“What do you mean there’s no class today?” Toke asked in outrage.
“Just what I said,” the secretary snapped, standing behind his desk instead of sitting at it. “Professor Navras has fallen ill and cannot be here to teach you simpletons.”
Toke shook his head. If it were any other teacher, this would hardly be surprising. But Toke had been attending Navras’ class for over four years now, and never once had the professor been absent. For a man his age, he had always seemed remarkably resistant to any type of sickness.
Not totally resistant, Toke thought to himself, looking at the classroom door where Virkhul hanging a sign stating what he had just explained to Toke.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” the secretary huffed, “I have someplace to be.”
He left before Toke could say anything else. There was an unmistakable urgency in his step, as if he were desperate to get away before someone caught him and made him go back to work.
“Idiot,” Toke grumbled under his breath before finally turning and following the secretary’s footsteps. Some of the other invention students were milling around the hallway, only too happy to accept the unscheduled day off, but Toke wasn’t able to shake the urge to go back and work on his battery anyway. Permissor Adal had given him one month, and he wanted to put every available minute he had to good use. Still, he forced himself to accept that there was nothing he could do about it and decided to use the day to catch up on his sleep. Locking his door behind him, Toke stripped to his undergarments and collapsed on the bed.
“Thank you,” he mumbled to no one as he felt himself drifting off to oh, so welcome sleep.
Tap, tap, tap!
His eyes jerked open again. Shaking his head to chase away the sleepiness, he blinked a couple times and looked at the window— and recoiled in fright.
“What are you doing out there?” he demanded as Zashiel peered through the glass. Instead of answering, she jerked her thumb backwards, towards the city, and then flew away. The message was clear: meet me at the alleyway.
“Yeah, real stealthy, Zash,” he fumed as he got up and retrieved his clothes. “I’m sure nobody noticed you hovering right outside my third floor window!”
Two minutes later he was out the door and hurrying down the street. He broke into a swift jog, dodging pedestrians and dashing across streets, and was soon at the alleyway, ducking behind the pile of garbage that never seemed to get picked up.
“Did you run the whole way here?” Zashiel asked with an eyebrow raised.
“Um, yeah,” Toke answered, sitting down to catch his breath. “Why?”
“Nothing,” Zashiel said, shaking her head. “I just remember that a few days ago, you couldn’t run a hundred feet without passing out.”
“I never passed out!” Toke argued, but he couldn’t deny the truth of her words. Even now, after having run all the way here from the school, he had already gotten his breath back and felt like he was ready to go.
“You’re getting stronger,” she said, standing up. “Now come on, we have work to do.”
Toke wanted to complain about having to start early that day, especially when she would probably make him keep going until their usual time that night, but he kept his mouth shut. He was more than a little surprised to find out how far he’d come in just two short days. Not that he was anywhere near Zashiel’s level, and he never would be, but it was still an interesting thought. Just how far could he go?
As he stood up to let her carry him to their training spot again, Zashiel reached down and picked up a large cloth sack, which clanked when she swung it over her shoulder.
“What’s that?” he asked, curiously.
“You’ll see when we get there,” she answered, and with her free hand she scooped him up again and took off in a blur of speed and bright light.
That was another thing Toke had gotten used to, which was as much a surprise to himself as anybody. He still closed his eyes when Zashiel flew, but now it was more to protect them than out of fear. This time, though, she didn’t bring him to their customary canyon. Instead she flew to the top of a tall outcropping of rock, standing roughly fifty feet high and looking like a chimney in the middle of the rocky wasteland. There was a crater at the top instead of a peak, burrowing straight down into the pillar for about thirty feet. It was in there that Zashiel put Toke down.
“What are we doing here?” he asked in confusion, looking around. The chamber was circular, and a little more than ten feet from side to side.
In answer, she dropped the sack, partially spilling its contents onto the rocky ground. Toke sucked in a breath when he caught sight of steel reflecting the early morning sunlight.
“Today you’re going to learn to fight,” she answered. “But before that, we have to find a weapon you can actually use.”
Toke’s palms went slick with nervous sweat as he scanned the assortment of weapons Zashiel had brought him. Some were long, others short, and there were some he didn’t even recognize. They were all polished to the point that the reflection of the sun was nearly blinding, and they all looked deadly. But there was something odd about them, too…
“They’re all in pairs,” he realized.
“Good eye,” Zashiel said with an approving nod. “Sorakines always fight with two weapons. That way if we throw one away, we’ll still have one left.”
“Why would you throw your weapon away in the first place?” Toke asked.
In answer, Zashiel pulled one of her chakrams from the back of her jacket and tossed it away. Even with such a casual throw, her strength sent it flying across the chamber until it collided with the rock wall and fell to the ground. Then she held her hand out, almost like she was going to call a dog, and the bladed ring leaped back into the air and flew straight into her palm.
“When you’re in the air,” she explained at last, “hand to hand combat is rare. More often, you’ll be fighting at a distance. That’s where these kinds of weapons come in handy. Look at them again and see if you can find anything else they have in common.”
Toke did as she asked. There was an amazing assortment of weapons on the floor. Short knives, shurikens, javelins, and even a pair of chakrams like Zashiel’s. They were all short, and none of them looked as if they weighed all that much.
“They’re all throwing weapons,” he finally answered.
“Exactly, but they’re not just good for throwing. These weapons can also be used in melee combat if needed.”
“And you want me to pick out the one I can use best, right?” Toke asked, predicting where the discussion was going.
“Of course not. You have no idea how to use a weapon, so you have no idea which one will suit you best. I’m going to pick one out for you.”
Toke turned red in the face. “I think I’d be able to tell if a weapon suited me or not.”
Zashiel held back a laugh and drew her other chakram. “You think so?” she challenged him. “Pick something and try to hit me with it.”
Toke’s mouth fell open in surprise, but he quickly shut it. “You want me to attack you?”
Zashiel’s eyes gleamed with confidence. “Are you afraid?”
“No,” Toke lied. “But one of us could get hurt!”
“I promise I won’t hurt you,” she replied, “and you couldn’t hurt me if I was unarmed.”
That last comment drove a spike of anger into Toke’s brain. She thought so little of him, like he was nothing but a child. Well, he thought as he knelt down to inspect the weapons, he’d prove her wrong. He didn’t let himself believe that he could beat her, but he would at least show her that he wasn’t as pathetic as she thought.
After a minute of deliberating he stood back up, a pair of knives in his hands. They would have been good for throwing, just like Zashiel had said, but he had no idea how to properly throw a knife. He gripped them both tightly in his hands, holding the points out towards his Sorakine tormentor, and charged at her.
With one fluid motion, Zashiel kicked his legs out from under him and struck both of his knives with her chakrams, sending them flying from his grip. He fell to the ground, and before he could reorientate himself, Zashiel's’ knee was on his chest, pinning him firmly to the ground, and one of her chakrams was at his throat.
“Like I said,” she told him, her face only a foot above his own, “you have no idea what you’re doing.”
Zashiel only stayed there for a scant moment, but in that moment Toke realized how close he was to Sorakine girl. The… very pretty Sorakine girl. He knew that he should feel embarrassed by how easily she’d disarmed him, or angry that he hadn’t been able to prove her wrong, but instead all he could feel was his face growing hot. Then she got up, ordering him to get back on his feet. He did as she said, hoping she couldn’t see how red his cheeks had become— but not from anger this time.
“You were holding them wrong,” she explained once he was facing her again. “You’re supposed to hold them so the blades are at the bottom of your fist, not the top.”
“Oh,” Toke said, looking at the knives he’d lost and scratching his head awkwardly.
“That means we can cross them off your list,” Zashiel retrieved them and set them aside from the other weapons. “Sorakines believe that the best way to find the right weapon is to hold them. You won’t be a master with it right away, but they’ll feel better than the others.” She paused. “They’ll feel more right than the others.”
“Is that how you chose your chakrams?” Toke asked.
Zashiel nodded and held them up for him to see. “Everyone was surprised when I chose these. Chakrams aren’t an easy weapon to use, and most warriors choose to train with them after mastering a more common weapon.” There was more than a little pride in her voice, and she looked at her weapons fondly. “They said anyone who can master a pair of chakrams as their first weapons will go far in life.”
“Do you think I might be able to use them?” Toke asked hesitantly.
“I doubt it,” Zashiel answered bluntly. “But try it if you want.”
Going back to the bag of weapons, Toke looped his finger delicately underneath the chakram’s blade and fished it out of the pile. After looking at it for a few seconds, trying to figure out how he was supposed to hold it, he transferred it to the other hand so he held it by curved handle that ran from one of the inner edges to the other. He picked up the other and turned to face Zashiel, who immediately shook her head.
“No,” she told him. “You’re holding them all wrong. The blades are supposed to be flat against your wrist. You look like you’re about to box me with those.”
“Sorry,” Toke said, setting them back down again. He wasn’t surprised. It was easy to understand why hardly anybody used chakrams. Just holding them had felt awkward. He doubted he would last five seconds in a fight using them.
“Don’t apologize,” she snapped. “It makes you sound weak. Just pick another weapon.”
Toke turned his attention back to the shining pile of metal and selected the two javelins.
“Hmm.” Zashiel tapped her chin when he turned back to look at her. “You hold them wrong, but at least it’s better than the chakrams. Try something else.”
As Toke set the small spears with the chakrams and the daggers, he remembered how clumsily he had held the chakrams. Saying that he’d held the javelins better hadn’t been a compliment. He could probably hold a live flame with more skill than he’d held Zashiel’s favorite toys. He went back to the weapons, and this time selected the shurikens.
“No,” the Sorakine said before he’d even turned around. There weren’t two of the razor sharp stars, there eight, and he was supposed to hold one between each of his fingers. Dropping them into the pile of rejected weapons, Toke took a moment to wipe a drop of blood onto his pant leg from where he’d pricked his finger.
“I don’t even know what to look for,” he complained as he crouched down over the remaining weapons. “I’ve never been in a fight in my life!”
“Just keep trying,” Zashiel ordered, but he didn’t miss the worried tone in her voice.
“You shouldn’t have picked me,” he grumbled, not caring if she heard him or not. She already knew where he stood on the issue. He started to push some of the weapons out of the way, careful not to cut himself again, digging deeper into the sack. There was a pair of iron balls held together by a long sturdy chain, but he tossed it aside without a second glance. A pair of silver sticks quickly followed. He would be helpless enough in a battle if he had a decent weapon. No point in choosing one that didn’t even have a blade. There was even a bow and a quiver full of arrows, but after a futile tug on the string he cast it aside as well.
Toke sighed in frustration and grabbed the next weapon that caught his eye: a pair of small axes. “How about these?” he asked bitterly, turning around to display them to Zashiel. To his surprise, she put her fist to her chin in thought.
“Hold them in a defensive position,” she said suddenly.
“Defensive?” Toke asked. “Like this?”
Feeling silly, he lifted the axes and held them in front of his chest so the handles crisscrossed. Zashiel watched him with critical eyes, and his cheeks burned with embarrassment.
“I told you I don’t know what I’m doing!” he said hotly, imagining the condescending thoughts that must have been going through her head. “If you would just—”
“Take an attacking stance,” she interrupted.
Toke paused, and then lifted his right hand behind his head, like he was about to hit somebody with the axe, and kept his left hand in front of his chest. After a few seconds, Zashiel nodded.
“It’s settled, then. I’ll train you to fight with those.”
“What?” Toke exclaimed in surprise, lowering his hands. “Really?”
“Yes,” Zashiel answered, going to the sack and gathering up all the other weapons.
Stunned, Toke looked down at the pair of axes. The silver handles were short, both of them only a little more than a foot long. The blade was curved like a crescent moon on one side, and the edge extended above the top of the weapon, ending in a wickedly sharp spike on the opposite side. They were light enough to fight hand to hand with, but still heavy enough to be thrown effectively. The sunlight glinted off of them, throwing wild patterns onto the rock walls around him, and he couldn’t help but notice their amazing craftsmanship. Whoever had forged them had clearly been a master at their trade.
“You… really think these are the right weapons for me?” he asked tentatively, looking up from them to Zashiel as she effortlessly hefted the sack and moved it to the other end of the crevice.
“Let me put it this way,” she said when she turned back around to face him. “I don’t think there is a right weapon for you.”
Toke’s eyebrows drew together in offense, and his grip instinctively tightened on his brand new axes. “But you said—”
“I know what I said,” she cut him off, “but it looks like I might have been wrong. You’re no warrior, Toke.”
Toke scowled at her, but resisted the urge to throw the axes down at her feet. “Then why bother?” he demanded. “If all I’m going to do is disappoint you, then why keep going?”
“Because I can teach you!” Zashiel snapped. “I didn’t come this far just to let you give up at the first sign of trouble, so stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
“But you just said I can’t fight!” Toke exclaimed, holding his hands out in exasperation.
“Not yet, you can’t,” she corrected him. “But when I’m through with you, you’ll be the fiercest fighter in Jerulkan.”
Toke paused, looking at her suspiciously. “You actually think you can turn me into a warrior?”
“I know I can turn you into a warrior,” she insisted. “But first you have to quit moping and let me do what I need to do.”
She came up to him then, and began jabbing him in the chest. “That means no more arguing. No more whining. No more settling for anything less than your very best, got it?”
“I, um,” Toke said, taking a step back with every Sorakine-strength poke she gave him until he found his back against the canyon wall.
“I said, do you understand, Juryokine?”
“All right, yes,” he said at last, desperate to get her away from him. She had that crazy look again, and he would have said anything to create some space between the two of them.
“First lesson,” she said, taking a few steps back and pulling the chakrams from her jacket again, “is to defend yourself!”
She threw herself at Toke, the razor sharp blades slicing through the air. All at once, Toke’s nerve abandoned him, and before he’d realized what he was doing he’d dropped the axes and backpedaled away from her with a high pitched scream.
“You failed,” Zashiel said, coming to a stop just as suddenly as she’d begun moving. “If you dropped your weapons in a real fight, you’d be dead in.”
Toke stood with his back pressed against the wall again, hyperventilating.
“I didn’t… I didn’t know you were going to do that,” he spluttered, trying to get his breathing under control. He put his hands behind his back, ashamed of how hard they were shaking.
“I told you to defend yourself, didn’t I?” Zashiel asked, and Toke noted a hint of smugness in her voice. “What did you think I was going to do?”
She was right, and Toke knew it. But if she thought he was going to admit that, she still didn’t know him very well.
“Your reflexes are something else we need to work on,” Zashiel went on. “You won’t be a warrior until your first reaction to being startled is something that will protect you.” A cruel smile rose to her face, “Screaming and running away won’t be good enough.”
“Shut up,” Toke spat, stepping forward to pick up his axes. He wondered if she knew just how scary she had looked when she’d done that, her eyes aflame with savage bloodlust, wings extended behind her back, chakrams reflecting the bright yellow light of her feathers… He had a feeling she knew exactly how she looked.
“Now,” she said, reaching into an inside pocket of her coat, “put these on your blades.”
She pulled out a pair of what looked like small black strips of rubber. Toke reached out and took one, looking at her curiously.
“Like this,” she instructed, pulling out two more. Taking a chakram in one hand, she placed the strip of rubber over the blade and stretched it until the sharp edge was completely covered.
“Okay,” Toke said when she looked up at him expectantly. It took a couple tries, and he had to hold the axe between his knees and apply the rubber with both hands, but he managed to get it done at last.
“These will keep us from getting cut,” Zashiel explained when he finally had the axes back in his hands.
“They’re made of metal, though,” Toke protested. “We could still hurt each other.”
“That,” Zashiel said, leaping into the air and landing ten feet away from him, already in a fighting stance, “is what you’re supposed to keep me from doing.”
Before Toke could protest again, Zashiel attacked. She kept her wings folded tight against her back, but she still closed the distance between them with incredible speed. She whipped her left chakram around towards him, and Toke barely had enough time to raise one of his axes to intercept the blow. The steel of their weapons rang as they clashed together, and then Toke felt his feet leave the ground. He grunted in pain as he landed heavily on his side, Zashiel looming over him.
“Get up and try again,” she said, her voice unsympathetic.
“I don’t know how to fight.” Toke rubbed the sore muscles in his arm as he stood up. “How am I supposed to beat you?”
“By learning,” she answered simply, and then swung her chakram. Once again, Toke was too slow, and the rubber coated blade knocked him onto his backside.
“Learn from your mistakes,” Zashiel said as he got to his feet, glaring at her. “Pain is the—”
“I know, I know,” Toke snapped. “Pain is the best teacher. But I how am I supposed to learn anything if I don’t know how to react?”
“By remembering,” she said, and came at him again.
And so it went, hour after hour. The sun beat on Toke from above, and Zashiel beat on him from within the small arena. It wasn’t until the sky was beginning to turn purple that the young man fell for the last time, battered and bruised, and his Sorakine tormentor announced that it was time to stop.
“Did I do good?” he asked, daring to feel hopeful. That feeling died the minute he saw the cold look she gave him.
“I’ve seen children fight more competently,” she said, as blunt as ever. “You’ll never be a fighter until you’ve overcome everything you’ve spent your life becoming.”
“What does that mean?” Toke asked, wincing as he got up.
Zashiel began counting his flaws on her fingers, “You’re skittish, you’re weak, and you have slower reflexes than a dead man. If I don’t fix that, you will be a dead man.”
She turned away, but not before Toke caught the last look she gave him. One that told him, maybe, that would be an improvement. His face burned as he scowled at the back of her head. If he was such a disappointment, why keep him? Was she afraid he’d report her? How would he do that without incriminating himself, too? She had a whole city, no, a whole country full of people to be her Juryokine. Why settle for him?
And yet, he found himself pushing those thoughts away. He got to his feet, still glaring at her golden hair, but didn’t say anything. To his surprise, his anger wasn’t directed entirely at her anymore. More than anything, he was angry at himself. She said she’d chosen him for a reason. He had the powers of a Sorakine at his disposal, but all he did was disappoint her. That seemed to be all he was capable of, he thought, his eyes lowering a little when he remembered how he’d let Professor Navras down, and his parents’ faces when he hadn’t gotten his inventor’s license. Well, he’d had enough of it. It was time to stop failing, and start living up to people’s expectations.
“But I can get better, right?” he asked at last, kneeling to pick up his axes.
“Yes,” Zashiel replied. “But it’s going to take a lot of work. It won’t happen overnight.”
“Fine,” he said, handing his weapons back to her.
She took the axes and hooked them to the loops on the back of her jacket where her chakrams also hung. The other weapons, she proceeded to throw back into the bag. It clanked when she threw it over her shoulder, and then she grabbed Toke and took off into the air.
Thirty minutes later, Zashiel deposited him in their customary alleyway.
“Be back here—”
“Right after class ends,” Toke finished for her, rolling his eyes as he headed for the street. “I know.”
Toke was so exhausted after the day’s training, and so sore from his constant beatings, that it took him a few minutes to notice the tension that hung in the air. Those that were out walking the streets did so in silence, their footsteps quick and their eyes trained forward. Even the sounds of the autocarriages seemed subdued in the evening twilight.
What’s wrong? Toke wondered, and couldn’t help but shiver from the uneasy atmosphere. Jerulkan was a city known for its crowds and traffic— silence was all but unheard of. Something had happened. Something bad. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long to find out what.
“Toke!” the young man spun around and saw Wayli running across the school courtyard to get to him. “Toke, where have you been all day?”
“Um, just around town,” he said, wishing he’d prepared a better lie. “What’s going on?”
Wayli stared at him in disbelief. Her short red hair was sticking out at the sides, the telltale sign that she’d been pulling on it— a nervous habit she’d had since before he’d met her. “You haven’t heard? There was another Gravity Storm. It hit Exton!”
Toke wasn’t sure what hit him harder— that a Storm had struck during the day, or the fact that it had actually struck a city.
“How bad is it?” he asked, his knees suddenly feeling weak.
“They say it tore the town apart. People are…” she shook her head, looking like she was about to panic. “Lots of people died.”
A stray thought tickled the back of Toke’s mind. “Wayli, you have family in Exton, don’t you?”
The normally high-spirited girl shut her mouth, her lips a thin, tight line, and nodded. Her eyes were already red from crying.
“I haven’t heard from any of them,” she said in a hoarse whisper.
“Th- they might be okay,” Toke stammered, knowing that he would probably only make it worse. Still, Wayli was his best friend. He had to say something. “Exton is really far away. They probably just haven’t been able to send you anything, especially if it just happened today.”
Wayli nodded again, but tears were spilling down her cheeks. “I know,” she said, her voice cracking. “I just… My mom, and dad, and little brother…”
“It’s okay,” Toke said, knowing full well that he was lying to her. “It’ll be okay.”
Not knowing what else to do, he stepped up and hugged her. Wayli returned the hug, clutching him desperately as she buried her face in his shoulder. When she finally pulled away, his shirt was stuck to his skin from her tears.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her face dry.
“Don’t be sorry,” Toke said.
She looked at him for a second, and then whispered, “I’m scared.”
“I know, and that’s okay. I would be too. Just… just wait a little bit. You might hear from them tomorrow.”
Wayli nodded. “I hope so,” she said, and turned to head back to her room. By the look on her face, Toke knew she would start crying again as soon as she closed her door.
I wish I could do something, he thought. Then comprehension dawned on him. He was doing something. It wasn’t much, but maybe his assignment to spy on his government would turn something up. Suddenly, his drive to keep training, to get better, grew even stronger.
There was nothing more he could do tonight, though, except go to bed and rest for his training the next day. He made his way through the crowd, which was far quieter tonight than it usually was. He understood why.
Today, everything had changed.
The Gravity Storms were unpredictable, but there had always been two consistent traits: they never struck during the day, and they always struck somewhere uninhabited. The deaths had always been minimal because of those two things. Now that their only form of defense had been taken away, the people of Yasmik were terrified. Where would the next Storm strike, and when? If Zashiel was right, and they were being caused intentionally, she needed to hurry up and figure out what was going on so she could put a stop to it.
Too bad she’s stuck babysitting you, he thought bitterly, a knife of guilt stabbing him in the chest.
He closed the door to his room behind him and got ready for bed. He would have been lying if he said he was completely at ease. His stomach was turning somersaults as he lay down, pulling the sheets up to his chin. What was to stop the next Storm from striking right here in Jerulkan? Would he wake up to green moonlight coming in through his window? He tried to assure himself that that wouldn’t happen— the Storms never came that close together. Then again, they had never come in the day, or struck civilization, either. He shuddered, and couldn’t stop himself from looking out the window.
The moonlight was pure silver, as it should be, but then he noticed the scrap of paper sticking out from underneath the windowpane. A sinking feeling came over him as he got out of bed and pulled it free.
There’s been another Storm. Meet me in the alleyway NOW.
NEXT TIME: Looks like Toke’s going to see some action a little sooner than he thought. Why does Zashiel want to go to Exton? What does she expect to find there? … who’s waiting for them there?