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Chapter Twenty Eight

Toke clenched his eyes shut as the wind struck his face.  After a few seconds, he wriggled his arm free of Zashiel’s grip and flipped his hood up.  When he opened his eyes again, he couldn’t hold in his gasp.


“Whoa,” he breathed. “So, this is Hashira.”


And what a sight it was.  When he looked from the hill in Jerulkan, the floating city only looked like a giant silver pillar. Now that he was inside it, he discovered that it was much, much more than that.


“I’m off balance,” Zashiel yelled over the wind, taking a moment to pin Toke’s arm to his side again. “Don’t move around if you don’t have to.”


The city was like nothing Toke had ever seen.  Rows upon rows of towers not only rose out of the ground, but from the walls and ceiling as well.  To a people unrestricted by gravity, it must not have mattered whether their buildings were rightside up or upside down, Toke thought.  It was a forest of steel and stone, and every single tower put Jerulkan’s proudest architectural feats to shame.  Zashiel flapped her wings, carrying Toke through the city with the speed and precision that only someone who had lived here all their lives could achieve.


There were other Sorakines, too.  Thousands of them, their glowing wings lighting the city up as bright as a summer afternoon.  Which was good, Toke realized, because he couldn’t see the sun or sky anywhere.


“How far inside are we?” he asked.


“Almost at the very center,” Zashiel answered, her face grim.  “It’s going to take at least ten minutes to get to the outer shell.”


Ten minutes of flying.  How big is this place? Toke thought, his head still reeling from seeing the secret Sorakine city for the first time.  As far as he knew, he might have been the only human to ever see it.  Well, the only non-Sorakine, anyway.


Luckily, none of the Sorakines they passed seemed to know about the situation, allowing Zashiel to zip past them in a blur of white and yellow with barely a passing glance.  Chancing a look backwards, Toke breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t see Klevon chasing them.  Maybe escape would be easier than he’d…


As if waiting to make a fool out of him, a loud, low pitched horn sounded from back in the direction they’d come from.  It blasted three times, paused, then two times, paused, and then one long note followed by a short one.


“Klevon’s sounding the alarm,” Zashiel interpreted for Toke. “Two escaped convicts, flying down the upper southbound corridors.”


Another note played.  It was long, beginning low, but rising in pitch before cutting off suddenly.  Toke felt Zashiel’s arms hug him tighter.


“And he’s commanded the use of lethal force,” she concluded, grimly.  “If they catch us, they won’t even bring us back to Klevon.  They’ll kill us on the spot.”


Toke’s face went pale.  The two of them together had barely been able to take down a single Seraph.  How many would they have to deal with if they were spotted?


“Get us out of here,” he commanded her, frantically scanning the horizon for any sign of the sky.


“What do you think I’m doing?” she snapped back. “Hold on tight.”


Before Toke could ask what he was supposed to hold on to, Zashiel angled downwards into a dive.  Below them, a river of Sorakines was making its way through the air, like a highway in the sky.  Zashiel dove into the midst of the glowing stream and evened out to join the flow.  Toke’s breath caught in his throat.


“What are you doing?” he demanded in a harsh whisper.


“This airpath will take us to the exit,” Zashiel answered, also whispering. “It’ll be harder to spot us in a crowd.”


“Or easier,” Toke argued, his skin crawling at the thought of every Sorakine they were flying with staring at him from behind their visors.


“Just don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself,” his friend said, casually gaining altitude to pass a slow flyer.


The two of them flew in relative peace for several minutes.  Every time Toke thought one of the passersby was looking at him too closely, Zashiel would slowly make her way to the other end of the airpath.  They flew over countless miles of the impossible city, every inch of it looking exactly the same to Toke.  Luckily, Zashiel knew where she was going.  Twice, they had to branch off from the main path and join a smaller one that would, in turn, eventually join another large one.  The way was marked by strings of lanterns that stretched between the towers.


“Why do you bother with these?” Toke asked, his curiosity proving just as strong as ever. “Sorakines can fly, so doesn’t that make pathways pointless?”


“Keep your voice down,” Zashiel snapped, drifting over to the lower left corner of the airpath where they would be alone. “We can fly wherever we want, but the airpaths are safer.”


“How is it safer?” Toke asked.


“Because we’re all going the same speed in the same direction.  When you freefly you’re allowed to go faster, but there’s a chance you might crash into someone going the opposite way.”


“Huh,” Toke grunted, looking at the other Sorakines.  This surprised him more than he thought it should.  Though it seemed obvious to him now, he wouldn’t have expected a city housing a race of warriors to be this… organized.


“Smite!” Zashiel hissed all of a sudden, and Toke looked up to see a squad of Sorakines approaching the airpath in a V-formation.


“They’re here for us, aren’t they?” Toke asked, his hands beginning to sweat.


“Yeah, but I don’t think they’ve spotted us yet,” Zashiel replied. “Just stay calm.”


The other Sorakines sharing the airpath with them looked up curiously as the patrol flew by overhead.  Toke breathed a sigh of relief, but that relief didn’t last long.  Less than a minute later, another Sorakine flew past.  This one was alone, but he was carrying a cone in his hand.  He flew parallel with the airpath, just far enough ahead for Toke and Zashiel to see him without being spotted themselves, and held the cone to his mouth.


“Two convicts have escaped,” he shouted, the cone amplifying his voice so everyone in the vicinity could hear him. “If you see a Sorakine carrying a human, report them immediately.  Harboring these criminals will…”


It didn’t matter what else he said, because every eye in the airpath had already turned to look at Toke and Zashiel.


“Smite,” both of them said at the same time.


The announcer pulled out a horn to alert the patrols, but before he could blow into it Zashiel had already shot away.  Picking up speed, she easily began to outpace the other Sorakines in the airpath, and those in her way hurriedly swerved to the side to avoid her.  An even brighter light was growing behind them, and Toke didn’t have to turn around to know it was coming from the innumerable wings that were giving chase to them.


“How far are we from the exit?” Toke asked, his heart pounding.


“Almost there,” Zashiel gasped.  She sounded out of breath. “Look!”


Toke looked up, and saw that they were approaching a blue square set into a massive wall in front of them.  It was the sky, he realized.  They were almost out!


Suddenly, a sharp whistle cut through the air, and Zashiel cried out and tottered in the air.  She righted herself a moment later, but there came a second whistle, and the wind shifted in front of Toke’s face as something zipped past him.


“They’re shooting at us!” he yelled just as Zashiel spun into a corkscrew, narrowly dodging two more arrows.


More arrows followed, all of them coming within inches of the fleeing duo, but Zashiel’s acrobatics kept any of them from making contact.  Unfortunately, that also slowed them down.  While she was still making steady progress towards the opening, her speed was hampered by having to constantly bob and weave to keep the archers from drawing a bead on her.  Her movements were so erratic that even Toke, who was used to flying with her, began to feel nauseous.  Then, just as he was beginning to suspect things couldn’t get any worse, a deafening, grinding sound came from the wall ahead of them.


“No!” Zashiel screamed, only barely audible over the noise.


“What is it?” Toke asked, and then flinched when an arrow whipped past his face, so close that the feathers left a bleeding scratch on his cheek.  Zashiel answered, but now the sound was so loud that it drowned out her words.  When Toke looked at the opening, though, he figured it out on his own.


The exit, more than a hundred feet long in all directions, was rapidly disappearing as the walls closed in on themselves.  If Toke hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he never would have believed that something so massive could move.


“Toke, listen to me!” Zashiel had to scream to be heard over the noise.  “The switch is on top of the gate.  You have to get up there and stop it from closing!”


She pointed, and Toke scanned the wall until he saw a pinprick of light at the top of the gate, more than a thousand feet away.


“I’ll draw their fire,” Zashiel promised him, and then without waiting his reply she pirouetted in midair and flung Toke as hard as she could towards the wall.


Hashira became a tornado of black, silver, and yellow as Toke flew and flipped towards the city’s inner shell.  Remembering Zashiel’s training, he steadied himself and then anchored himself to the wall, landing as if he’d only fallen a few feet.  He glanced back at Zashiel, who was fulfilling her promise of keeping the archers off of him, and then started toward the gate controls at a mad sprint.  The gate was still lowering, which in turn brought the controls closer to him as he ran towards it.  When he was thirty feet away, he jumped, anchoring himself to the wall just behind the controls.  The momentum of the leap carried him up and over the top of the gate, and he re-anchored himself to the floor of the control panel.


The Sorakine working the gate spun around, twin knives glinting in the light of his wings, but Toke was already moving again.  He jumped at the Sorakine, anchoring himself to him, and planted his foot in the winged warrior’s face.  The guard’s superior strength kept him from being thrown off balance, and he responded by grabbing Toke’s foot and throwing him over the edge of the gate.  Toke spun himself around in midair and threw one of his axes while simultaneously anchoring himself back onto the gate.  The Sorakine dodged out of the way of his weapon, but realized too late that he wasn’t the target.  The axe struck the control panel, its steel splitting the softer metal like wood.  A shower of blue jidoryo sparks flew from the machine and, with a screech, the gate froze.  Toke landed on the side of the gate again, and pulled his axe back to his hand before spinning around and racing back towards Zashiel.


His friend was still flying in erratic patterns, dodging the archers’ arrows.  A few of them had given up trying to shoot her, and were now attempting to cut her to pieces with their close range blades.


She told me she was better than most warriors her age, Toke thought as he watched her fend off one enemy with her chakrams.  Looks like she wasn’t lying.


What worried him, though, were the two cuts, one on her arm and one on her leg, that were steadily dripping blood down on the city below.  Even if Zashiel was an exceptional fighter, she wasn’t invincible.


Then, suddenly, Toke was bowled off his feet from behind.  The wind was instantly knocked from his lungs, and his anchor to the wall dissipated as he was sent flying into the air.  The Sorakine who had been guarding the controls went streaking past him, and then circled around for another attack.


“I don’t have time for this,” Toke said under his breath.  He glanced at his friend, who was still barely managing to hold off five other warriors. “Zashiel doesn’t have time for this.”


He made the void form even as the Sorakine came speeding towards him.  Sorakines couldn’t be invincible.  They had to have a weakness.  If Toke could just…


The solution snapped into place within Toke’s mind: their wings!  Without their wings, a Sorakine couldn’t fly.  And with that revelation, Toke’s brain was already working out a plan.


Toke anchored himself to the wall and charged at the oncoming Sorakine.  The warrior raised his knives, convinced that Toke was making a suicide run at him, but Toke had other ideas.  When he was ten feet away from the Sorakine, he jumped up, released his anchor on the wall, and began falling downwards.  His movements were too quick for even a Sorakine to react to, and as Toke flew over the warrior’s back he struck out with both of his axes.  A plume of bright feathers went flying in all directions, and in the midst of it Toke put his foot on the Sorakine’s back and propelled himself out away from the wall.


Toke spun around in midair, and watched as the Sorakine, now missing half of his feathers, was thrown off balance.  He collided with the wall, skidded for a few seconds, and then went rolling head over heels.  Toke flinched when a particularly bad roll bent his wing underneath him at an unnatural angle.  Then the warrior’s upward momentum died and he, as limp as a doll, went falling, falling, falling, until he was lost to sight.


Oh, smite, Toke thought as he watched the Sorakine’s light disappear in the distance.  Suddenly it felt like his entire body had been turned to stone. Did I just kill him?


He wasn’t able to dwell on it long, because he was pulled back to reality when Zashiel cried out in pain below him.  With some difficulty, Toke pushed the morbid thoughts away and dove for her.  With the wind whistling in his ears, he watched as the five warriors fighting Zashiel backed away, making room for the archers.  There were four archers and all of them, Toke realized, were in the perfect position to shoot Zashiel.


“No!” he screamed as their fingers released the bowstrings, sending four arrows flying at his friend.


Toke’s mind went blank, the void forming by sheer instinct this time, and his body moved of its own accord.  In all the time he’d been a Juryokine, he’d only ever needed to make two anchors at a time, one for himself and one to pull his axes back to him.  But now he made six of them.  With one of them, he anchored himself to Zashiel.  The second latched him to the Sorakine archer directly opposite her.  With those two gravitational anchors working against each other, Toke’s descent suddenly came to a halt, as if he’d landed on a giant rubber band, and he hung in midair between the two of them.  The last four anchors went to each of the arrows speeding towards Zashiel, and they abruptly changed course to fly at him instead.


Concentrate! he yelled at himself in his head.  He needed the void right now more than he’d ever needed it before.  He watched the first arrow fly towards him, and swung his axe, the blade cutting straight through the wooden shaft.  Then he did it a second time, and a third, knowing that hesitating for even a second of hesitation would be lethal.   He swung a fourth time, and the remains of all four arrows went falling to the ground thousands of feet below.


All of this happened in less than two seconds, and then Toke released his anchor with the Sorakine in front of him, and fell straight backwards into Zashiel.  After overcoming her initial surprise, Zashiel wrapped her arms around him.


“Go!” he ordered her.


Without a word, Zashiel obliged, turning to fly as quickly as she could towards the exit.  Even after closing more than halfway, Zashiel was able to fit through it with dozens of feet between herself and the door.  A couple of arrows followed them on their way out, but they fell short, clattering against the metal walls behind the fleeing convicts.  And then the bleak blacks and silvers of Hashira were gone, replaced by blue sky above them and green earth below.  Zashiel immediately angled downwards so that they were flying almost parallel with the vertical pillar.


We’re so high up! Toke thought as they careened towards the ground below.  Higher than I’ve ever been before.


At this height, even the peak of Mt. Betsu was below them, but it was drawing nearer by the second as gravity pulled Zashiel down towards it.  Now that they were outside, Toke got his first up close look at Hashira’s outer shell, and it further drove home just how gigantic the Sorakine city was.  So large, in fact, that even at such a blinding speed it took Zashiel more than a minute just to reach the bottom of the floating pillar.  Then she arched out of her dive so that the two of them were skimming over the gray rocky slopes of Mt. Betsu, leaving Hashira behind.


“Will they come after us?” Toke yelled when they finally reached the mountain’s base, and the hard ground was replaced with lush, green grass.


“Yes,” Zashiel answered, “but they need permission to leave Hashira first.  That should give us a good head start.”


“What are we going to do now?”


As soon as he asked, Zashiel grunted and fell a few feet.  The sudden motion jarred Toke, and made him very aware of the sharp pain in his nose again.


“We have to find a place to hide,” Zashiel answered after she’d recovered. “I have Chiyuka ointment, so we can heal ourselves too.”


Toke ground his teeth together. “Is it over, then?  Can we keep hunting the Spearman when we’re being hunted ourselves?”


“I don’t know, Toke,” she answered, squeezing him tighter. “I just don’t know.”


They flew in silence for a few minutes before the Sorakine spoke up again. “We need a safe place to rest.  Have any ideas?”


“The training crater?” Toke suggested.


“Too open to the elements,” Zashiel argued.  “Plus, that’ll be one of the first places they come looking for us.”


Her voice sounded strangely void of emotion, even for her.  She’d just been branded a traitor and exiled from her home, Toke thought.  How would he feel?


You might find out before too long, a grim voice in his head said.


“The Jerulkan Academy,” he said, suddenly. “Let’s go there.”


“Are you joking?” Zashiel snapped. “There’s no way nobody would notice us there!”


“Professor Navras will hide us,” Toke argued. “He, um… he already knows what’s going on.”


He almost expected Zashiel to drop him out of the sky for that, but she only asked, “Why?”


Toke spent the next few minutes explaining how Navras had become involved in their schemes.  Zashiel was silent the entire time, and when he finished talking Toke cringed, waiting for Zashiel to rain fire from the heavens on him for revealing their secret.


“I guess that’s our only option, then,” she said, instead.


“You’re not mad?” Toke asked in surprise.


“We have too much else to worry about,” she answered. “Let’s just hope it works in our favor.”


Jerulkan was drawing nearer in the distance, its tony square-shaped buildings looking puny after the wondrous towers of Hashira.  When they were a mile away from the outskirts of town, Zashiel descended into a nearby grove of trees.


“No corn field this time?” Toke asked when she set him down.  He tried to give her a smile, but failed.


“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Zashiel replied, and shed her jacket, leaving her in her sleeveless shirt.  Her wings lit up the shady grove as she rifled through one of the pockets and pulled out a bottle of the healing ointment.


“Hold still,” he said, unscrewing the lid, but Toke’s hand reached out and stopped her.


“No, you first,” he said, gently taking the bottle from her. “It’s my fault we got stuck in this mess.”


Zashiel’s face went a little red. “It’s not your fault, Toke.  I—”


“You came away worse from it, anyway.  Now raise your pant leg a little.”


Reluctantly, Zashiel did as she was told.  The skin around her ankle was purple and black.


“That’s not just a sprain,” Toke exclaimed, hurriedly dumping some of the cream into his hand.  He rubbed it between his palms for a few seconds, and then began applying it to the wound.  “I can’t believe you were able to fight Klevon with a broken leg.”


“It’s what we’re trained to do,” Zashiel said.


“Even so, he’s a Seraph.  That’s, uh, pretty impressive.”


Toke withdrew his hands, and watched as her skin turned a healthy shade of pink again.  Zashiel sighed with relief.


“Anywhere else?” he asked.


“Um,” the blush on Zashiel’s face deepened.  Sheepishly, she answered, “He kicked me in the stomach.  I think he might have given me an internal bruise.”


Toke’s face turned scarlet too, but he nodded. “All right, let’s see it.”


Zashiel sat down against a tree and, looking like she was about to die from embarrassment, raised her shirt to expose her belly.  There was a bruise there, dark enough to make Toke wince just by looking at it.  Trying not to let on how flustered he was, he knelt beside her, splashed another dollop of cream into his hand, and… hesitated.


“Just do it,” Zashiel muttered, looking away self-consciously.


Toke cleared his throat. “Okay.”


He touched the bruise on her stomach, and Zashiel winced.  Toke looked up at her, and she nodded.


“Just a bruise,” she grunted. “Just a smiting bruise.”


Toke began to rub his hand around her stomach, smearing the ointment all over the injury.


Her skin is so soft, but her muscles are so tight at the same time.


“Are you done yet?” Zashiel snapped, and Toke jerked his hand back.


“Yeah, sorry,” he said.  His face felt so hot, he swore that if he jumped into a lake he would make steam.  He watched as the bruise faded from her stomach, leaving it looking healthy again.


Zashiel lowered her shirt and stood up. “Your turn,” she said, grabbing the bottle from his hands.  Was it just him, Toke wondered, or did she look just as agitated by their contact as he did?


Zashiel poured a handful of Chiyuka ointment into her hand, and then, with a softer touch than Toke ever would have expected from the battle hardened Sorakine, she applied it to his nose.  His first impulse was to shy away from her hand, but she was being so gentle that even his broken nose didn’t complain.  The aching throb went away almost immediately, and Toke could actually hear the bones in his nose pop as they painlessly realigned themselves.  A minute later, his face felt as good as new.


“Thanks,” he said.


“No problem,” Zashiel answered, bending down to return the bottle to her jacket pocket.  When she stood back up, she kept looking at the ground. “There’s a creek nearby.  You should use it to wash the blood off your face.”


Toke reached up and scratched a fleck of dried blood from his face. “Good idea,” he said. “I probably look like a serial killer right now.”


Zashiel didn’t move, and for a few seconds the two of them stood across from each other in awkward silence, with Zashiel still staring at the grass around her feet.


“Toke,” she said, finally, “I’m sorry.”


“For what?” Toke asked.


Zashiel finally looked up at him. “For leaving you like that yesterday.  It wasn’t right.”


“Ah,” Toke sighed, and scratched the back oof his head. “Don’t worry about it.  I shouldn’t have said what I did, either.  So, I’m sorry too, I guess.”


“I was mad,” the Sorakine girl went on as if he hadn’t spoken, “but when I heard Klevon had caught you, it all went away.  I was…”  She hesitated. “I was scared.”


Toke looked into her eyes, and he could see just how much a confession like that meant to her.  For someone trained from birth to be a fighter and a killer, admitting that fear was an emotion she was capable of feeling must have hard.


“All I could think was that I was going to lose you too, the same way I lost Sir Miron, and… I couldn’t take it.”  She was hugging herself now, looking more vulnerable than Toke had ever seen her look.  She took a hesitant step closer to him.  “I knew that if I couldn’t save you, I wouldn’t be able to keep going.”


It was getting harder for Toke to breathe now, and his face was turning red again.  Was she saying what he thought she was saying?


Suddenly, Zashiel reached out and hugged him.


“I won’t do it again, I promise,” she said. “I’m with you until the end.”


Toke wanted to say something back, but it felt like his brain had launched out of his skull.


Hug her back, he urged his petrified arms. Hug her back, smite it!


He waited too long, though, and Zashiel released him.  Stepping away, she went back to looking at the ground again.


“You were right about one thing,” she said. “I have to stop thinking about Miron.  He’s gone, and obsessing about him won’t bring him back.  I have to move on.”


Toke swallowed and drew in a shaky breath. “Does that mean…” his voice trailed away.


Zashiel was quiet for a minute. “You should go wash that blood off,” she said at last. “We need to get to your school before the warriors get permission to come after us.”


Toke sighed, but didn’t argue.  She was right, after all.  With an army of winged warriors coming to hunt them down, maybe now wasn’t the best time to discuss their relationship.  He turned and walked away, following the sound of running water until he came to the creek she’d mentioned.  He got on his knees in front of it, and began splashing water on his face.  Even under the brutal summer sun, the water was cool and refreshing.  A few minutes later, he came back to where Zashiel was waiting, his face washed clean of blood.  His clothes, on the other hand, were a different story.


“How hard is it to wash blood out of these jackets?” he asked, pinching a bloodstained part of his garment and looking at it.


“Just use some soap on it,” Zashiel answered. “That’s what they’re made for, after all.  Besides, you’re going to be wearing it underneath your shirt, remember?”


Toke nodded. “So, how are we going to get you into the school?” Toke asked. “I should be able to just walk in, but you’ll definitely attract attention.”


“With this,” she answered, holding up a small parcel wrapped in white paper.  She unwrapped it, revealing what looked like a stick of black butter.


“What are you going to do with that?”


“Everyone knows Sorakines have blonde hair,” Zashiel broke a piece of the stick off, and mashed it between her hands.  When it had become a fine, inky paste, she began to rub it into her hair.  Within minutes, her radiant golden hair had turned jet black, almost the same shade as Toke’s.  To enhance the disguise, Zashiel then began to tie her hair into a long braid.


“Black hair looks good on you,” Toke said. “But that’s only going to work if nobody looks at you below the shoulders.”


Without a word, Zashiel picked up her jacket and turned it inside out.  To his surprise, the innards of her stark white coat were a muddy brown color.


“What’s that?” he asked as she zipped up the wing-holes and put it on.


Zashiel looked down. “When I heard you’d been captured, I knew I would be exiled for helping you escape.  So, I sewed this cheap fabric to the inside of my jacket.  When I wear it now, it’ll cover up my wings but nobody will know it’s a Sorakine jacket.”


She closed her eyes and fell silent.  Toke watched her for a few seconds, and then sighed.


“It shouldn’t be like this,” he whispered, shaking his head. “We were trying to do something good.”


Zashiel opened her eyes and gave him a steely look, already back to business as usual. “Maybe we still can,” she said. “Remember what I said about making sacrifices to do what was right?”


Toke nodded.


“Well, this is just one of those sacrifices.  We’re giving up our freedoms, maybe even our lives, because it’s the right thing to do.” She paused. “Because we’re the only ones who can stop the Gravity Storms.”


Toke drew in a deep breath.


“You’re right,” he said, trying to push back his emotions the way she did.


Zashiel stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder.


“Then let’s go.”






NEXT TIME: Things are looking bleak.  Zashiel’s got no home, and it’s only a matter of time before the Sorakines come looking for Toke.  Hopefully Navras will be able to help them, because they’ve got nowhere left to run.

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