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Toke sighed, staring at the window Zashiel had stormed out of. Behind him, though, Wayli and Boam's good spirits seemed to return with the Sorakine girl's departure.
“So, where are we staying?” Boam asked.
“There's an abandoned candy store on the edge of town,” Toke answered numbly. Taking off his jacket, he stowed it under his shirt again. “People think it's cursed, so they don't go there. We've been using it as a hideout for the past month.
“A cursed candy shop?” Boam exclaimed as Toke led the way through the window. “That's awesome! Why is it cursed? Is it haunted by candy? Like, little candy ghosts?”
Toke shook his head. “Nope, no candy ghosts.”
Boam paused. “How about real candy? Is there any of that left?”
“Not unless you want to lick the inside of a fifty year old jar.”
Boam shuddered at the thought as they made their way back onto the spiderweb of bridges and waterways. The larger man, childishly eager to see where they'd be spending the night, walked a little ahead of the others, but Wayli hung back to walk beside Toke.
“So,” she said hesitantly, her voice low, “are you and the Sorakine girl—”
“Her name's Zashiel.”
She nodded. “Zashiel. So, are you two... you know, together?”
Toke looked up at her, his face burning, and Wayli laughed.
“I'll take that as a yes,” she giggled.
“We're not, though,” Toke corrected her, his head drooping a little. “I mean...I wish we were, but we're not.”
Toke blinked and cocked his head. “What do you mean 'how come?'“
“Well...” Wayli gestured aimlessly with her hands. “Why aren't you?”
“I don't even know how to answer a question like that!”
They were coming into a busier part of Doku now. There were voices coming all around them, and Toke found himself itching to pull his axes out. He and Zashiel had lost the hunter at the docks, but who was to say they wouldn't run into him out on the canals? Or even worse, Finch? Zashiel wasn't with them, and Wayli and Boam didn't know how to fight, which meant that Toke would have to fend off whoever found them all by himself.
What would happen to Wayli and Boam if they were caught, he wondered? He had a feeling the hunter would leave them alone, so long as they didn't get in his way. He was a mercenary hired to capture a dangerous fugitive, so a couple of civilians wouldn't interest him. Finch, on the other hand... He shuddered. Finch was on a vendetta against the Juryokine who had threatened her home, along with anyone who aided him. She wouldn't have a problem cutting straight through his friends to get to him. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, and he looked around, suddenly convinced that his Sorakine pursuer was watching him. Of course, if she was there, she knew enough to stay hidden from sight. She was Zashiel's sister, after all.
Hurry up and get back here, Zashiel, he thought, his skin crawling.
He led the way through Doku with the ease of familiarity. They had only lived in this city a month, but he and Zashiel always made sure they had at least a general knowledge of the place's layout whenever they moved somewhere new. From here, it would only take about fifteen more minutes to reach the hideout.
Boam came to walk beside him a few minutes later. “So, fill us in!”
“What?” Toke asked.
“What really happened that day?” Boam persisted. “Nobody in Yasmik knows. Everyone agrees you're a terrorist, but that's the only conclusion they've been able to reach.”
“And it's a wrong one, at that,” Wayli chimed in.
“Really?” Toke exclaimed. “It's been a year since it happened. You mean they haven't figured out anything?”
Was he really surprised, though? The Terracaelum hadn't just been Navras' latest invention, it had been a mind boggling breakthrough of the highest caliber. All throughout Yasmik's history, the sky had belonged to the Sorakines. They alone could fly because of their powers to alter gravity. Before that day, Toke doubted that anyone would have believed a hunk of metal the size of a house could fly. It was a concept that, even today, Toke had a hard time wrapping his mind around. Only someone of Navras' level of genius could have brought such an unfeasible dream into reality.
“Well, there's a few nuts claiming you're a god of some kind,” Boam admitted, shrugging. He clapped Toke on the shoulder. “Congratulations, buddy! You've got yourself a cult.”
Toke stopped dead in his tracks. “I have a what?”
“Your very own cult,” Wayli answered. “Quite an accomplishment at your age.”
“No, no, no, no, NO!” Toke yelled, waving his hands in front of his face. “Not okay, guys. I don't want a cult!”
“Well, you've got one anyway,” Boam chuckled. “I hear they're really hard to get rid of.”
“You need a special kind of shampoo,” Wayli agreed.
Toke put his head in his hands with a groan. “Today just keeps getting better and better, you know? What are they saying about me?”
Boam frowned at this, and shared a look with Wayli.
“Actually, you might not want us to answer that,” he said slowly.
“Oh, please don't stop now.”
Boam looked to Wayli again, like he was hoping she'd tell him not say anything, but all he got from her was a shrug.
“Well,” he said, “they've taken to calling you by the name the newspapers gave you, the Juryokine, and they say you're going turn everyone into Sorakines.”
Toke blinked. “I'm going to what?”
Boam shrugged. “They say you're part of some kind of holy ascension or something. You're turning into a Sorakine, and if they worship you they will too. Then you'll come back to Yasmik and take everyone to live in Hashira.”
“Boam, I can't put into words just how much sense that doesn't make.” He held up his hand when Boam opened his mouth. “No, don't. I don't want to hear anymore. I'm not a god, I don't want a cult, and I'm not going to turn anyone into a Sorakine, all right?”
Boam hesitated, caught off guard by his friend's less-than-ideal reaction, and then nodded.
“Okay, so what did happen that day?” Wayli pressed him, bringing the conversation back on topic.
“It's... hard to explain, actually,” Toke answered, putting his hands in his pockets and looking down at the ground. “I guess the best way I can explain it is that Navras—”
“Oooh,” Wayli and Boam chorused together, cutting Toke off.
Toke gave them a sidelong look. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“That actually explains a lot,” Wayli said. “Everyone's been looking for Navras ever since that day. His disappearance was nearly as big of news as you flying that thing into Hashira.”
“Nobody thought to connect the two, though,” Boam agreed. He reached up and started stroking his beard. “But now that you say it, it makes all kinds of sense. I mean, who else but Navras could build a thing like that?”
Toke looked down again, unable to meet their eyes. Dare he tell them that it was because only of his batteries that Navras was able to create the Terracaelum? Or that his batteries were responsible for the Gravity Storms that had plagued Yasmik for four months? In fact...
Toke looked at Wayli out of the corner of his eye. Her hometown, Exton, had been completely leveled by one of those Storms. Her family had survived, but hundreds, if not thousands more had died. How would she react if she found out it was partly because of him that it had happened?
No, he decided. He would keep his batteries' involvement to himself.
He cleared his throat. “Anyway, why are there still bounty hunters coming after me?”
“You're asking us?” Boam raised an eyebrow.
“Zashiel and I went into hiding because we assumed everyone would think we died in the crash. But if they're still sending hunters after us, then they obviously know we're alive.” He pointed at them. “You two were in Yasmik longer than I was after this all happened. Do you know anything?”
“Not much more than you do,” Wayli admitted. “The official story was that you were dead. Most people don't even know about the bounty hunters.”
“We only found out because one asked us about you,” Boam added. “Tracked us down while we were in Bettra Terrace trying to track you down.”
The hairs on the back of Toke's neck tingled. “What did you tell him?” he asked.
Boam shrugged. “There wasn't anything to tell him. We hadn't seen you since before the attack on Hashira, and we told him so.”
“And you just decided to follow him?” Toke asked.
They were drawing closer to the hideout now. Just another few more minutes of walking and they'd be there. The crowds were beginning to thin as they made their way into the less populated part of Doku. With fewer prying ears around, their voices gradually rose from nervous whispers to more conversational tones, but unbeknownst to his friends Toke was still reaching out with his powers, taking note of every person he could feel.
“Well, yeah,” Wayli said. “Boam was the one who convinced me that you survived the crash, and when government funded bounty hunters started asking questions about you that only told us he was right.”
“No body, not dead,” Boam muttered in satisfaction.
“So, we followed him. He went back to Jerulkan and met with another hunter who said he had a lead on where you might be, so we started following him then. That turned out to be a dead end, so when he met another hunter we followed him instead.”
“We got a nice tour of Yasmik out of it,” Boam chimed in with a grin. “Jaggin Heights is really nice during the spring. You should visit sometime.”
Toke huffed in his throat. “Maybe I will. It's not like Zashiel and I have much to do these days anyway.”
For some reason, that stopped Boam in his tracks. “What?” he exclaimed.
Toke stopped and looked at him. “What what?”
“You two haven't been doing anything over the last year?” The look in Boam's eyes was so utterly shocked that for a moment Toke felt ashamed for having wasted the past year when he could have been—he blinked. Could have been doing what, exactly?
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Boam leaned forward so that he and Toke were nose to nose and exclaimed, “You have Sorakine powers, Toke! And you're best friends with a smiting Sorakine too. Do you mean to tell me you haven't done a single important thing since you stopped Navras?”
Toke's face turned a shade redder, and he reached out and pushed Boam away. “I've been trying to keep us all alive. Isn't that enough?”
Boam groaned and staggered away. “Man, you could be fighting crime syndicates, overthrowing governments! What have you been doing?”
“Boam, stop!” Wayli snapped.
“Well, excuse me for not using my powers on your little fantasies,” Toke shot back. “It's not like I'm public enemy number one in Yasmik. It's not like I have bounty hunters tracking my every step, and I have to keep a low profile just to live in peace for a smiting month. It's not like I have my parents to take care of on top of everything else, and they don't so much as know which end of a sword to hold.” He clenched his fists. “No, I'm sorry that my life hasn't become one of those stupid books you never pull your nose out of!”
That last insult had the intended effect. He watched Boam's eyes grow large with surprise, then hurt, and his mouth snapped shut like a trap. With a grunt, Toke spun around and started leading the way to the hideout again. Wayli still kept pace behind him, but Boam lagged behind a few steps.
“He didn't mean it like that,” she said quietly.
“I know,” Toke muttered. “But I've got enough to deal with without him telling me I should be hunting down criminals too.”
“I'll talk to him.”
Toke was about to thank her when the ground suddenly shifted below his feet, as if something was pushing up on the bottom of the dock. The unexpected movement threw him off balance, and only the flimsy railing at the edge kept him from tumbling into the canal.
“Toke?” Wayli asked, taking a tentative step toward him. “Are you okay?”
Toke blinked and noticed that both she and Boam didn't seem to be having any trouble standing. His thoughts were coming slower now, but even then Toke knew that couldn't be right. Wasn't he supposed to be the one with inhuman balance?
“N- Nothing,” he grunted, trying to get his balance back. “Just a little dizzy.”
“Do you need to sit down?” Boam asked with concern in his eyes.
Toke shook his head, nearly falling flat on his face in the process. “No. We're almost to the hideout. Let's- Let's just...”
He had to stop and take a breath. He was breathing as hard as if he'd just run ten miles. His eyes stung as sweat ran down his brow into them. Why was he so hot? So tired?
“Come on,” Wayli said, grabbing him by one of his arms. Boam took the other and, ignoring his protests, dragged him through an open doorway. Toke was having trouble seeing now, but what he was able to make out told him the building was probably abandoned.
And then he collapsed facedown on the floor.
“Toke!” he could hear Wayli yelling from really far away. “What's happening?”
“Is this some kind of Juryokine thing?” Boam asked. “This- This isn't supposed to happen, right?”
“Toke, tell us what to do!”
Toke's tongue was swollen, though, and he couldn't have answered them if he wanted to. He just lay there on the floor, burning with fever and gasping for breath. He heard Wayli say something about Boam bringing some water, but he could barely make sense of the words anymore. Instead, another voice spoke crystal clear from inside his head.
“Did they hit you on the head yesterday?”
Smite. I gue... I guess Zashiel was right... after all.
And then, as if it had been waiting for his signal, the heat became even worse. Every molecule in his body ignited with pain as if someone had doused him in oil and dropped a match on him. A ragged gasp escaped his throat as he writhed on the floor, trying to find something, anything, to put the flames out. For half a second the pain dwindled and he felt cooler, but then it was chased away when the inescapable hellfire came rushing back.
“More water!” someone said.
Now other voices were dancing around in his thoughts.
“This wouldn't have happened if he'd invented a new Vlangur like I said,” Brin snapped.
“Be easy on him, dear,” his mother argued. “You know he isn't that smart.”
“We wouldn't be living in a cursed candy shop if it weren't for him.”
“You failed, Toke,” Zashiel scolded him. “Hashira... gone...”
“No,” he said.
Somewhere deep inside him, Toke knew these voices were hallucinations. The things they were saying, though, were still hitting home. A hot tear ran down his cheek.
“Navras won. You're fault. Your batteries. Your… You're... you are... Navras.”
To Toke's relief, the pain began to recede. It crawled up his arms and legs, leaving them feeling cold by comparison. But it didn't go away. Instead, it just moved from one part of his body to another. Two parts, actually: his shoulder blades. It built up there, growing hotter and hotter until he thought his skin was going to burst from the heat. His body was still quivering, but he couldn't muster the strength to do anything about it. What could he possibly do anyway? Bounty hunters, Sorakines, mad scientists, those were all things he could fight. Whatever was happening to him, that was inside his body where his axes could never reach it.
The last trace of heat seeped into one of the two spots on his back, and then he swore he must have exploded. Light flashed in front of his eyes. His muscles spasmed, slamming his head down into the floor. Again it happened, and then again. It felt like something was trying to tear its way free of his back. It was the most painful thing Toke had ever felt. Worse than Navras' jidoryo powered spear. Worse than being trapped inside a Gravity Storm. Worse, even, than having every bone in his arms shattered by the Terracaelum's steering wheel.
It exploded again.
If it didn't kill him, it was going to drive him insane.
Stretching his mouth open wide, Toke screamed. The sound that came out of his mouth wasn't human.
Another voice joined the others then, one Toke didn't recognize.
“Further... investigation... needed.”
And then, just like that, everything stopped. The heat and pain vanished, leaving Toke shaking on the floor of the abandoned building like the hollow skin of an insect as those three final words echoed through his head. Even though it was gone, memories of the pain still haunted Toke, making him afraid to so much as move a muscle for fear that he would bring it back again.
“I think it's stopping,” he heard somebody say. “Toke, can you hear me?”
The voice was loud and shrill and cut through Toke's ears like a hot knife slices through flesh. He finally looked up.
“Wayli?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice frantic with worry. “Can you hear me? Toke!”
“Wh... Wh...” he stammered. His lips didn't want to obey. “When did you get here?”
Wayli's face turned pale. “Boam, I think he's lost his memory!”
“Hold on, I'm coming!”
“Boam's here too?” Toke tried to raise his head, but all he saw was a deluge of water being dumped right on his face. He spluttered, and instinctively anchored himself to the wall behind him. He shot up off the floor, flipped himself over, and landed on the wall with his axes already in hand. Where was Zashiel? Was she okay? He looked around wildly for any sign of his winged friend...
And then his strength gave out, and he fell back to the floor again.
“Toke!” his friends both shouted, and their loud, heavy footfalls shook the floor underneath him.
“What just happened?” Boam demanded.
Wayli had her hands all over him, feeling for injuries. “You were burning up a minute ago! I- I thought you were about to die or something!”
“That's how it felt, too,” he groaned, rubbing his forehead.
Toke's senses were beginning to come back to him now, and his memories along with them. Wayli and Boam had found him an hour ago, and now he was taking them back to the hideout so they could all sail to Stal Atrieda together.
Boam gestured nervously at him. “So that... whatever it was. It wasn't normal?”
“No.” Toke shook his head as he tried to get back to his feet. “That's never happened to me before.”
Wayli and Boam shared a look. They seemed to do that a lot, Toke realized through his hazy thoughts. His legs were rubbery underneath him, and a few seconds after standing up he fell back onto his rump again.
“We should get you to a hos—,” Wayli suddenly said.
“No!” Toke cut her off, more forcefully than he meant to.
Wayli took half a step back in surprise. “But if you're sick...”
Toke waved the suggestion off. “No hospital. We have no money, and we're leaving first thing tomorrow morning.”
Not to mention that I'm a wanted criminal, and being bedridden in a hospital would be the perfect opportunity for the hunter to take me out, he thought. He kept that particular thought to himself, though.
“Are you sure?” Wayli asked hesitantly.
Toke's head was still spinning from the agony, but he did his best to shrug and look unconcerned. “I've been through worse,” he lied.
Taking a deep breath, he weakened his gravity and stood up again. With his weight decreased, his legs were strong enough to carry him, so after a moment he regained balance and set off for the door.
“So what do we do, then?” Boam asked, following him after a moment's hesitation.
“You two aren't going to do anything. If this happens again, I'll handle it myself.”
“But what about—”
Toke stopped in the doorway and turned around. “Don't tell anybody about this. Not my mom, not my dad, and definitely not Zashiel. She worries enough about me already.”
I don't want her wasting the rest of her Chiyuka ointment on this. It's nothing.
He found he was having a harder time convincing himself of that, though. He was able to walk steadily and unassisted now, but he could still feel his muscles threatening to give out from exhaustion. Was this really a head injury? Admittedly, he wasn't an expert on anatomy, but he had never heard of a head injury doing anything like this.
A bolt of fear flashed through his chest. Real terror, the likes of which he had only felt a few times before. Maybe he should—
No. He wasn't going to worry Zashiel any more than he already did. If he really did have a head wound, and it really was bad enough to do this to him... he ground his teeth together, not wanting to finish that thought. He made himself do it, though, just because he had to.
If it was bad enough to do things like this to him, then Chiyuka ointment probably wouldn't be able to fix it. The scar on his face and his near-useless right hand were proof of that.
Toke's stomach did a somersault inside his gut, but he refused to let his fear show on his face. He would find a way to deal with this, but he wasn't going to drag Zashiel down with him. For now, he decided as they arrived at the abandoned candy shop, he would focus on more pressing matters.
Like explaining Wayli and Boam to his parents.
NEXT TIME: Lightheadedness? Fainting? Painful swelling? It would seem that Toke has developed a serious allergy to Waylis and Boams. If I were him, I’d chuck them off a building. That’s how I solve most of my problems.