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Go to sleep.
Forget all of this.
“Toke, what are you—Toke!”
The curtain of darkness began to peel away when someone grabbed Toke's shoulders and shook them. Though he tried in vain to keep the last tranquil remains of sleep from escaping, he quickly felt his waking mind burrowing up through the dreariness until...
He opened his eyes to see Zashiel's face a mere inch away from his.
“Hello, beautiful,” he said with a dopey grin. Then he realized what had come out of his mouth and sucked in a panicked breath, waiting for Zashiel to punch it right back out of him again.
To his surprise, though, Zashiel just sat back and sighed in relief. “Oh, thank the skies! I thought you were...”
“You thought I was what?”
Zashiel motioned toward him. “Look at you, Toke!”
“Look at what?” Toke asked. “I'm just—”
For the first time, Toke realized where he was. He was lying flat on his stomach on the hard wood of the abandoned shop's floor. His jacket was unzipped so that he could feel the prickly floor on his bare chest, but his hood was still up.
“I... I must have...” Toke stammered, pushing himself upright. “What happened?”
Zashiel hooked her arm under his shoulder and helped him up to his feet. “I was going to ask you the same question. I slept through the whole night, and when I realized you hadn't woken me up for my watch I came out and found you on the floor.”
With a shaky hand, Toke lowered his hood. Sure enough, without the dark glass visor in front of his face, the early morning sunbeams were unmistakable as they shined through the dusty windows.
“I did what?” he asked, turning to look at Zashiel again.
“I found you on the—”
“No, no, you said I was on first watch last night?”
Zashiel nodded. “You volunteered, yeah.”
“I did?” Toke asked. He looked down at the floor and squinted his eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I'm sure,” the Sorakine girl huffed. “You said it right to my... wait a minute, are you saying you don't remember that?”
Toke looked up and his eyes widened. “I... no, I don't.”
Zashiel gave him a long, contemplative look. “What do you remember?”
“Um,” Toke reached back and scratched his head, “I remember we fought the bounty hunters and your sister. Then we came back here, gave my parents some food, and then...” He blinked. “And the next thing I know, you're shaking me awake.”
Before he could react, Zashiel had lunged toward him. Her fingers alighted on his head, gently tracing a course from one side of his skull to the other, almost as if she was massaging his scalp but was afraid her fingernails might cut his skin.
Toke sat still for a minute, but quickly grew irritated. “What are you doing?” he finally asked, brusquely pushing her hands away.
“Toke,” she said seriously, looking him in the eye, “when you were fighting the hunters yesterday, did any of them hit you on the head?”
Toke thought back on the previous day's fight. Much of the battle was just a blur of motion, only a few things standing out enough to be recalled with any clarity. Toke almost smiled at that. What did the fact that he could come close to being killed, only to call it uneventful, say about him? Nothing good, probably.
“Well?” Zashiel asked impatiently, bringing his attention back to her.
“A couple times, I think,” he admitted. “Why?”
Without answering, Zashiel stood up and stormed out of the room.
“What's going on?” Toke called after her. “What's wrong?”
“Don't move,” she commanded him without turning around. Toke froze. How did she... He sighed and sat back down as she disappeared into her room. Did she really know him well enough that she knew everything he would do even without looking at him, or was he just getting predictable?
A minute later, she emerged again, carrying a blue tube in her hands.
“Now hold still,” she said, kneeling down next to him again. She held the tube up to pour some of the contents into her hand, but stopped when Toke reached out and grabbed her wrist.
“Zashiel, no!” he said.
Zashiel gave him an exasperated look. “You need it, Toke. You obviously have a head injury, so quit being so stubborn and—”
“I do not have a head injury!” Toke argued back heatedly. “I feel fine.”
“I just found you passed out on the floor. You are not fine! And you said it yourself, you can't remember anything after we got back here last night. If you don't have a head injury, then what is it?”
Toke hesitated. “I- I feel fine, though. My head doesn't hurt at all.”
He'd expected that to put Zashiel at ease, but instead it only seemed to worry her more.
“Those are the worst kinds, Toke. You don't know they're there until you just fall down dead. Now hold still!”
She tried to raise the bottle again, but Toke refused to let go of her arm.
“I said no!” he insisted, and gestured at the bottle with his other hand. “Look at how little we have left. We're not going to waste it on something like this.”
Zashiel's face turned red and her eyes flashed dangerously. “I'm supposed to be keeping you safe, Toke. I promised your parents I would, and I promised myself too. How am I supposed to do that if you keep fighting me every step of the way?”
Toke frowned, but still kept his hand wrapped firmly around Zashiel's wrist. It was a pointless effort. Zashiel was strong enough that she could do whatever she wanted to him. It was only because she valued his opinion so much that she hadn't tied his arms behind his back and forcefully applied every ounce of Chiyuka ointment they had to him.
“I know that,” he finally said, speaking softly, “but having a heart attack every time I get a scrape isn't helping me either. If we run out of that stuff, we're defenseless! So,” he pushed against Zashiel's arm, and she obligingly lowered it, “save it for an emergency.”
Zashiel looked at him with cold eyes for a minute, and Toke got the feeling she was going to force it on him anyway. Then she sighed and slipped it back into her pocket.
“Fine,” she spat, standing up, “but you're not leaving my side all day today. If you much as look like you're about to faint, I'm going to make you take a smiting bath in Chiyuka ointment. Got it?”
Toke couldn't help but chuckle as he stood up too. “If we had enough for me to bathe in, I wouldn't be fighting you like this.”
While Zashiel made for the door, Toke put his head against the wall outside his parents' room. The peaceful breathing on the other side of the thin, dusty wall told him they had slept through the argument, and he went into his and Zashiel's room to retrieve his things. Shucking off his Sorakine jacket, he put on the pouch Zashiel had made for him a year ago, and started to fold the snow white—
“What the smite?” he whispered, his eyes widening. He gave the jacket a shake, unfolding it, and held it up closer to his face. No, he wasn't imagining things. A hole as big as his fist had been punched through the wing.
When did this happen? he thought in dismay. Holding the jacket in one hand, he poked his other hand through the hole and wiggled his fingers. The wings were made of the same material as the jacket itself, which was strong enough that an arrow fired from a crossbow wouldn't pierce it. Whatever had done this, it had to have been incredibly powerful.
Toke thought back on his short flight the previous day. His injured arm had made him stop, but nothing had happened that could have done this, had it? It couldn't have, he decided. If he'd been hit hard enough to tear a hole in his jacket, he'd have remembered it.
Then again... Toke raised his hand and felt his head again. Maybe Zashiel was right.
Maybe she did this, he thought suddenly. She had forbidden him to fly, hadn't she? Maybe Zashiel had found out he’d disobeyed her and decided to put an end to it without confronting him about it.
Toke laughed humorlessly. No. The day Zashiel decided to fix a problem without confronting the source head on was the day it rained without getting anything wet. That just wasn't how the world worked. So, then, what had happened?
Zashiel wasn't the only Sorakine he'd seen yesterday, was she? Toke paused. There had been Finch. And now that he thought about it, she had been throwing those metal balls around like a mad juggler, slinging them out and then drawing them back to her. Had those things been moving fast enough to do that to his wing?
A piece of fabric stretched taut like that wouldn't need to be pierced by something sharp, he deduced, his inventor's brain kicking into gear. It would just need to be hit hard enough. And Finch's slings were definitely launching those balls with at least as much power as a crossbow. Would that have—
“What are you doing in there?” Zashiel's irritated voice broke into his thoughts, followed by a sharp rap at the door. “Hurry up. We've got stuff to do, remember?”
“Y- Yeah,” Toke stammered, letting go of the wing so that it snapped closed against the back of the jacket again. “Just a second.”
He waited until Zashiel had walked away, and then looked at the jacket again. “Case closed, I suppose,” he muttered, and then began folding it up again.
Once it was packed securely into his pouch, he slid a shirt on to cover it and headed into the front of the store. Zashiel was waiting by the door, anxious to get going. Her hair was stuffed in the stocking cap and her jacket was turned inside out again. Her wings, tucked inside the jacket, made a pair of conspicuous bumps on her back, but Toke hoped that nobody would notice if they didn't stay in one place too long.
“So, what's the plan for getting the tickets?” he asked.
“You're the genius, aren't you? Don't tell me you don't have any ideas.”
A cool morning breeze wafted in off the river as they stepped outside, and Toke ran his hand through his hair.
“Smite, what I wouldn't give for a shower right now,” he muttered.
“Jump in the canal if you feel dirty,” Zashiel said, turning and heading across the nearest bridge.
Toke chuckled and followed after her. “Are you kidding? That water's filthier than I am! In fact...” He raised his arm and sniffed it. “I can still smell it from when I fell in yesterday.”
Zashiel didn't reply, and the two of them walked in silence for a few minutes. It was a calm morning, and very few people were wandering around this part of the city, so Toke and Zashiel were able to make their way to where they'd left the boat without trouble. When they arrived, though...
Toke sighed and gestured toward the spot of empty water where they had moored it. “See, what'd I tell you? There was no way a boat like that was going to stay put in this part of town!”
“Don't throw a fit, Toke,” Zashiel admonished him. “We'll get a new one.”
Toke knelt down and fished the rope out of the water. It had been cut clean in half. He wasn't surprised. The knot he'd tied it to the post with was one he had invented himself for the sole purpose of being impossible for anyone but him to untie. Even the most experienced sailor, he had deduced, would only serve to tighten it further. Of course, the knot became useless as soon as the thief pulled out a knife.
“It's an hour's walk from here to the docks,” he grumbled, standing back up. “Do you have any money left to hire a taxi?”
“Oh, please.” Before he could react, Zashiel grabbed him by the back of his neck and forced him onward. “Is my poor little warrior not up for a walk?”
“It's not that!” he snapped, brushing her hand away. “This is a waste of time. I thought you wanted to get out of Doku as soon as possible.”
“We'll be fine. An extra hour isn't going to kill us.”
Toke fixed his eyes in front of himself and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Fine, whatever.”
The two of them didn't say anything else until they happened past a group of fishermen sharing breakfast on the dock before beginning the day's work.
“I'm tellin' you, I saw it!” one of them was insisting around a mouthful of apple. “The gaur stukan flew right past my window. On the run from the Transtiktren, he was!”
“Aye,” one of the others agreed, “and I spent the night with Lady Valdo.”
The other boatmen laughed, and the one telling the story scowled at them. “You know I wouldn't be lyin' about somethin' like this, mates! Bad luck it is, gosspin' about them two.”
One of his companions gave the old man a consoling pat on the shoulder. “Well, then maybe you should be shuttin' up about it, aye?”
The conversation faded away as Toke and Zashiel left the boatmen behind, but Toke couldn't help but raise his hand to his chin in thought. “Gaur stukan?” he wondered out loud. “That's what they've taken to calling me.”
Zashiel looked back at him and raised an eyebrow. “What does it mean?”
“Angry spirit,” he answered. “These Vlangurtians are really superstitious.”
“He said he saw you flying around. Been taking any late night flights without me, Toke?”
Toke's heart skipped a beat, but then he saw the smile on her face. She didn't know about his wings, she was just making a joke. He breathed a sigh of relief. That, in itself, was so rare that Toke didn't blame himself for not noticing.
“That other name they mentioned, though,” he pondered. “The Transtiktren. I've never heard it before.”
Zashiel snorted. “I don't think I can even pronounce it.”
“It definitely wasn't me,” Toke went on. “So, who did he see?”
Zashiel shrugged. “Maybe nobody. Maybe he's just telling stories. Does it matter?”
“Yeah, it matters,” Toke snapped. He might have loved her, but smite this woman could be dense sometimes. “These people have come to associate the gaur stukan with what I look like. That guy just said he saw it flying around last night. So, white coat? Flying?” He held up both hands and then put them together. “Sound like anyone we know?”
Zashiel looked nonplussed for a second, but then her brow drew low over her eyes. “You think they saw Finch.”
“Unless you've been taking late night flights without telling me, yeah.”
Zashiel scowled at him, but then sighed. “I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. Subtlety's not her strong suit.”
“I figured that part out when she tried to drop a bell on me,” Toke agreed.
“So what, though? We already knew she was here.”
“That's not what concerns me. What bothers me is the fact that she was being chased.”
Zashiel tensed up visibly, but didn't say anything. Toke quickened his pace and came to walk beside her as they crossed a narrow bridge.
“What on Fissura is scary enough that a Sorakine warrior would run from it?” he asked.
“Another Sorakine?” she suggested. She was trying to look cool and unconcerned, but Toke knew her well enough to see the roiling mess of tension just beneath her skin.
Toke shook his head. “See, that wouldn't make sense either, would it?”
“Makes sense to me.”
“That's because you don't think things through like I do! Look, if it were another Sorakine chasing her, the fisherman would have said he saw two gaur stukans. He didn't, though. He said he saw a gaur stukan, and something else.”
Zashiel turned to look at him again. “The Transi-kicking... whatever.”
Toke nodded. “The Transtiktren. I don't know what it is, but it's obviously not the same thing as a gaur stukan, not to the Vlangurtians at least. That means she wasn't being chased by another Sorakine. So, what was chasing her?”
Zashiel didn't say anything for several minutes, glaring down at the wooden walkway as angrily as if she thought she could burn holes into it, and Toke didn't prod her.
“So you think my sister's being hunted by something too?” she finally asked.
“Looks that way,” Toke said. “The question is, what?”
“Why are you so convinced that she's in danger? She was working with the bounty hunters. Maybe this other thing was one of them.”
“Maybe,” Toke nodded, and then pointed in front of them, “but that makes me wonder.”
Zashiel followed Toke's line of sight, and went rigid with surprise. High above them, on the fourth floor of a building floating on the other side of the canal, a hole had been smashed straight through the wall.
“You... you don't know who—” Zashiel stammered.
“Oh, come on, Zashiel,” Toke snapped. “Who else could have done that? You'd need wings to get that high!”
“What if it happened inside the building?”
“Then you'd need a Sorakine's strength to punch a hole like that in the wall. Face it, Zashiel. Whatever happened, your sister was involved.”
She went silent again, and Toke gently took her by the shoulder. “We should go find out if anybody knows anything.”
Zashiel didn't protest as he led her across the bridge to where a bunch of people were gathered, staring up at the destruction above. One of them, a balding middle-aged man, was standing a few feet away from the rest, so Toke walked up and tapped him on the shoulder.
“What happened here?” he asked, nodding towards the hole.
“No one's sure, mate,” the man answered. “There be more than one story going around.”
“I'll bet.” Toke put his hands in his pockets and tried to look casual as he gazed up at the building. “Something must have hit it pretty hard to make a hole like that.”
The man nodded. “Aye. Most of them are saying there must have been some kind of explosion. Maybe an elaborate burglary or just vandalism.”
There was a hint of doubt in the man's voice, and Toke didn't miss it.
“And what do you think happened?” he asked.
The Vlangurtian gave him a wary look, and then glanced around to make sure nobody else was listening in. “I think it was the gaur stukan and ol' Transtiktren. I didn't see it, but I have another mate who says he did. Saw the gaur stukan go flyin' past with the Green One right behind him!”
Toke leaned forward. This was what he'd been hoping to find out.
“Who's the Transtiktren?”
The Vlangurtian paused, looked back at the rest of the crowd, and then made an odd symbol over his chest. “Ain't supposed to talk about him, mate. Especially not if he's been seen 'round these parts.”
Toke glanced at Zashiel, who was hanging back a few feet but listening to the conversation no less intently than he was. He turned back to push the man some more, but was surprised when he grabbed his shoulder. He instinctively tensed up, ready to defend himself, but all the old Vlangurtian did was lead him away from the crowd.
“Ain't supposed to talk about him,” he said again once they were out of earshot. Zashiel followed them, but there wasn't much concern on her face. They both knew he wouldn't be much of a threat. “But since you ain't from 'round here, guess I ought'a get you up to speed, mate.”
He took a deep breath. “The Transtiktren's... well, I don't even think you northerners got a word for him, really. He's the one who hunts the spirits, the ones what don't pass on, y'know?”
“So, he's a good guy, then?” Toke asked.
The Vlangurtian shook his head. “Ain't neither good nor bad, at least not the way we think about it. It's just, he got a job and he does it. He's right irritable, though, so we don't talk about him. Not above taking one of us away early if we don't show proper respect, mate.”
Toke nodded, bringing his hand to his chin in thought. “Interesting. And what makes your friend think it was the Transtiktren he saw?”
The Vlangurtian shrugged. “Easy to pick out in a crowd, 'im. They say he's got a body what shines a green light. It's the light of death, they say. I don't rightly know if I believe my friend or not, but I reckon...”
He kept talking, but Toke was no longer paying any attention. A man who shined with green light? He sucked in a panicked breath and turned to Zashiel, who was looking much the same as he was.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, cutting the old man off. “We- We've got to go now.”
He grabbed Zashiel by the hand and hurried away, leaving the surprised Vlangurtian behind.
“You heard that, right?” he asked as they crossed the bridge.
“I heard.” Zashiel's voice was grim.
“Y- You don't think it's... him, do you?”
To Toke's own shame, his mind was already overflowing with fear. Despite Zashiel's training and everything he'd been through, the mere mention of his old enemy was nearly enough to send him into a blind panic. Before he could take another step, Zashiel reached out and stopped him, her Sorakine strength halting him in midstep, and spun him around to look at her.
“Calm down,” she ordered him. They locked eyes, and the burning, hard-as-rock strength in Zashiel's gaze was enough to slow the pounding of his heart. Once he was breathing normally again, she said, “Of course it isn't him. You killed him, remember?”
“I- I didn't see him die, actually,” Toke confessed.
“You saw him be blown up by his jidoryo battery and then get sucked inside the turbines of his own ship. And then, after that, the Terracaelum exploded in a Gravity Storm big enough to destroy a city. Armor or not, there's no way he survived that, Toke.”
Toke took a deep breath, and finally nodded at her. “Yeah, yeah you're right. Of course you're right. I just thought...”
Zashiel leaned in closer to him. “I understand. But you don't have to be afraid of him anymore. He's gone.”
“Then what did—”
“The old man didn't see anything. His friend told him a story to impress him. There was no glowing green man, it's just a local superstition.”
Toke swallowed hard, but managed to look Zashiel in the eyes and nod. Giving him an encouraging smile, Zashiel took the lead now, winding her way across Doku's innumerable bridges toward the docks. Toke followed obediently, trying to force his thoughts back on track. Zashiel was right. She had to be. Nobody could have survived what Navras went through on the Terracaelum. It was impossible. There was just one thing that still irked him. He didn't mention it to Zashiel, but it gnawed at his brain all the same.
Then what had been chasing Finch?
NEXT TIME: Toke has completely forgotten what happened last night. How does that bode for Zashiel and his parents? And speaking of, “bode” rhymes with “boat”, and Toke and Zashiel still need to find one! … What? You try writing one of these every week.