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The wind roared in Toke's ears and his heart sang in his chest as he flew above the rooftops of Doku. Zashiel had been against the idea of adding wings to his jacket. Born in Hashira with the rest of her kind, she had been raised with the belief that the sky was the sacred realm of the Sorakines. Just as the ground belonged to the humans, the endless kingdom of the wind and clouds belonged to Hashira’s winged warriors, never to be defiled by those who were forever anchored to Fissura's surface. Even if Toke wasn't human, Zashiel had never been comfortable with the idea of her people's holy ground—such as it was—being invaded by an outsider. She had allowed him to fly once before, in order to catch up to Navras and the Terracaelum and save Hashira, but never again. From then on, she had declared, he would only fly when she carried him.
Toke could hear scattered bits of noises below him as he zipped over one of the canals. Thick fog still covered the waters—he wouldn't have dared do this in broad daylight, otherwise—but it did nothing to blot out the sounds of people going about their daily lives below. Toke was going too fast to make any of it out, but it was still enough to make his blood sizzle in his veins with excitement. What he was doing was forbidden, unimaginable, and completely wonderful. This was something nobody else born without wings could ever experience. This was his, and his alone.
Toke's wings didn't have feathers, but he still reveled in the feeling of the wind making the thin fabric quiver. They had taken him months to build, since he had to do it without Zashiel finding out, but in the end it had been worth it. Using pieces of his and Zashiel's old jackets, which they'd replaced after the fight with Navras had torn them both to ribbons, Toke had managed to construct a pair of wings that were rigid enough to support him in the air when he used them, but still supple enough to fold against his back when he didn't need them. An intricate web of wires and springs made it so they would even snap closed by themselves as soon as Toke let go of the two handholds he'd sewn into the fabric.
Toke angled himself sideways, and swooped to his right so that he was flying down a different canal. A stray wind struck him, threatening to blow him into the side of a building, but a few desperate flaps set him on course again. As it turned out, flying was a lot harder than the Sorakines made it look. It had taken him weeks of practice just to get as good as he was. His artificial wings lacked the dexterity of a Sorakine's, so he often found it easier to anchor himself to things in the distance, making him fall towards them while simultaneously using his wings to gain altitude. That wasn't good enough, though. The Sorakines were able to fly like smiting birds, and Toke wouldn't be satisfied until he had mastered it as well.
Zashiel's going to find out eventually, the worrying little voice in the back of his head whispered. And she's not going to be happy that you've kept something like this from her.
Toke pushed that voice back into the recesses of his mind and angled upwards so that he arched above the clay tiled roof of a house. Letting the wings snap closed behind him, he let gravity pull him downwards and touched down on the roof, sliding across the peak from one end to the other in a somewhat less than graceful landing. A couple of the tiles came loose under his feet, sliding down the sloped roof and splashing into the canals below.
“Watch it, aftdragger!” someone yelled from in the fog. Toke cringed. He had a long way to go before he'd be able to fly like a Sorakine.
Walking back across the roof, balancing with weakened gravity, Toke put his hand to his chin in thought. Doku was a large city, and Zashiel had wings. She and the other Sorakine could have gone anywhere. Worry churned at his gut. Searching the whole city would take all day, and by that time he could be too late.
Come on, he urged himself. Aren't you supposed to be some kind of genius? Think!
Looking out across the city, Toke spotted an old bell tower that rose even higher above the other buildings than the Dammon Hotel had. It was connected to the city's church, and its loud, echoing gong never failed to wake him up when they rang it every morning at sunrise. More importantly, it was the highest place in the entire city. Exactly where a pair of Sorakines would go if they wanted to fight.
Toke reached into one of his jacket's many pockets and produced a pair of binoculars. They had cost a small fortune, at least considering his limited funds, but they had been worth every copper. Sure enough, when he lowered his hood and put them up to his eyes, he was rewarded when a faint flash of yellow came from the tower's belfry.
“Hold on,” he said under his breath, tucking the binoculars back into his pocket. “I'm coming.”
Putting the hood back on his head, Toke took a running start and jumped off the roof. He fell for a few feet in a perfect swan dive towards the canals, and then snapped his wings open and arched upwards again. He gave a hard flap to carry him up above the fog—and then gasped and went rigid when his injured wrist flared up again. His arm threatened to go limp, making him teeter in the air, and Toke suddenly found himself spiraling back down towards the water.
Smite! he thought, and desperately groped with his powers until he anchored himself to of an adjacent building. He came to an abrupt halt just above the stall of an unfortunate fabrics dealer, and had enough time to see her eyes widen in terror before he was pulled back into the sky. The watery street quickly disappeared in the fog, and Toke decreased his weight so that he landed gently on the wall he'd anchored himself to.
“Gaur stukan!” he heard the woman below scream, followed by an ominous crash and a splash.
Toke groaned in frustration. Gaur stukan, the Vlangurtian words for vengeful ghost. How could he have been so stupid? His arm throbbed inside the sleeve of his jacket, a dull pain that accentuated his heartbeat, and he glared at it like a friend who had betrayed him. He had flown dozens of times, but it had never upset his arm like that before. After a year of bearing this injury, Toke knew his limits. He'd barely been flying for ten minutes, so why had his arm suddenly...
It was the fight, he realized. He'd taken down three bounty hunters already, which must have put him over his right arm's stress limit for the day. Getting to his knees, still sitting on the side of the wall, Toke tentatively raised his hand and clenched his fist. Just as he feared, pain raced up and down his arm, like he had driven a nail into his wrist. Toke let his arm relax, breathing heavily. Of all the places his body could have decided not to heal, it had to be his hand. His good hand. Not that there was a part of his body that he particularly wanted to be injured, but his hands were definitely at the bottom of the list.
Picking himself up, Toke looked forlornly at the wings on his back, and then shook his head. Flying anymore today would be a bad idea. Down below, he could hear the townspeople's frantic voices as they chanted prayers against the evil spirit who had decided to haunt the poor linen merchant. Yes, more flying was out of the question. Zashiel was still facing off against another Sorakine on her own, though, which meant Toke didn't have time to sit here and wallow in self-pity. Getting back to his feet, he walked the rest of the way up the wall and onto the roof. He was a Juryokine, which meant he had more than one way to get around.
Taking another running start and jumped off the roof. This time, his leap took him high up into the air, and he easily cleared the gap between the first building and the next, and his feet hit the roof running. He jumped again, as quick and weightless as an insect, and then anchored himself to building on the other side of the canal when he came to the end of the row of houses. He fell across the distance between houses, landed on the wall, and then jumped again. There was a small island nearby, made of a pile of soil so tall that it poked out the top of the river, on which was perched a flagpole that flew the Vlangurtian flag. Still feeling confident about the cover the fog was giving him, Toke anchored himself to that, falling upwards at an angle so that he landed on the silver ball that topped the pole. The whole thing wobbled, but his firm anchor let him stand tall atop the swaying rod. He waited until it fell still, and then anchored himself to a cluster of buildings in front of him.
These buildings were built close together, their alleys narrow, so Toke ran through the gaps with a foot on each wall. He didn't bother making an anchor, he trusted the traction of his shoes to be enough to keep from falling, and pushed off of the walls with each step. Any normal human would have been able to do this, but without the balance Zashiel had trained him to have they probably would have went tumbling into the river after only a couple of steps. When he came to the other side, he was less than a hundred feet away from the bell tower. Decreasing his weight as much as he could, Toke sprang from the wall, soaring across the invisible waters of the canal below him. His jump took him thirty feet away from the building, and everything around him vanished into the mist. He reached out with his powers, searching for the bell tower, and then grabbed hold of... nothing.
With a surprised yelp, Toke instinctively decreased his weight just in time to splash down into the cool waters of the canal. He came back up gasping and spluttering, and looked up at the bell tower in shock. It was still a good fifty feet in the distance. Toke growled under his breath and set off toward it in a swift breaststroke. Luckily, people tended to avoid the waters around the church out of reverence, so there was nobody to see him.
It occurred to him, then, that he had never taken the time to find out the extent of his powers. When he'd first gotten them, Zashiel had told him that every Sorakine's limit for creating anchors was different, and so the same must be true for a Juryokine too. Whether by luck or by skill, Toke had never found himself in a situation that tested his abilities. He'd had to test his wits, courage, and fighting skills, but his powers had never given him reason to doubt them before. He stopped when he was only thirty feet away from the floating tower, and reached out again. This time he felt the wall almost immediately, and he wasted no time in pulling himself out of the water.
The bell tower stretched upwards in front of him and, looking up at it, Toke's stomach turned an uneasy somersault. There were two Sorakines up there. Not one bundle of feathery, bad tempered death, but two—and Toke's arm was still too weak to fight with. If he went up there, what good could he possibly do for Zashiel? He'd probably just get in the way...
While he was thinking, another flash came from the top of the tower, followed by a bong that sounded suspiciously like someone being thrown into a bell. Toke sucked in a breath. Zashiel! His fears immediately forgotten, Toke climbed the tower in a hectic mixture of sprints and leaps. A few seconds later, he hid behind one of the white-painted wood pillars that ringed the belfry and peered inside.
“Just give up,” a familiar voice said from inside. Toke smiled in relief. Zashiel was all right after all.
The belfry was dark, but there were four points of light that let Toke see all he needed to see. Lit by the glow of her wings, Zashiel stood facing where Toke was hiding, but her focus was on the other Sorakine on the ground in front of her. Lying face down on the wooden floor, Zashiel's foe struggled to get up, but Zashiel put her foot on his back, forcing him back down again.
“You know this is what has to happen,” said the other Sorakine. His voice was higher than Toke expected, like a child or...
It's a woman! Toke realized, and then immediately felt his face grow hot with embarrassment. Why was that so surprising? Zashiel was living proof that Sorakines didn't discriminate by gender when it came to training warriors.
“No, it isn't,” Zashiel said, pressing down even harder with her foot when the Sorakine refused to stop struggling. “You don't know what really happened. You don't know why I did what I did.”
The Sorakine finally stopped squirming and looked up at her. “It doesn't matter why you did it. You betrayed your entire race, Zashiel! You have to be punished.”
Zashiel sighed and hung her head, letting her long golden hair fall over her face. “No, I didn't.”
A nail of emotion drove itself into Toke's heart. It hadn't even been a half hour since he'd said the same thing. They were both fugitives, on the run from their own kind, and that fact hadn't been easy on either of them.
“What am I supposed to do, Zashiel?” the other Sorakine demanded, pounding the floor with her fist. Even from here, Toke could feel her strength shake the floor. “I can't just give up and go back without you! Do you know what Sir Klevon would do to us?”
Toke grimaced. So, Klevon the Seraph was back in action after Navras' twisted experiments, was he? Toke had suspected as much when the hunters started showing up. Klevon saw Toke as an abomination, and was obsessed with cleansing Fissura of his presence. A nervous weight settled in his stomach. Now that he knew for sure that the vengeful Seraph was chasing them, their chances of ever being able to stay in one place for very long had gone down significantly.
Toke saw hesitation on Zashiel's face, and his pulse began to quicken again. “I... I don't know,” she admitted. “But I can't just turn Toke in. I owe him too much. We all do.”
“He's a smiting monster, Zashiel! He tried to fly that thing right into Hashira. What do you think we owe him?”
“Our lives!” A hint of anger worked its way into Zashiel's voice. “You don't know what happened that day, Finch. Nobody does!”
Finch was quiet for a few seconds, but then she said, “You've completely lost your mind, haven't you?”
Zashiel gave a frustrated growl, but didn't take her foot off Finch's back. “If you would just listen... if anyone would listen...”
Listen? Toke thought, a wry smirk rising to his lips. These were other Sorakines she was talking about. They didn’t listen, they just killed whatever was in their way. The fact that Zashiel was urging them to put away their weapons and talk things out showed him how he'd had just as big an impact on her as she’d had on him.
“You can't keep running forever,” Finch said. “We're going to catch you eventually. And we're going to kill him. “
A chill ran down Toke's spine.
“So why don't you just give up?”
Nope. Make that two chills.
They were both quiet for a minute, and Toke could hear nothing but the wind blowing through the belfry. Then, to his surprise, Zashiel let out a cold laugh.
“Finch,” she said, “if you think I'm going to give up just because you told me to, then you don't know me at all.”
Toke smiled, and his chest swelled with pride. That's my girl!
“Toke saved all of your lives that day,” she went on. “If nobody else is going to pay off that debt, then I'm going to. I'll die before I let you or Klevon so much as touch him!”
“If that's the way it has to be,” Finch said. Toke started when he saw her hand moving toward her jacket. “I don't want to do this, but...” She reached into one of her pockets. Didn't Zashiel see what she was doing? “So be it!”
“Zashiel, look out!” Toke yelled just as Finch drew a dagger out of her pocket and thrust it at Zashiel's leg. Moving with the speed Zashiel had instilled in him, Toke drew one of his axes and let it fly. His hand spiked with pain again when he did, but he ignored it and kept his eye on the weapon, praying that his aim had been true and ready to pull it back in an instant if it hadn't.
To his relief, the axe struck Finch's knife just before it touched Zashiel's leg. Zashiel backpedaled in surprise, both of her ring-shaped chakrams drawn in an instant. Finch jumped back to her feet with a triumphant flair of her wings, and Toke pulled the axe back to his hand. If he was going to have to fight a Sorakine, he would need to be completely armed.
Toke and Zashiel stood at opposite ends of the belfry, with Finch square in the middle. The other Sorakine didn't know where to look, but she too reached behind her back and drew her weapons: a pair of thin silver chains, looped over so that she clasped both ends in her fists.
“Toke,” Zashiel greeted him with an anxious nod of her head. She hadn't been expecting him to interfere. In fact, she probably would have preferred that he stay out of this entirely.
“Hey, Zash,” he returned the greeting, trying to give her a lazy smile. “I took care of the other three already, so I thought I'd come help you with the last one.”
“Is that him?” Finch asked, her voice sharp. She turned in his direction, and Toke brought up his axes in a defensive stance and tried to keep from looking scared. Smite it, his arm was still hurting. He wasn't in any condition to fight a Sorakine!
With a twitch of her wrists, Finch began to spin her chains. In an instant they became a blur of shiny, silver movement. Toke swallowed, but didn't back down.
“If you touch him...” Zashiel said warningly, raising her chakrams.
Finch looked back at her. “You'll what? Hurt me? Kill me? I thought we meant more to each other than that.”
Zashiel's face turned red. “Don't you start. You knew what you were getting into when you accepted Klevon's orders.”
Toke raised his eyebrows behind his visor. He pointed at the two of them. “Um, is there something I should know about here?”
Zashiel looked from him to Finch, her expression growing colder with each passing second. Slowly, so slowly that Toke almost didn't notice, she lowered her chakrams.
“Toke,” she finally said, “this is my—”
Before she could finish, Finch spun around and swung one of her chains at Toke. One of the ends slipped free of her fist, and Toke barely had time to react before the heavy metal ball it had held struck him. He threw himself backwards, weakening his gravity so that his knees could support his weight, and watched as the ball passed a scant inch above his nose before flying out into the fog of Doku.
When he righted himself, he saw Zashiel throw herself at Finch with a wild look in her eyes. Finch spun around and landed a kick on Zashiel's head, knocking her off her feet, and then lobbed another missile at Toke. Toke anchored himself to the ceiling, letting it pass underneath him, and then threw an axe at Finch. The Sorakine spun, her wings creating a swirling pattern of light in her wake, and dodged his attack. Toke summoned the axe back, and grimaced when the impact almost made his hand go numb again.
I'm a smiting idiot. I should have just let Zashiel handle it!
It was too late for that now, though. From his perch on the ceiling, Toke watched as Zashiel got back to her feet and attacked Finch again. Finch had already reloaded one of her slings, but the other one she swung at Zashiel like a whip. Zashiel raised one of her chakrams to block the attack, but the sling's momentum wrapped the chain around her blade, and Finch yanked it out of Zashiel's hand.
“Smite!” Toke cursed, and anchored himself to the wall right behind where Finch was standing. He fell across the distance, making himself heavier as he went, but Finch was too busy fighting Zashiel to notice him until his foot collided with the side of her head. Finch might have been a Sorakine, with strength five times greater than any human's, but she still couldn't ignore a blow like that. Finch went flying off her feet, and slid across the floor until she struck the wall. She lay still for a moment, and Toke tensed up. A Sorakine would never go down that—
“Get out of the way, you idiot!” Zashiel yelled, and the next thing Toke knew she had tackled him from the side just as another metal ball whizzed past. This one had come from behind them, one of the ones Finch had already thrown. They both hit the ground and rolled as the other Sorakine got back to her feet.
“What are you even doing here?” Zashiel hissed, her face only inches away from Toke's as they lay on the floor, tangled together. Before Toke even had the chance to blush, she had jumped back up and flung a chakram. Finch dodged out of the way, and the ring-shaped blade embedded itself in the wall.
“I thought you might want a little help,” Toke snapped back, anchoring himself to the wall just as Finch launched another ball at him. This one punched a hole right through the floor. Toke waited a few seconds, and then felt a slight shift in the gravity beneath him. He leaped out of the way just as the ball came rocketing back up through the floor again, bouncing off the stone ceiling with a ping!
“You just made things worse!”
Toke looked, and saw Zashiel fighting head to head against Finch now. Zashiel's chakrams flew in her hands as fluidly as if they were being carried by the wind, reflecting the yellow light of her wings around the belfry with every attack. Finch's slings didn't have blades, they weren't even solid weapons, but she was still doing an admirable job of using them to keep Zashiel at bay. Well, as admirable as anyone could be when they'd come to kill you for a crime you hadn't committed. She was swinging her chains like whips, and even Zashiel, a hardened warrior, flinched a little every time one of those thin strands of metal sliced through the air toward her. They may not have had blades, but they still cut as easily as razors if they struck skin. But still, Toke had seen Zashiel fight a ton of times and there wasn't a doubt in his mind that she was better than this bounty hunter.
So why wasn't the fight already over?
Finch placed her foot on one of the boards she'd broken with her sling, which cracked under her weight and threw her off balance. Toke's gut twisted inside of him, but he didn't let himself look away as Zashiel took advantage of her foe's momentary disadvantage. She drew her chakram back, and Toke caught sight of his own reflection in the blade for half a second before she...
Dropped it and punched Finch in the face.
“What?” Toke exclaimed before he even realized the word was coming out of his mouth.
It hadn't been a fatal blow, but it still sent Finch stumbling backwards—right off the edge of the belfry. Toke didn't so much as flinch. What was a fall like that to someone who could both fly and control gravity? To his shock, though, Zashiel dove for the edge, her hand shooting out, and grabbed Finch by the wrist.
“I've got you!” she said, getting to her knees to pull her back up.
Toke's eye twitched as he watched them. What the smiting smite?
Zashiel had always been a merciless warrior. Raised from birth in the Sorakine society, what else could she be? She never shied away from violence, and had no qualms about killing when she needed to. While Toke would never have described her as bloodthirsty, she knew that being a warrior meant having to take a life sometimes. Even if that fall had somehow killed Finch, that shouldn't have been too much of a weight on her conscience.
What was going on?
“Come on,” she grunted, hauling Finch back onto the floor with them. The other Sorakine collapsed onto the floor, completely limp. Toke took a hesitant step toward them. Maybe Zashiel's punch had knocked her unconscious, and that was why—
Finch's hand lashed out, and Toke had just enough time to see a glint of silver go flying from it. He tensed up, knowing it was too late to dodge, but no pain came. Instead, he heard a creak from above him. He looked up, just in time to see a large bronze thing growing larger... no, falling towards him!
“Toke!” Zashiel screamed, and suddenly Toke was moving again when she grabbed him and vaulted out of the belfry. A split second later, a deafening GONG came from the tower, along with the sound of splintering wood. Toke craned his head around as Zashiel carried them off, just in time to see the church bell crash through the belfry's floor. There was silence for a few seconds, and then another crash when it hit the ground. A series of cracks spiderwebbed around the base of the bell tower, and for one heart stopping moment Toke thought the entire tower was going to fall down. Whether it fell towards the town or onto the church itself, there was no way that wouldn't cause casualties.
To his relief, after the dust settled, the tower remained upright. Finch was nowhere to be seen. Then the church and the bell tower both disappeared into the fog as Zashiel flew them over Doku.
“Who the smite was that?” Toke asked once he'd caught his breath.
Zashiel didn't answer at first, but the way her arms tightened around him revealed how tense she was.
“You both acted like you knew each other,” he persisted. He knew he ought not to push her, but smite it, they had almost knocked down a building. He deserved answers! “Was she a friend of yours back in Hashira? A training partner?”
Zashiel whispered something so quietly that Toke couldn't hear her over the rushing winds.
“What was that?”
“She's my sister, Toke.
NEXT TIME: Family drama, am I right? I swear, you frame your sibling for murder one freaking time, and you’re no longer related.