Meet me in the alleyway.
Toke cursed, wadding the note into a ball and throwing it across the room. Of course she would want to go check it out, and of course she would want to bring him along. As if he hadn’t proven himself worthless enough already. While he changed back into his dirty clothes, though, he had to admit that it wasn’t the idea of staying up even later with Zashiel that bothered him so much, it was the thought of seeing the destroyed town, and whatever was left behind by the Storm… or whoever.
Once dressed, Toke made his way to the front doors of the school again. The crowds had thinned out considerably since he’d gone to his room, but he still tried to keep to the far corners of the hallways. The fewer people who saw him leave, the better.
The summer heat had carried over into the night, but Toke hardly noticed it as he made his way through town by lamplight. He came to their customary meeting spot, and found his Sorakine trainer standing there agitatedly, her wings chasing away the shadows.
“What took you so long?” she demanded, pulling him into the alley. “I left that note an hour ago!”
“Sorry,” Toke spat, pulling his hand free of hers with some difficulty. “I didn’t find it until a few minutes ago.”
“There’s been another Storm,” she began to explain. “It hit—”
“I know, Exton,” Toke finished for her. “And I bet you want to go there to search for clues?”
Zashiel narrowed her eyes. “Don’t give me that tone, Toke. This is what you agreed to.”
“What about keeping this a secret?” Toke challenged her. “You’re not worried about us being seen together?”
“The town was evacuated after the Storm hit. I don’t think it will strike there a second time, but it’s still a disaster area. The structures that haven’t collapsed are in danger of doing so the next time the wind blows on them the wrong way. The only people there are the emergency crews searching for survivors.”
She reached inside her jacket. “But, just to be safe, I got you this.” She pulled out a square of white fabric. Giving it a quick shake, it unfolded, revealing a second Sorakine jacket.
Toke stared at it in amazement before reaching out to take it. “This- this is for me?”
“Try it on,” Zashiel said, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. “It should be your size.”
Nodding with sudden enthusiasm, Toke did as she said. When he zipped it up, he was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a comfortable fit, it was a perfect one. Like the garment had been made specifically for him. He moved his arms around, feeling how loose the sleeves were, allowing for plenty of flexibility. Strangely, even in the sticky summer heat, he actually felt cool inside the jacket.
“Sorakine clothes are made to be weather resistant,” Zashiel explained. “That’s important for when we’re flying high. If it’s hot, you’ll still be cool. If it’s cold, you’ll still be warm.”
“How did you manage this?” Toke asked in awe, still looking at the spotless white cloth.
Zashiel laughed, something Toke didn’t think she did enough. “Sorakines have lots of technology you humans don’t. Now, pull up the hood.”
Toke did, and found his vision obscured by a sheet of black glass. The visor. Then, even as he watched, the glass seemed to lighten until he could see perfectly.
“The visor is still black,” Zashiel explained, seeing the look on his face. “It just adjusted how much light it let through for optimum visibility.”
“This is amazing,” Toke said, his voice breathless with wonder. He looked left, then right. It was still dark, but it didn’t look at all like he was looking through a piece of shadowed glass. If he hadn’t known better, he might not have known there was anything in front of his eyes at all.
“It’ll protect you if you ever get in a fight,” Zashiel went on. “The fabric may feel soft, but even a Sorakine would have trouble getting a blade through it. More importantly, with the visor over your face, it’ll be harder to identify you.”
Toke reached up and felt the visor. The glass came to together to form a point just underneath his nose, so the only part of his face that was visible was his mouth. Still, he couldn’t help but feel nervous…
“Are you sure that’s enough?” he asked. “Someone could still recognize me.”
Zashiel shook her head. “People are most easily recognized by the upper half of their faces— their noses, their eyes, their hair. Cover those up, and you’ll be adequately disguised.” She shrugged. “Besides, you’re supposed to be in Jerulkan. Who would expect to see you all the way in Exton?”
“Yeah,” Toke agreed reluctantly. “All right.”
With that, Zashiel raised her own hood, picked him up, and took off once again. Toke clenched his eyes shut out of habit, but then he realized he couldn’t feel the wind on his eyelids anymore.
The visor! He thought. That’s how Sorakines keep the wind from hurting their eyes.
And so, he opened his eyes and was greeted by a Yasmik that that he had never seen before. The city lights dotted the ground in erratic patterns, and the moon stared back up at him from every body of water they passed.
“It’s beautiful,” he couldn’t help but whisper.
“I know,” came Zashiel’s response. Toke’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. He hadn’t thought she could hear him, flying at such a high speed.
“You should be honored,” she told him. “This is something few people born without wings ever get to see.”
For once, the flight didn’t last long enough for Toke’s liking. Exton was farther away than the Massaro Quarry, but when Zashiel began to descend he felt a pang of disappointment. The feeling was chased away by other, more gut wrenching ones when they neared the ground, though
“Holy smite!” he said in shock as Zashiel glided over what appeared to be a massive junkyard. Hills of stone and wood were spread about for as far as Toke’s eye could see. What remained of the buildings sat high atop a maze of interlocking gravel roads. Once Zashiel sat him down on one, he realized with a jolt that they hadn’t been gravel that morning.
“This is horrible,” he said, turning in a slow circle to take in his immediate surroundings. It was like a giant had swept its hand over the city, knocking it down like children’s blocks.
“Yeah,” Zashiel agreed, trying to sound unconcerned, but Toke could hear the distress in her voice. This was bothering her just as much as it was him.
Toke took a couple steps away from her, and then suddenly clamped his hand over his face when a horrid stench filled his nose.
“Try to breathe through your mouth,” his companion said quietly, coming to join him.
“What is that smell?” he demanded, leaning over, feeling like he would vomit if he took one more breath.
“The bodies,” Zashiel answered. “The rescue crews have been working hard, but there are still a lot of people trapped inside these buildings. They couldn’t get to all of them in time.”
“But the Storm just happened a few hours ago,” Toke argued. “There’s no way the bodies should smell this bad already.”
Zashiel shrugged, still trying to keep up her charade of apathy. “The heat probably didn’t help.”
That was too much. The thought of the fresh corpses trapped within the collapsed buildings, the stones and wood acting like an oven under the intense summer sun, pushed Toke over the edge and he retched the contents of his stomach onto the broken ground beneath him.
It took a minute to get himself under control. “Sorry,” he groaned, standing up straight again.
Part of him expected Zashiel to make another biting remark about how weak he was, but instead she put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t be,” she told him. “It would take a sick man to not be bothered by something like this.”
His knees still felt wobbly, but he still followed when Zashiel turned to make her way further into the city.
“I thought you said there were rescue teams here,” he said, looking down the deserted streets. “Where are they?”
“There aren’t enough people to cover the entire city,” she explained. “They’re working hard, but they’re stretched thin. They won’t get to this part of the city for a while. That’s why I brought us here.”
Toke paused and looked around, a thought suddenly occurring to him. “Why aren’t there any—”
“Any Sorakines?” Zashiel cut him off, her voice sharp. She spun to look at him, and he could almost feel the anger radiating off her.
“Y- yeah,” he stammered, taking a step back. “They’re stronger than humans. They’d be able to help dig people out of the rubble.”
“Hashira is on lockdown, remember?” she answered. “They couldn’t come if they wanted to.”
She turned her back on him, continuing down the street, but Toke still heard her whisper, “Not that any of them do.”
They wouldn’t want to help? he wondered. Why not? They live in Yasmik too. Don’t they care?
He kept that to himself, and instead asked, “You want to look for clues, right? Like what?”
Zashiel shook her head, her face still concealed by the hood. “I don’t know. Something. Anything. Anything that will tell us what we should be looking for.”
A twinge of annoyance momentarily pierced the horror he’d felt since landing, but he pushed it back. He still wasn’t convinced that the Gravity Storms were manmade, and he doubted that either of them would find anything that could be considered a clue in this mess. Still, maybe their being here tonight could count for something. If the rescue crews were as far off as Zashiel said, perhaps they could do their part to help.
“We should split up,” Zashiel said, breaking into his thoughts. They were standing at a crossroads. She pointed down one of them. “You go that way, I’ll go this way. If you find anything, call for me.”
“Okay,” Toke agreed, and turned to his specified road.
“Wait, Zashiel said, and he looked back at her. She reached behind her back and produced the axes she’d given him earlier. “Just in case.”
A shiver ran down Toke’s spine as he took the weapons from her. She quickly showed him how to secure them in the loops on the back of his jacket, and then he was off. He wasn’t happy about being alone in the shattered city, but the Storm had already passed and the streets were deserted. Nothing was going to hurt him. Still, he couldn’t ignore the ominous weight of the axes hanging from his back.
He walked for a few minutes, the eerie silence broken only by his footsteps. A warm breeze blew between the piles of rubble, and Toke covered his nose in a vain attempt to block out the stench it carried. Finally, he stopped and looked at the buildings. There were hundreds, and all of them were likely to have bodies in them. If they were already dead, there would be no point in digging them out. He needed to find out if there was anybody alive…
“Hello?” he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Can anybody hear me?”
He lowered his hands, straining his ears for any sign that somebody had heard him. After a minute he began to feel stupid. If there were any survivors, they would be buried under tons of wood and cement. There was no way they’d be able to hear him, much less answer him. If he wanted to find anybody, he would have to get closer.
Taking a deep breath, Toke loosened gravity’s hold on him and leaped into the air. He shot fifteen feet up, and then angled forward to land on top of a wooden beam that protruded from a pile of rubble. It groaned, the wood tilting alarmingly under his weight. Making sure to keep himself detached from gravity, Toke crouched and shot upwards again. Beneath him, the force of his jump was more than the beam could take. It came free, throwing dust and rocks everywhere, and crashed into the street below. Toke anchored himself to a large stone at the top of the pile, and the course of his fall abruptly changed. He landed on it and stood up straight— even though anybody below would see him standing at a ninety degree angle to them.
“Well, that was fun,” he muttered to himself, dusting off his jacket. There was no denying the thrill that came of leaping and crawling on walls like some sort of insect. It was even enough to take his mind off of the horrible situation he was in— at least until he heard the soft moan below him.
“Who’s there?” he demanded, lowering himself into a crouch on the side of the block. He looked around wildly, sure that the falling beam had attracted the attention of someone from the rescue teams. If they caught him, he’d be in trouble. There was nobody in sight, though. Maybe it had been Zashiel, he thought with relief. She could…
“Help!” A quiet, yet desperate voice cried out. Toke looked down, and gasped when he saw a man beneath him. He looked to be in his forties, and the dust thrown up by collapsing buildings had given his skin a ghostly look.
He was trapped in the rubble.
“Help me!” he begged again. Only the top half of his body was free, and his left arm was bent at an angle that was painful to look at. Toke wondered for a moment why he hadn’t seen him before, but then he realized that he was lying right where the beam had been before. By dislodging it, Toke had uncovered him.
“Hold on,” he said, jumping down from the top of the mountain of junk. He eased out of gravity’s pull as he fell, and landed gently next to where the man protruded.
“Thank you… thank you!” The man said, even though Toke hadn’t even begun digging him out. “I’ve been in here for hours!”
“Just hold still,” Toke said, and turned to get a better look at his predicament. It seemed most of the man was trapped underneath a chunk of cement so big even a Sorakine wouldn’t be able to move it alone. If Toke was going to help him, he would have to be smart about it. Luckily, he was, if nothing else, smart.
He walked around a little, ignoring the man’s cries not to leave him there. It was just as he’d hoped. The stone was perched precariously on the side of the pile of rubble. All he had to do was move some of the stuff below it, and it would roll all the way to the bottom, just like the wooden beam had. The problem was, its most likely course downward would take it directly over the man he was trying to help.
“That would be counterproductive,” he mused, putting a hand on his chin to think. He would have to force the rock to begin rolling down a different way. But how? He couldn’t pick it up on his own, and jumping really high and walking on walls wouldn’t help either.
He looked up. Unless…
“I’ll be right back,” he said without turning to look at the trapped man. He went to the edge of the mound and cautiously leaped onto the adjacent one. Once he’d found his footing, he turned and looked back at the pile he’d just been on.
“What are you doing?” he heard the man call after him, his voice hoarse from inhaling dust.
“Hold still,” Toke called back. “This will probably hurt, but it’s the only way I can get you unstuck.”
With that, he jumped again. This time, he changed his gravitational anchor to the rock that the man was trapped underneath, and fell towards it. Instead of decreasing his weight as he fell, he increased it, and suddenly he was accelerating faster than he normally would have. His feet collided with the rock, and the effect was instantaneous. His weight, combined with his falling momentum, was enough to dislodge the stone and send it rolling down the hill in a direction that took it away from the man. The second it moved, Toke released his hold on it and fell heavily back onto the pile of debris.
“Are you all right?” he asked, getting to his feet once the stone had come to a stop below them.
“I- I can’t feel my leg,” the man whimpered, refusing to look down at it.
Toke carefully made his way around to look, and nearly threw up again. The man’s leg was a mess of blood, crushed bone, and muscle. The young scholar knew enough about the human body to know that the man would never move it again.
“Come on,” he said, trying to keep the man’s mind off his injuries. “I’m going to get down from here.”
Though he moaned every time, Toke still had to tug on the man a couple times to get him free of the remaining rubble holding him down. After a clumsy descent carrying him on his back, Toke finally deposited him on the shattered street, breathing heavily. It turned out controlling gravity didn’t help when carrying a person any more than it did moving boulders.
“Thank you,” the man was crying. “I thought I was going to die in there!”
Toke was impressed. The poor guy must have been tough to be able to speak through the pain. Either that, he realized with a sickening jolt, or the man couldn’t even feel the parts of him that had been hurt anymore.
“It’s okay,” Toke said, finally catching his breath. “I can’t carry you across the city, but I’ll try to bring somebody who can help you.”
The man squinted at Toke in confusion. “Aren’t you a Sorakine? Just fly me there!”
“I’m not a Sorakine,” Toke answered, and then froze. How much could he tell him? Giving him too much information could reveal his secret. Still, he thought, looking down at the pathetic man lying on the ground, it would be wrong not to provide some sort of comfort.
Taking a deep breath, he squared his shoulders as best he could and said, “I’m a Juryokine.”
The man’s brow creased with even more confusion. “A what? I’ve never…”
Before he could finish, a bright flash came from behind them. Caught off guard, Toke spun around just in time to see a figure cloaked in light vault over the collapsed buildings in the distance. It seemed to hang in midair for a second, and then descended in Toke’s direction. At first, Toke thought that it was Zashiel coming to retrieve him, but then he realized that the light coming from the figure was the wrong color. Zashiel’s wings shone with a rich golden light, and whoever it was coming toward him was glowing bright green. And he was carrying something in his hand. Something long, and…
Instincts Toke never knew he had kicked in at the last second, and he threw himself out of the way just in time to dodge the spear as if split the road open.
NEXT TIME: Green light? A spear? This can only mean one thing… IT’S GOING DOWN NEXT WEEK!