to keep the sudden change in direction from hurting him. He lurched sideways in midair and fell a few feet before his feet touched down on the building's wall, standing up on it as if it were the floor. He crouched down and drew both of his axes, ready to jump again at a moment’s notice.
Sure enough, half a second later a green bolt of light came flying up towards him. Toke jumped, weakening his gravity so that Shen's attack passed beneath his feet, blowing a hole in the wall, and then did a flip and anchored himself to the building across from them. He tensed his arm to throw an axe as he fell, but thought better of it and kept both weapons in hand. Toke had no idea who Shen was, but he had a piece of Navras' armor—armor that had given him the strength to overpower a Sorakine. Even if all he had were the gauntlets, Toke had a feeling that attacking would only lose him his weapon.
Instead, he jumped again. His gravitational anchor carried him further up from the building, and then he arched backwards, performing a graceful flip before landing on the roof facing his enemy. There came another flash of green, and Shen rocketed up to stand atop the building on the other side of the canal, watching Toke with calm interest. Toke gripped his axes tightly, trying to calm his frantic heart. Waiting for him to decide to do something was almost as bad as the fight itself. Slowly, the glowing man raised both arms, and then thrust them back down. With another flash, he came hurtling across the distance between the buildings, almost too fast for Toke to see. Only the reflexes Zashiel had drilled into him kept him from taking a metal gauntleted fist to his face. He spun out of the way on his toes like a dancer, and then swung his axe at Shen's face. The barrier of green light diverted the attack, though, and the sudden change in direction nearly threw him off balance.
Smite, he thought again, and then had to leap backwards out of Shen's reach when he swung his fist around to punch him again. When that missed, Shen raised both hands above his head. The palms of his gloves glowed brighter, and when he swung them they released a wall of kaosuryo. The green energy swept toward Toke like a wave, carving a shallow trench into the roof as it came, and Toke dove out of the way just before it struck him. It dissipated when it reached the end of the building.
Through near-panicked thoughts, something occurred to Toke: whoever this man was, he wasn't nearly as good with the armor as Navras had been. Navras had been able to manipulate the kaosuryo energy enough to create miniature gravity storms. It seemed the best Shen could do was randomly throw it around and hope it hit its mark. The waves of energy themselves weren't inherently dangerous, but being hit by one was like having gravity turned against him. They could push him, pull him, punch him, and they could do it all without Shen getting anywhere close enough for Toke to strike back.
A series of short, quick blasts of kaosuryo shot from his palms, and Toke dodged around to his right. He could feel the tingling sensation of the energy in the air behind him, and the floor shook a little with each impact, but he didn't turn back to look. Somehow, he got the feeling that he wasn't truly in danger yet. As if Shen wasn't actually trying to kill him. Like he had said, right now he was only seeing what Toke was capable of. He was toying with him. A flash of anger burned Toke’s chest, but he knew he shouldn't be complaining. Every minute that Shen drew the fight out was one more minute for Toke to figure out how to beat him.
With a shout, he weakened his gravity and leaped into the air, cartwheeling out of his opponent's line of fire. When he was directly above him, Toke increased his weight to ten times what it normally was and came falling back down, extending his foot to kick Shen in the face. Just before impact, though, the old man raised his arm, and a thin wall of kaosuryo sprang into existence between them. The moment Toke's foot touched the glowing wall of energy, he ricocheted off of it with far more momentum than he'd been falling with. The momentum flung him right off the edge of the building, and Toke lashed out with his powers to anchor himself to the wall. His gravitational field changed, but he was still moving so fast that he went skidding and bouncing out of control down the wall. Rolling so that he was upright again, he swung both axes, driving the blades into the thick wood beneath him. His right arm lit up like it was on fire, but he refused to let go, and his momentum ran out just before he was sent splashing into the dark waters of the canal.
Toke struggled back to his feet, grunting and clenching his teeth in pain. His hand had nearly gone numb from all the stress he'd put on it. He pushed it all to the back of his mind. Zashiel had taught him how to ignore pain and do what had to be done, and right now what he had to do was get up and keep fighting. Still, he took the axe from his right hand and reattached it to the loop on his back. He'd never be able to use it in this condition.
There was another green flash from atop the building, and Shen came flying out over the edge as well. He angled down so that he was coming at Toke in a nosedive, and extended his fist in front of him. The fist began to glow brighter. Panic overtook Toke's rational mind for half a second, but he shoved it back and focused.
He summoned the void.
Suddenly, everything vanished except for Toke and his enemy, plunging them both into shadow. Even time slowed down. In one second he came up with a plan, and initiated it the next. Jumping as high as he could without hitting the building across the canal, Toke curled up and over his attacker in a flip, letting him pass harmlessly underneath, and then pointed his feet at a window. He fell straight for it, and the glass shattered instantly under his increased weight.
Move, move, move! Toke urged himself. He anchored himself back to the floor, skidding a few feet until his momentum ran out, and then dashed across the room and kicked down the door.
He had no idea who Shen was, but one thing was clear: Toke couldn't beat him. Not on his own, at any rate. He hated to admit it, but he hadn't even been able to beat Navras last time, either. He had goaded the professor into a blind attack, which had punctured the Terracaelum's battery. Add to that the fact that he was already exhausted, injured, and couldn't fight with both hands, and it was clear his only chance was to try to escape. Maybe once he had Zashiel they would stand a better chance.
Toke made his way through the building as quickly as he could, anchoring himself to the wall at the other end of the hallway and falling across the distance. He didn’t know where Shen had gone, and that was enough to make him jump at every shadow. On the other hand, the fact that Shen hadn't attacked already make Toke wonder if he didn't know where he was either. If Toke had lost him, then now would be the perfect opportunity to escape. Without knowing where the old man was, though, he ran the risk of being spotted again when he fled. That left his escape entirely up to luck—something that he did not like at all.
Leaping down a staircase, Toke found himself on the bottom floor of the building. It looked like some kind of accounting office, if the abacuses and stacks of paper as tall as him were any clue. He looked over at the main entrance, a pair of big oaken doors that looked nearly impossible to break down. That would be his easiest way out, but also the most predictable. Shen would expect him to go out that way. Unless... Unless he knew that Toke knew how predictable using the front door would be, and had predicted that he would take another way out. Toke hesitated. When he looked at things that way, then no matter what he did, Shen might have a plan to counteract it. So, what should—
The floor beneath him exploded in a flash of green light.
Toke was sent flying into the air amidst a barrage of wood, plaster, and paper, only for everything to come to an abrupt halt just before he hit the ceiling. He hung there for a split second, and then went hurtling back down toward the floor. With a yelp, he weakened his gravity as much as he could and flipped so that he landed on his feet. The impact was still jarring enough to rattle his teeth. He struggled to stay standing, but the pressure pushing him downwards was too strong, and he collapsed face down on the floor. Shen loomed over him.
There was a slam, and Toke looked up to see that the front doors had been thrown open. The pressure holding him down vanished, and he had just enough time to blink before he was thrown out of the building alongside several of the office supplies that Shen had disturbed. He tried desperately to anchor himself to anything he could, but as long as he was in the green light he may as well have been a normal human for all the good his powers did him. He flipped over in midair just as he went through the door, and caught a glimpse of Shen.
The old wiggled his fingers in a taunting farewell.
“You dropper!” Toke screamed as he was whisked outside. Finally, he was out of the light, but he was still moving too fast to anchor himself to anything. Weakening his gravity wouldn't do him any good, either. Going as fast as he was, no matter how much he weighed, when he landed it would be like falling off a building—a normal person falling off a building. He noticed a desk flying alongside him, propelled from the building by the same blast as Toke. Thinking quickly, he anchored himself to it, lying down in its underside and curling up into a ball. He was just in time, because a moment later he struck another building. The impact shattered a hole in the wall, and it was only the cover provided by the desk that saved him. The desk was smashed to splinters, though, and Toke went rolling into the other building, stopping when he hit the interior wall behind him.
He sprang back to his feet, having to lean on the wall while his head spun, and tried to locate another exit. Where was the door? He swore he kept catching glimpses of it, but then his vision would go double and he'd lose sight of it again. The void. He needed the void to help him concentrate. He stopped, closed his eyes, and tried to focus. When he opened them, he told himself, he would see the door. Toke opened his eyes...
And was pulled back out through the hole he had made in the wall.
Shen waited for him atop the accounting office, and Toke flew straight into his outstretched hand, the sudden stop almost enough to snap his neck. Dazed, Toke dimly realized he still had the axe in his left hand. With a grunt, he swung it at Shen's exposed head, but a casual flick of his free hand deflected the blade. The look he was giving Toke wasn't the least bit hostile, though. In fact, he looked just like a scientist examining a new breed of insect he was studying. That frightened Toke even more. A scientist didn't need hatred or malice to cut his subjects to ribbons.
This is all just an experiment to him, Toke realized as he struggled to unwrap Shen's iron clad fist from his throat. But what’s he trying to learn?
Without a word, Shen turned on his heel and flung Toke out across Doku. The city became a blur of colors again, and Toke weakened his gravity until he could steady himself. The armored man was already nothing but a green speck in the distance, watching him fall.
My wings! Toke thought. His injured hand might not let him fly, but at the very least he could glide until he could come to a safe landing. Taking a firm grip, he extended both flaps of fabric and flipped over so that he was right side up. His wings caught the wind, and he angled himself forward to ride it. Now, where would be a good place to—
Suddenly, there was another green flash, and something struck Toke in the side. He lurched in the air, nearly careening into a building. A quick glance told him that a hole had been punched straight through his right wing—and then he began to fall. Doku came rushing up to meet him, and Toke began throwing out his powers again. He anchored himself to one of the nearby buildings, and he immediately arced out of his descent downwards. He was still coming in too fast for a safe landing, so he let go of that anchor and re-anchored himself a building further down the canal and fell toward that one. All he was doing was making himself fall just as fast in a different direction, though. He had to lose some of his momentum, or else find a safe place to crash.
The water, he realized! It was his only chance. He anchored himself to another building, drew himself out over the middle of the canal, and then released the anchor so that he was flying parallel with the watery street. Gradually, his momentum began to die, and he descended closer to the water. Blocking out everything except the problem again, Toke made the void and concentrated. He weakened his gravity, making himself lighter, and then weakened it even more.
I'm still coming in too fast, he thought with calmness that belied the situation. More!
He did it again, decreasing his weight even further, and then again. It wasn't enough, though. He was still falling too fast. At this rate, even the soft water below him would feel like concrete when he hit it. He strained his powers, lightening himself even more. By now Toke had a feeling that he weighed less than a tenth what he normally did, if that, but that still wasn't going to save him.
The canal rushed up to meet him, and Toke closed his eyes.
His feet touched the water, catapulting him head over heels. He landed on his stomach and slid across the surface, sending up spray all around him until his momentum ran out and he came to rest…
On something solid?
What the smite? Toke raised his head, sure that he must be hallucinating, but found that the truth was even stranger than that. He was lying flat on his stomach—on top of the water! Cautiously, Toke put his hands underneath him, got to his knees, and found that the water supported his weight even then. He stood up.
“No way!” he breathed, looking down at his feet. The water was still flowing beneath him, giving the odd sensation that the floor was moving, but other than that it was solid. It almost felt like he was walking on some kind of pillow. He never would have thought it possible, but Toke had weakened gravity's hold on him to the point that he could walk on water.
A green flash at the other end of the watery street told Toke that Shen had caught up to him. The glimmer of light drew closer, rocketing over the canal like a falling star, and then slowed and landed atop another building. If Shen was surprised to see him standing on top of the canal, he didn't show it. He merely thrust his hand at Toke. The water in front of Toke glowed green for a second, and then surged forward in a ten foot tall wave. Toke looked up at it, took a deep breath, and then increased his weight.
Suddenly, he weighed five times what he normally did, and he fell below the surface of the water like a stone. The canal was only ten feet deep here. Looking up, Shen was nothing but a bright green blur in the murky depths, but Toke didn't let himself think that he was beyond his reach. Toke tried to run, but found that the water pressure, plus the extra weight he'd given himself, kept him from moving at more than a slow walk. So, instead, he anchored himself to something heavy in the distance, raised his legs up, and let himself be pulled toward it. He shot through the canal like an arrow fired underwater, and behind him he felt the water heave upwards. Shen was trying to scoop him out of the canal.
He landed on the object he'd anchored himself to, an old sunken boat halfway buried in the mud, just as his lungs began to burn. He'd never had any reason to test how long he could hold his breath, but he estimated he had less than ten seconds before he absolutely had to take a breath. He needed to get to the surface without giving Shen an opening to attack him again, but how?
Too late. The water around him began to glow green and the tingly feeling of kaosuryo made gooseflesh rise on his arms. The water rose upwards again, bringing the old boat up out of the mud, and Toke had no choice but to go up with it. Balancing on the pointed bow of the boat, he watched as the city became visible around him again, blurred and warped by the rippling bubble of water he was held in. Shen made a beckoning motion, drawing the water to where he perched atop the building, just as Toke let out an involuntary cough. Bubbles obscured his vision for a second, and when they left everything was going darker.
No! Toke thought, a spark of anger fighting its way through the panic. If I have to die, I will. But I'm not going to smiting drown!
With one last desperate effort, Toke threw his powers out behind him, and latched onto the first solid object he felt, increasing his weight at the same time. He began to fall out of the bubble, but Shen clenched his fist, halting him. He increased his weight again, but the other man's power was too strong. He couldn't break free. Toke's lungs felt like they were on fire now, and it took most of his concentration just to keep from sucking in a lungful of water—concentration he needed to get away from Shen. In the back of his mind he knew it was a pointless struggle, though. Shen's armor let him fight Sorakines. Even if Toke had their gravity altering powers, he was still only as strong as a human. There was only one thing he had that they didn't.
Forcing himself to calm down, Toke made the void in his mind again. He had seconds left before he passed out, if that, but he didn't let himself panic. Panic was the enemy of rational thought, and thinking was exactly what he needed to do. The world faded away, and Toke immediately spotted a boat bobbing in the waters below them, torn free from its mooring by the wave Shen had created earlier. Toke focused his attention on it, lashed out to form an anchor with it, and increased his weight as much as he could. With Shen holding him in place, the boat leaped up out of the water—and struck Shen in the back.
The armored man lurched when the big wooden craft slammed into him, and in his lapse of concentration the ball of water fell apart. Freed, Toke fell a few feet toward the canal, and then anchored himself to a building behind him. This was done entirely by reflex, since he was nearly unconscious from lack of oxygen, but as soon as he hit the wall he was jolted back to awareness. He collapsed to his knees, hacking and coughing before sucking in a breath of sweet, life giving air. It took a few seconds for his head to stop spinning, but eventually he was able to get back to his feet. He looked up and saw Shen still on the rooftop, but now he was on his hands and knees, as if injured.
He doesn't have Navras' full armor, Toke realized. Just the arms—and I threw a smiting boat at him. He's lucky to still be alive.
He still didn't know what Shen wanted, though. “Let's see what you're capable of,” he had said, but what on Fissura did that mean? Well, Toke decided, drawing his left axe again, there was only one way to find out. Weakening his gravity, he leaped up to where the old man lay.
“Now,” he said, raising his axe threateningly, “you're going to tell me what's going on. Where did you get that armor?”
Still gasping for breath, Shen looked up at him. “I... found... it.”
“Who made it work again for you?”
Shen laughed at this. “I did, you smiting idiot. Anyone with half a brain could have done that. I'd have rebuilt the whole suit, but it was too torn up. Only the arms were still usable.”
Toke frowned. Navras' armor had been an incredible piece of machinery, one that only the greatest mind in Yasmik could have devised. For Shen to say it had been easy to rebuild... he was either lying, or far more frightening than Toke had initially thought. Even so, those weren't the questions that Toke needed answered most.
Raising a foot, he kicked Shen in the chest, flipping him onto his back. “All right, now what about me? What kind of experiment do you think you're running?”
Shen didn't answer immediately. He lay on his back, grimacing and caressing his ribs where Toke had kicked him. For a minute Toke worried that he might have hit him too hard.
“The kind that you should be honored the be a part of,” he finally said, groaning. “But that's all you need to know.”
Toke's grip on his axe tightened. “Wrong answer. Want to try again?”
“No, as a matter of fact, I don't.”
With that, Shen gave an almost indifferent wave of his hand, and the air around Toke turned green. Before he could react, he was pushed downward hard enough to break through the roof, and he tumbled ungracefully into the building below him. The landing made his head spin again, and an instant later Shen descended next to him.
“Why you...” Toke growled, trying to get to his feet. Another blast of kaosuryo swept his legs out from under him, and he landed on his face yet again.
“Roll over, would you?” Shen asked casually, all tracer of being injured gone. He put his foot under Toke's chest and flipped him onto his back. “Thank you.”
Toke tried to get back up, but the kaosuryo was still pinning him to the floor. It wasn't enough to crush him, but the tingling energy still held him there as firmly as if he'd been tied down.
“Now comes phase two of the experiment,” the old man said. Reaching into his robes, he pulled a long, narrow object out, and a new color emerged to mingle with the bright green light. Yellow. It almost looked like...
“Wait a minute,” toke exclaimed, eyes widening. “That's juryo!”
Shen laughed. “Indeed it is, Cassitoka. Five Sorakine feathers worth of it.”
The tube it was being held in was a syringe, Toke realized. Reaching down, Shen took the zipper of Toke's jacket between two fingers and unzipped it. Toke was still barechested beneath.
“Y- You get that away from me!” Toke yelled as realization dawned on him. “What do you think you're doing?”
“Again, you don't need to know that,” Shen said, squirting a bit of the glowing liquid from the needle.
Toke squirmed, trying to break free, but the kaosuryo field kept him from moving even an inch. He was completely powerless as Shen loomed over him, bringing the three-inch-long needle closer to his skin... closer...
Toke couldn't fight back the wave of panic. “I've already had some of that! It's what made me a Juryokine!”
“Giving me more's not going to do anything! Get the smite away from me, you dropper!”
“Oh, but I think you're wrong, Cassitoka. You have no idea what you’re truly capable of.”
With a sudden, swift motion, the old man drove the needle into Toke’s chest. In his panic, Toke could barely feel it, but he screamed anyway. The terror had turned him into an animal. If he hadn't been held down by the unnatural green energy, he would have sat right up and clawed Shen's face off, even if doing so had only served to stab the needle even deeper into him. Shen didn't look the least bit concerned as he pushed down on the plunger, sending the glowing Sorakine-born chemical into Toke's body. A warm, tingling sensation spread out through Toke's chest.
Cackling with triumph, Shen whipped the syringe back out and backed away. Toke fell still. The kaosuryo vanished, but Toke was too horrified to realize he wasn't being restrained anymore. Visions of the past replayed themselves in his head. He saw the night Zashiel had given him one of her feathers and told him to swallow it. It was the night he had inherited the powers of a Sorakine—the night he had become the Juryokine.
The transformation had nearly killed him.
Gulping down quick, shallow breaths, Toke slowly raised his hand to feel his chest. Any second now, the juryo would begin its work, and his gravity would betray him. It would almost be like being stuck in a Gravity Storm, pulled and tossed around like a rag doll. He had survived it once. What was to say he would survive again?
What's going to happen to Zashiel and my parents? he wondered. Will they find me? Will Zashiel figure out what happened? Is... Is Shen going to go after her next?
It took Toke several minutes to calm down enough to realize what was happening. Or, more precisely, what wasn't happening. Nothing. He was still lying on the floor, holding his chest, without a single tug of gravity out of place. Slowly, with hands trembling, he sat up.
“Hmm,” Shen mused, stroking his chin in thought. “Again?”
Realization dawned on Toke. “I'm already a Juryokine. Giving me more juryo wasn't going to do anything.”
“No, it should have,” Shen insisted. He looked at Toke with those piercing eyes, so strangely devoid of hostility. “It is, in fact! It’s simply happening far more slowly than I anticipated.”
Toke looked at him, and anger rose up in his chest. “You tried to kill me for this? You threw me through half a dozen buildings just to give me more juryo?” Drawing his axe again, he sprang to his feet. “What the smite is wrong with you?”
With a motion so quick Toke could barely see it, Shen threw something at him. Something small and sharp pricked his neck, but he ignored it. If Shen thought that was going to stop him, then he was delusional. Toke had been beaten, stabbed, crushed, and worse.
He took a step toward the old man—and fell flat on his face.
Panic flooded Toke's brain again. Or, it tried to, at least. He could feel the icy fingers of terror clutching at him, but they kept slipping away like they couldn't find a good grip. All his emotions were vanishing that way. He wasn't afraid. He wasn't content, either. He simply felt... nothing. Suddenly, fatigue weighed heavily on his mind, and all he wanted was to close his eyes and go to sleep. He fought it, forced his eyes to stay open, but he knew he couldn't keep it up for long.
“Further investigation is obviously needed.” Shen's voice was distorted and echo-y in Toke's ears. The old man appeared over Toke, his arms glowing, and Toke felt a second prick in his neck. “There. Now, return home and go to sleep. When you wake up, you won't remember any of this. Understand?”
Suddenly, Toke felt overwhelmed with the desire to do as Shen said. Get up, go home, go to sleep. That sounded... wonderful. All he wanted was to curl up, take a nice, long nap, and forget anything had ever happened.
No! some part of him deep inside his mind argued. This isn't right!
Toke blinked stupidly. “Wh... What... are you...”
Shen snapped his fingers. “Cassitoka, I said go home and go to sleep.”
Everything went dark.
GO HOME. GO TO SLEEP. FORGET EVERYTHING.
He saw a bridge and the waters of the canal beneath him. Then darkness.
GO HOME. GO TO SLEEP. FORGET EVERYTHING.
He saw the outside of the candy shop. Then darkness.
GO HOME. GO TO SLEEP. FORGET EVERYTHING.
He saw the inside of the candy shop. Darkness.
NEXT TIME: A new challenger enters the arena! Who is Shen, what is he planning, and what does he want with Toke? Now accepting all theories!