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Chapter Twenty Nine
Toke sat down at one of the mess hall's tables, the room all but deserted since it was in between mealtimes. Grascow waddled about in the kitchen, but Toke was sure he wouldn't be able to overhear anything through the ceaseless clanging of pots and pans. Inaska sat down next to him, wasting no time in leaning on his shoulder. Toke hesitated a second, and then put his arm around her shoulders. She hummed happily, pleased that she had managed to pull him out of his shell that much, at least.
If Ludsong finds us like this, he thought, I'll probably end up in one of Grascow's cooking pots.
He banished that from his mind, though, as Boam sat down across from him, dropping a stack of paper almost a foot thick that made the table shake. He laid no fewer than twenty pencils beside him, and then peeled the topmost sheet of paper free.
Where did he get all that? Toke wondered.
He and Inaska waited patiently as he selected a pencil, looked down its length like an archer aiming an arrow, pinched the eraser, and then poked his fingertip on the lead. Smiling with equal parts satisfaction and eager anticipation, he looked at Toke, opened his mouth, and—
“Before we start,” Toke preemptively interrupted him, “I have a question I want to ask you.”
Boam deflated a bit. “Really? I was kinda looking forward to this.”
“You'll get your story,” Toke promised him. “But first...”
“All right, fine.” Boam set the pencil down and leaned back, folding his arms. “What's your question?”
Toke looked uneasily at Inaska, and hesitated. It wasn't that he didn't trust her—he did, perhaps more than he should have—but he still didn't want to reveal too much. Not to her or Boam. Not until he understood more about what was going on.
“You said you had the chance to see this cult that popped up after I left,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “The, uh...”
“The Inverted Path,” Boam finished for him.
“A cult?” Inaska's eyes lit up. “About you? This is going to be a good story, isn't it?”
Toke ignored her, looking down at the spot of table in between him and Boam. “When you were there, did you...” He hesitated again and clenched his teeth. “You said their goal was to become Sorakines, right?”
Boam nodded. “Yeah. They said they'd grow wings and go live in Hashira. Bunch of smiting nonsense.”
“Yeah.” Toke nodded back at him. “Nonsense. But did you hear them say how they were going to do it?”
He hated getting Boam more involved in this than he already was. As much as Toke resented Zashiel for demanding he get rid of his friends, he couldn't deny that Wayli and Boam were in danger by being around him. The most safety he could offer them, apart from abandoning them like Zashiel wanted, was to keep them as in the dark as possible. He didn't even want to share his story with Boam, if he were being honest with himself. But the strange things happening to his body were important. If Boam knew anything that could help him figure it out, he needed to hear it. He needed to know.
His heart sank into his stomach, though, when Boam shook his head.
“Sorry. All I heard them say was that they would become Sorakines, not how.”
Perfect. Now Toke had to spill his guts to him without getting anything in return.
“It's all right,” he said, somehow managing to hide his disappointment.
Tentatively, Boam picked up his pencil again, giving Toke a questioning look, and Toke nodded his consent. The gleam reappeared in the writer's eye, and he nearly speared the table with his pencil in his enthusiasm. Toke sat back, looking down at the table again. He wasn't looking forward to making himself relive everything that had happened in Yasmik. He wasn't ashamed of what he'd done, as he'd told Zashiel countless times, but... those memories. Not all of them were pleasant. Given the choice, Toke wouldn't have been averse to simply locking them all away, focusing on the present and the future rather than dwelling on the past.
That's exactly why you need to do this, he told himself. You're afraid of these memories. That makes them a weakness. Get them out in the open, and...
And what? What did he think would change? He would still be a wanted criminal in his homeland, on the run from bounty hunters and flying psychopaths, working on a circus barge of all things.
He felt Inaska shift a little, making her shoulder rub up against his, and his heart skipped a beat the way it always did when he looked at her.
There's your answer. Inaska wants to know. And so does Boam, one of the only friends you've ever had. Do you really need another reason?
“All right,” he finally said. He leaned forward, taking his arm from around Inaska's shoulders, and folded them in front of himself on the table. “It started on the day I went to make my presentation to Permissor Adal.” He paused, then shook his head. “Wait, no it doesn't. It began when I first started Professor Navras' class when I was turned sixteen. I...”
He stopped again, and Boam, who's pencil had become a blur of motion that even Zashiel would have been impressed by, stopped as well and looked up at him.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
Toke frowned. “I... This is harder than I thought it would be.”
He felt Inaska's hand alight on his shoulder. “If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine.” She gave Boam a sharp look. “Right?”
“Sure,” Boam agreed, though the sour look on his face made his true feelings obvious.
Toke looked at both of them, and then burst out laughing. “No, no, it's not that!” he reassured them. “I just... You make it looks so easy, Boam!”
“Of course I do. What do I make look easy?”
“Telling stories.” Toke managed to get a grip and stop laughing. “There's about a dozen different places where I could say the story begins. Which do I pick?”
Boam tapped his pencil's eraser against his lip, humming in thought. “Why don't you start with when you first met Zashiel? That's when everything really started happening, right?”
Toke thought back, remembering that fateful night, and nodded.
“It's kinda weird, looking back,” he began. “It was two days before my twentieth birthday and my presentation to Adal. You and Wayli were with me when I first met her.”
“We were?” Boam asked in genuine surprise.
Toke shrugged. “Maybe 'met' is too strong a word. She nearly took our heads off outside the Capitol.”
Boam narrowed his eyes in thought. “Nearly took off our...” His eyes widened. “When she was landing! I remember that!” He scribbled that down on his paper. “I had no idea that was her!”
Toke nodded. “It was. And that obviously wasn't the last time I saw her. I was back working with Navras that evening, finishing my...” He paused, and glanced nervously at Inaska out of the corner of his eye. “Invention.”
“Your battery things?” Boam blurted out, as oblivious as always.
Toke gave him a flat look. “Yeah. Those.”
“What's a battery?” Inaska asked.
Well, there was no avoiding it now. Toke sighed in resignation.
“It's something I built in Navras' class,” he explained. “It was supposed to be the next big step in jidoryo powered technology. I put a jido crystal in a metal tube lined with rubber. The cathode on top siphons the energy out of the crystal and into the machine, so...”
He trailed off when he saw the blank looks Inaska and Boam were both giving him.
“It powers machines without having to plug it into the wall,” he said.
Boam nodded and went back to writing. Of course he understood. Toke had only explained the basic concept to him a hundred times while they were in school. Inaska, however, still looked lost.
“What do you mean it gives it power?” she asked.
“Jidoryo power. Just like when you plug a machine into the wall and it turns on, only the battery made it so you could turn it on anywhere you want.”
She nodded slowly. “And jidoryo power is... what?”
Toke blinked in surprise. “You've never heard of jidoryo?”
She shook her head.
“Oh, smite.” Toke looked at Boam, who shrugged. “I... I knew Vlangur didn't use jidoryo as much as Yasmik does, but... you're telling me you've never even heard of it?”
Something seemed to occur to Inaska. “People say that you Yasmikans have these magic contraptions that work by themselves. Is that what you're talking about?”
“Yes! I mean, kind of. Oh, smite.” Toke looked the other way, thinking as fast as he could. How did he explain jidoryo powered machines to someone who had never even heard of jidoryo in the first place? He started again, choosing his words carefully. “They... don't run on their own, though. Jidoryo comes from jido crystals. That's something we have in Yasmik. Little crystals that are full of energy. Nobody knows where they come from, but we harvest them from the flashing river, and...”
He glanced at her, and noticed how unfocused her eyes had become. Right. Normal people didn't care about these kinds of intricacies the way he did.
Layman's version, layman's version! he yelled at himself inside his head.
“The machines don't run on their own,” he said again. “Those crystals provide the energy for them to work, and...”
“And then they work,” Inaska finished for him, “without you having to do anything.”
“So they run by themselves.”
Toke blinked. “Uh, sure. Yeah. But before, they always needed to be connected to an external power source. Disconnect it, and the power goes away. My batteries were going to fix that. You would be able to carry all the power your machine needs to run in the palm of your hand.”
“Can we get back on topic, please?” Boam asked, tapping his pencil on the paper. “You've told me how your batteries work a hundred times. I want to know what happened after you met Zashiel!”
Toke frowned at him. “Be patient. My batteries have more to do with this than you think.”
Boam sighed, but put his pencil back on the paper, ready to write.
“All right.” Toke closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts again. “Later that night I went back to Navras' classroom to put the finishing touches on it and practice my speech. It was nighttime when I got done, so I left the school to get something to eat. On my way there, I got mugged.”
He paused again. “Or, rather, I saw someone getting mugged.”
Thinking back, he recalled the terror he had felt that night, seeing one of the Nails robbing an innocent civilian. It was so surreal. He could hardly remember what it was like to be frightened by something so... mundane. An ordinary man with a knife and a scarf around his head. Barely a year later, he would have considered something like that a welcome change to what was chasing him now.
“Anyway, I didn't do anything.”
“Boring,” Boam said without looking up from his paper.
Toke gave him a sharp look. “Well, what did you expect? I didn't have my powers or anything then.”
He shrugged. “Still boring.”
“Do you want me to tell you my story, or do you want me to make things up?”
“The first one.” Boam stopped writing and raised his finger. “But that doesn't mean it's not boring.”
Toke scowled at him, opening his mouth for a biting retort, but froze when he heard Inaska laughing beside him. Strangely, that sound washed his irritation away.
“Don't worry,” he grumbled, “it gets exciting soon. So...”
For the next half hour, Toke dictated his experiences to his friend, who copied every word at the speed of light. He told him about how Zashiel had confronted him about the mugger, trying to enlist his help with threats. He told him about how she had torn the door off his dressing room at Shampfir's store, getting them both kicked out—it took nearly five minutes for Boam and Inaska to stop laughing at that. He told him about how his battery had exploded in Adal's face—more laughter—and Zashiel had come to him with one final offer: the one he had excepted.
At this, Boam leaned forward, eyes alight with childish excitement. “And that's when you got your powers?”
Toke stopped, looking at his friend in surprise. “Yes,” he said slowly.
Boam nodded and wrote that down. Then, with his pencil pressed against the sheet of paper, he gave Toke perhaps the hungriest look he had ever seen.
Toke didn't answer immediately. Boam had always been eager and excitable, but this... this was something else entirely. Those weren't the eyes of a man who was recording information, or even those of a storyteller hearing a new story. Those were the eyes of someone who had been told there was a treasure buried somewhere, and was waiting to hear where he had to go to dig it up.
“I woke up the next morning,” Toke finally said, “and had to run back to Jerulkan before—”
“Okay, but how did you get your powers?” Boam interrupted him.
Toke looked down. Boam's pencil hadn't moved at all.
“That doesn't matter,” he said. “So, I got to Navras' class, and—”
“It does matter,” Boam interrupted him again. “I'm trying to write down your story, Toke. I need all the details to do that!”
Hunger. Toke's first thought was that Boam looked like a starving man being offered food, but that wasn't true. There was greed in that gaze.
“How I got them doesn't matter,” he insisted. “The point is, I got them. Now...” His voice trailed off, knowing full well that Boam was going to interrupt again.
“How do you expect me to tell your story if you hold back important parts of it like this?” he demanded.
Suddenly, Toke felt angry, and he raised his fist and slammed it down on the table—and then grunted when his injured fist lit up with pain again. Even so, he didn't break eye contact with Boam.
“You think I don't know what you're doing, Boam?” he yelled, rising a little out of his seat. “You're about as subtle as Gravity Storm! I'm not telling you how to become a Juryokine!”
Boam dropped his pencil in shock, his face paling, and he stammered, “I- I- what? I wasn't... I didn't want to...”
Toke waved his hand. “Can it. If you want to tell my story, that's fine, but I'm not having an army of Juryokines spring up because of it. I have my powers, and that's all you or anyone else needs to know.”
Boam finally dropped his facade, and his face immediately became dark with resentment. “I'm just trying to help, Toke. That's all I want!”
“Help me with what?” Toke spread his arms. “I'm not on some mission to save Yasmik anymore. I'm running for my smiting life. How would you being a Juryokine help me in any way?”
“Fight the bounty hunters? The Sorakines that are chasing me? Zashiel and I are handling that just fine, thanks. All you'd do is get in the way.” He paused, and narrowed his eyes. “No, worse. You'd be giving them another target.”
Boam's eyes widened at that, and his jaw went slack. “You think I'm useless.”
“What?” Toke exclaimed. “No, I just—”
With an icy scowl, Boam picked up his pencil and fixed his eyes on his paper. “What happened next?”
Toke felt a little bit of the anger leak out of him. “Boam, don't be like that. I'm just trying to protect you.”
“What happened next... Mr. Gnasher?”
Those words hit Toke so hard that he actually flinched. Mr. Gnasher. Out of all the things Boam could have said, Toke couldn't think of many that would have hurt more than that. Mr. Gnasher. Just hearing that made him think of his father. The greedy, manipulative, man Toke had always aspired to be the complete opposite of.
Smite it. If I keep this up, I won't have any friends left by nightfall.
“Fine,” Toke snapped, sitting back down. “I woke up and went to class. My powers started manifesting in there when...”
Boam's hand moved just as fast as it ever had, copying Toke's story word for word, and when he reached the end of one page he would set it aside, yank another off the stack, and start again in one fluid motion that didn't break his stride for even half a second. But Toke could feel how the mood in the room had changed. Boam no longer looked up from his papers, no longer made wisecracks whenever Toke said something funny. This went on for over an hour, until...
“That night when Zashiel dropped me off after training, I heard about the Exton Storm.”
Boam's pencil froze so suddenly it was like time had stopped. Toke watched him, but the writer didn't raise his eyes.
“Wayli's home,” he whispered.
Toke nodded. “Yeah. She's the one who told me.”
Boam nodded and put his pencil back to the paper. “What happened next?”
Toke watched him for a few seconds, searching for any sign of emotion, but his friend just sat there, glaring at the paper, waiting. Finally, with a sigh, he gave him what he wanted.
No. Not what he wanted. Just what Toke was willing to give him.
“Zashiel insisted on going there that night to look for clues. We split up, and I actually rescued someone from a collapsed building. That was when... he showed up.”
Toke looked at Boam, expecting him to ask who “he” was, but the writer didn't so much as lift his eyes. Instead, it was Inaska who asked.
“Don't leave me hanging!” she snapped, whacking him on the arm. Her eyes were glittering with anticipation behind her mask. “Keep going!”
Toke opened his mouth to continue, but found the words lodged in his throat. He could see it in front of him as plainly as if he were really back in Exton that fateful night, facing down the man who had been his greatest enemy and his lifelong hero. The ominous green glow of his armor, the crackle of his energized spear... Toke could actually feel his muscles tensing up in preparation of a fight he knew wasn't coming, but was powerless to ignore.
“Navras,” he finally forced himself to say. “I didn't know it was him at the time, and he didn't know I was the Juryokine either. Later he would tell me that he'd just assumed I was a Sorakine hiding its wings. He was wearing a suit of armor he'd invented that let him control the Gravity Storms, at least on a small scale. They made him invulnerable to them, too, as well as making him strong enough to go toe to toe with a Sorakine. He attacked me.” He reached up and felt the scar on his cheek. “That's where I got this. I still couldn't fight worth drops, though, so if Zashiel hadn't come along he would have killed me.”
A strange thing happened as he told his story. Though the words felt reluctant to come out of his mouth at first, he found that the more he talked, the easier it became. And words weren't the only thing coming out of his mouth. In a way he couldn't describe—though he was sure Boam could have—he was releasing his pent-up feelings toward those memories as well. With every scene he described, he relived those moments in his head. He saw what he had seen and, more importantly, felt the emotions he had felt. And it was... nice. Like those emotions had been weighing him down so long that he'd grown accustomed to their weight, and was only now realizing how much of a relief it was to shed it.
I should have done this months ago!
Before he knew it, he was telling Boam about how he had flown up to confront Navras on top of the Terracaelum. He could practically feel the cold wind whipping his hair and clothes, the tingling sensation of the spearman's energized weapon. He told Boam how he had goaded Navras into a rash attack—completely by accident—and ended up killing him and sabotaging the flying ship at the same time.
“You probably know the rest,” he said, looking down at his hands. He felt tired, but in a good way. Like how he felt after a day of training with Zashiel. “I steered the Terracaelum out of the way, and Zashiel rescued me before it crashed. Then we went back to Navras' lair, got my parents, and went on the run. And that's...” He looked up. “That's it.”
Boam's hand kept writing, but it gradually slowed down, like a machine slowly running out of power. Finally, putting the last period at the end of the last sentence, he set his pencil down and looked at his work. He had gone through fifteen of the twenty pencils he had brought, switching between them when they grew dull rather than wasting time sharpening them, and nearly all the paper as well.
Toke watched him, waiting for him to say something. The silence stretched on for a while, and Toke began to get the feeling that Boam was waiting as well. Finally, almost five minutes later, voices came from the hallway outside, and a line of people entered the mess hall. Toke looked at them, surprised, and then at Grascow's window, where the cook was standing, ready to dole out bowls of chili. Dinnertime. They had been here for over four hours.
Boam put his pencils back into their case, patted the stack of paper so that it was even, and stood up.
“Thank you,” was all he said, and then he turned to leave.
Toke was on his feet in a flash, grabbing Boam by the arm so forcefully that he nearly dropped the papers.
“Boam, you don't want these powers,” he hissed into his friend's ear, quietly so that the rest of the crew wouldn't hear. “There is literally nothing good that can come of it, but there's a smiting lot of bad.”
Boam didn't say anything.
“Smite it!” Toke's grip on his arm tightened. “I'm trying to help you, all right?”
“I'm not useless,” Boam whispered.
“I know you're not,” Toke said, deflating a bit. “But that doesn't mean you need to be like me. Just... Just trust me, okay?”
Boam was silent for a few seconds, and he still didn't look at Toke. Finally, he sighed and fixed his eyes straight ahead, at the door.
“Thank you for telling me your story. I'll take good care of it.”
He tried to walk away, obviously thinking the conversation was over, but Toke didn't let go of his arm.
“Don't tell Wayli,” he said.
This finally seemed to get Boam's attention, and he turned his head to look at him. “Don't tell her what?”
“That it's my fault Exton got destroyed.”
“That wasn't your—” Boam began, but then remembered he was mad at Toke and cut himself off.
“I may not have caused the Storm,” Toke said, looking Boam dead in the eye, “but the batteries were my invention. I showed Navras how to build them. Everything he did, he was only able to do because of me. His armor, the Storms, the Terracaelum, they all ran on my batteries. Don't tell Wayli.”
Boam actually seemed caught off guard by this, but eventually he nodded. Toke released his grip on his arm, and the writer hurried out the door. Toke sighed and returned to the table where Inaska was sitting. In the minute he had spent talking to Boam, she had procured two trays of food and was waiting for him.
“That was incredible,” she said as he tore his roll in half to sop up some of his chili with. “What you said... that was all true?”
He waited until he'd swallowed to answer. “Every word. I know it sounds crazy. I don't blame you if you don't believe me.”
“I... do, though,” she said, as if surprised. “It all sounds like something out of one of our plays, but I believe you.”
That brought a smirk to his lips. “Thanks. Now it's your turn.”
Inaska sat up straight, blinking. “My turn for what?”
“To tell me your story. Come on, I spilled my guts for you, so you have to return the favor.” He pointed at her mask. “What's the story behind those—”
“No!” she exclaimed. Her silverware clattered to on the table as her hand went instinctively up to cover her right eye, even though the scars were already hidden behind the mask.
Everything went still and silent. Slowly, Toke turned to see the entire crew staring at them. Ludsong was there, and judging by the redness of his face, Toke guessed he was one wrong word away from having his head torn from his shoulders.
“No,” Inaska said again, more quietly. She lowered her hand, though she appeared to be struggling to do so. “I- I'm sorry, but no.”
Toke held up his hand placatingly. “Whoa, whoa, it's okay! If you don't want to tell me, that's fine!”
The white-haired girl stared at him for a few seconds, and then looked away, blushing. Twice in one day. Toke was on a roll!
“No, it's not that,” she said in a timid voice. “I want to tell you. You... You deserve to know, especially if we're going to be...” Her voice trailed away, but Toke knew what she meant. “I've just never told anyone before. I- I need time to get ready.”
“Take all the time you need!” Toke said without a moment's hesitation.
Inaska smiled at him, and then gave him a peck on the cheek that got him blushing a dozen times harder than she had been. “Thanks.”
Toke chanced a look backwards, and was relieved to see that Ludsong no longer looked ready to tear him limb from limb. Now the first mate seemed content to ram a heated knife down his throat.
Well, he thought, anything is better than—
Zashiel stepped into the room.
NEXT TIME: *zooms in close* Dun dun dunnnn! A wild Zashiel appears! How will Toke get out of this mess? Find out next week, same Juryokine time, same Juryokine place!