People. So many smiting people. Toke stood in the doorway to the Swordfish's deck, staring out with wide eyes at the crowd. Just like last night, and the night before that, the benches were packed, the guests sitting shoulder to shoulder in anticipation of the show. Only, this would be the Seventh Swordfish's final night in Tad Moru. Tonight, their biggest and best performers would go out there and enthrall their paying customers with feats so stunning that it would leave them talking until the day the circus barge came back.
And it was all leading up to Toke.
“How are you feeling?” Inaska asked, coming to stand beside him. A brand new mask adorned her face tonight. This one was silver, almost mirror-like, and it complimented her snowy hair perfectly. She and the other acrobats had been the opening act tonight. Toke could hardly comprehend that. Treyn always opened the show with something that would catch the audience's attention, but would still pale in comparison to everything that came after it. What on Fissura, he wondered, could possibly outshine Inaska and her flying sisters?
After Inaska had gone on, the crew had performed The Flying Island of Trev, another play based on a Vlangurtian legend, and now the Spinning Spudallas were on. Toke had seen them rehearsing a few days ago, and the best description he'd been able to think of was they were a juggling act... sort of. The Spudalla siblings would spin on one foot for minutes on end without stopping, while also spinning plates on sticks held in their hands, feet, and on their noses. Those plates would hop off of their sticks, only to be caught on the other sticks, rotating in the opposite direction that the tiny performers were spinning. Things only got crazier from there, as three of them would begin to toss their plates back and forth to each other, and the last two would begin to juggle balls on top of their flying, spinning plates. Toke had grown so dizzy watching them that he'd had to skip lunch.
“Like I've got to go to the bathroom,” he admitted, voice shaking. “But I'm afraid if I do, I'll leave my stomach behind.”
He cringed at his own choice of words, but Inaska laughed.
“That's natural,” she assured him, snaking her arm around his elbow and standing with her side pressed against his. She was still wearing the legless costume she performed in—a leotard, she called it—but even that couldn't take Toke's mind off the size of the crowd outside. “Everyone gets nervous before they go on stage for the first time.”
“Is everybody expected to be the grand finale for a world-famous circus on their first try?”
“Well, no,” she admitted. Then she smiled. “But hey, I saw you rehearsing with Treyn last night. You caught on almost immediately! Trust me, you're going to be fine.”
His grip on the doorframe tightened, making his wrist twinge with pain. He felt like his skin must be ghostly pale—fitting, given what he was going to be doing tonight. Outside, the night sky flashed a chaotic mishmash of colors as the ship's cannons shot more fireworks. Any minute now, it would be his turn.
“Any advice?” he asked as his stomach gurgled again.
“Try not to think about the audience. Just do what you rehearsed with Treyn last night. You did it so many times you should have it memorized now.”
She was right about that. By the time Treyn had let Toke go, he could see the sun peeking over the horizon. Toke had barely been able to lift his feet, and he would have happily let Zashiel carry him back to their cabin if she hadn't been equally as exhausted. After the day he'd had—Zashiel playing matchmaker, getting into a courtship with Inaska, and nearly being killed by Finch—Toke hadn't given two smites about the sunlight coming through his cabin's porthole. He'd collapsed onto his cot, still wearing his filthy, sweaty clothes, and had slept as soundly as a stone until Ludsong had awakened him an hour before sundown, telling him to bathe before the show started.
“I feel like I'm going to get up there, and it will all disappear,” he said. “I'm just going to freeze. And then everybody will boo me offstage, Treyn will fire me and throw my whole family overboard, and—”
“Toke!” Inaska snapped. “If you keep telling yourself that's going to happen, then it will happen. Your body knows what to do. Just relax and let it go through the motions.”
He sighed and shook his head. “I don't know. You've been doing this your whole life, Inaska. I spent my whole life avoiding having too many people look at me.”
“You know, Treyn's right about one thing.”
“That this is the best circus in Vlangur. And do you know why?”
“Because he only accepts the best of the best performers. The day you and Zashiel showed up, he was ready to kill you for trespassing!”
Toke's stomach flipflopped. “Gee, that's reassuring.”
Inaska groaned in exasperation. “It is! Don't you get it? You impressed him so much that he let you join the crew even after you'd nearly killed him, me, and my father!”
Toke blushed a little. The way Inaska treated him now, it was easy to forget that when they'd first met she had been shooting arrows at him. And now here he was, trying to decide whether to marry her!
“You've got the talent,” she promised him. “Now you just need the confidence.”
Another round of fireworks went off, briefly turning the dark sky into a rainbow. The crowd cheered again as the Spudallas came rushing out of the ring. Toke and Inaska moved out of the way, letting them escape into the corridor where the audience couldn't see them. There were five of them, all adults, and yet they were each only half as tall as Toke.
“I think you're going to do fine,” Inaska said once the squad of midgets was out of earshot. “When I first got up on stage, do you know what I found? That once I actually started performing, I stopped being afraid. I was so busy doing what I was afraid of that there wasn't room left inside me for the fear.”
Toke thought on those words, and a smile finally broke through his stony expression. “That's funny. Zashiel once said that exact same thing to me.”
Inaska raised an eyebrow. “Oh? You... performed when you were in Yasmik?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It was when she was training me for our mission. She said that once I actually started putting my training to use, I'd be so busy that I'd forget I was supposed to be scared. And you know what? She was right.”
The white-haired acrobat hugged his arm tighter. “See? There you go! Just focus on what you're doing, and you'll be done before you know it!”
“Toke? It's time to go.”
Toke turned around to see none other than Zashiel herself standing behind him. Her expression was grim, much like how Toke assumed he'd looked just a few seconds ago. Even with her wings and long, golden hair, though, he almost didn't recognize her at first. The whole time they'd known each other, she'd only worn something besides her white Sorakine jacket once. Now that number had gone up to two. She wore a suit of tinfoil armor, made to look impressive but weigh hardly anything. The shimmering metal had been painted a bright lime green. Her head was bare for now, but she carried a fearsome looking helmet under her arm.
Toke nodded. “All right.”
Instead of making for the door right in front of them, Zashiel turned and headed the opposite direction. Toke took a step to follow her, but stopped when Inaska didn't let go of his arm.
“Good luck out there,” she said, leaning close and whispering into his ear. “Show them what you can do!”
Then she kissed him on the cheek, making Toke's blood light up like fire.
“You two seem to be getting along well,” Zashiel noted when he caught up.
Toke's cheeks flushed, and he couldn't help but glance back at Inaska. “I don't know. I guess it's going all right.”
Zashiel game him a knowing smirk. “Next time, you should kiss her.”
Toke's cheeks burned even redder. “I- I don't want to talk about this right now. I need to focus on what I'm about to do.”
Zashiel nodded her understanding, face growing serious. Together they made their way to the back of the ship, where the corridor ended in a large set of double doors. Ludsong stood there, arms folded, blocking the door.
“You two ready?” he asked.
“We are.” The seriousness in Zashiel's voice made it sound like she was preparing to go to battle. She was, Toke realized, just as nervous as he was. But in typical Zashiel fashion, she was able to hide it so thoroughly that anyone who didn't know her as well as he did probably thought she was as calm as a pond on a windless day.
A pond on a windless day? Toke thought. I'm even starting to think like these Vlangurtians!
Ludsong nodded and turned around. “Then come on. Don't dawdle, and don't touch nothin’!”
He pulled a key out of his pocket, unlocked the doors, and threw them wide. He was inside before they had even finished swinging open, moving surprisingly fast for a man his size, and he waved impatiently for Toke and Zashiel to follow. They stepped in after him, and the moment they were clear of the doors, Ludsong slammed them shut again.
“Nobody's allowed in the cap’n’s quarters save for the cap’n himself,” he told them for the hundredth time since they'd received their orders. “You two got special permission, so don't make him regret givin' it to you. If he does, I'll have to regret it too.”
He gave them a dark look that, to be fair, probably would have cowed anyone else in the crew. To Toke and Zashiel, who had both beaten him handily just over a week ago, it was an empty threat. It didn't matter anyway, because neither of them had even the slightest urge to go through Captain Treyn's belongings... even if, Toke noted, they looked surprisingly interesting.
Treyn's personal cabin was easily five times bigger than any other room on the ship, save for the dining hall. Though still cramped by Toke's standards, the room stretched just over twelve feet on all sides, practically making it the size of a house on a ship like this. His bed—bed, not a cot—was fastened to the floor by the left wall, and to the right was a writing desk covered haphazardly with papers, pencils, and strange nautical devices that Toke assumed had some important purpose, but couldn't make heads or tails out of at a glance.
Those weren't what caught his eye, though. Decorations the likes of which he had never seen lined the walls like wallpaper. A statue of some kind of bird of prey perched on the headboard of Treyn’s bed. When Toke peered closer, he saw that it was made of gears and springs, like some kind of machine. A small glass-enclosed case housed four stones that seemed to give off their own light: red, purple, blue, and green. A large woodcutting axe with strange runes carved into the blade hung from the wall the way another man would display a sword. What looked like a deck of cards was framed like a painting, and each of those cards had a brightly colored image on it—fire, a sword, and a boulder, among others—as crisp and clear as a photograph.
But most noticeably of all, hanging above Treyn's desk was a massive painting that stretched from one corner of the room to the other. The painting was of a hand, pale yellow and semi-transparent, reaching out across a big black void. The fingers were half curled, like it was trying to grasp something that wasn't there. Tiny specks dotted the entire painting—and one, down by the hand's wrist, had been circled.
“What is all this stuff?” Toke asked. Try as he might to keep focused on the task at hand, the strange decorations drew his eye like a flame drew a moth.
“Dunno,” Ludsong grunted. “Not my business. Not yours either. We're just passin’ through, you hear?”
“Yeah, I hear,” Toke muttered, only half paying attention.
Ludsong looked neither left nor right, but headed straight for another set of doors in the back of the room. These weren't locked, so he marched through them without a second's hesitation. Toke and Zashiel followed, and found themselves on a balcony overlooking the lake, facing directly away from Tad Moru.
“There,” the first mate said, pointing. A ladder rose from the balcony's floor, leading all the way up to the top of the ship's roof. “Get on up and wait for your cue.” He turned to go back the way he'd come. “And don't you two even think about sneaking back into the cap’n’s cabin, got it?”
“Don't worry,” Zashiel said, rolling her eyes. “We've got better things to do than steal from Treyn.”
“Cap'n Treyn, girl,” Ludsong snapped. Toke wasn't sure why the first mate was so bothered by them being allowed into the captain's cabin, especially since it was just to get them easy access to the ladder. “Now get climbin'!”
He slammed the door before Zashiel could offer another retort, leaving them together on Treyn's private balcony.
“This is pointless,” Toke said, looking at the ladder. “Treyn knows I can walk on walls, and you have smiting wings. Why go to all this effort to get us on the roof?”
Zashiel shrugged. “No idea. Maybe it's because he thinks someone will see us if we go another way.”
“Well, come on, I guess.”
Toke climbed the ladder with Zashiel right behind him. Right when they reached the roof, the Swordfish's cannons went off, shooting another medley of colors up into the night sky. One of the explosions in particular caught Toke's eye: the yellow one.
“Hey, Zashiel,” he said softly, still staring up even after the burst of light had faded, “I forgot to ask you something last night.”
“What's that?” Zashiel asked casually, sauntering across the rooftop toward the front of the ship. The roofed area only covered roughly a fifth of the barge's length, but it still gave them the perfect position to view the ring down below.
“When you found me down there with Finch, unconscious, did I have any...” His voice trailed off. Smite it, why did he have to bring this up now? As if he weren't nervous enough already.
Zashiel stopped, frowning. “Yes,” she said a few seconds later. “Even more than last time.”
“Smite,” Toke whispered. He looked down at his feet, thinking. “Did anyone see?”
Zashiel shook her head. “Finch was still unconscious when I found them. I plucked them all and then threw them into the canal beneath the warehouse before she could wake up. If she’d seen them, then...” Her voice trailed off as well, almost identically to Toke's, and when he looked he was surprised to see her shuddering.
“What?” he asked, the pit in his stomach growing heavier. “Why would she care that I had feathers?”
Instead of answering, Zashiel just shook her head again. Toke scowled at her, while down below the crowd cheered. The polar opposite of his current mood. Clenching his fists, he crossed over to her and grabbed her by the arm. Even though she was five times stronger than him, she let him spin her around to face him.
“This is starting to feel uncomfortably similar to a year ago,” he said quietly. “Remember? When you made me a Juryokine without telling me it was illegal?”
Zashiel's eyebrows lowered, and she jerked her arm out of Toke's hand. “I thought you said you didn't regret that.”
“I never said I did,” he countered. “But you were keeping secrets from me back then, too. Important secrets.”
Secrets like hiding homemade wings in your jacket? his cynical side sneered.
Shut up! he snapped at himself.
Zashiel seemed taken aback by this, though, and she took a step away from him. For a long minute the two of them stared each other down, but then, finally, Zashiel deflated a bit.
“Fine, I admit it,” she said softly. “I'm keeping secrets from you. But they're not about you, I promise.”
Zashiel slapped her forehead. “Okay, okay, they involve you, but they're not about you. What's going on... it's about me. You're not in any danger. There, better?”
Toke crossed his arms. She was opening up, just a little, and the fact that she was denying that he was in danger meant she was probably telling the truth. She'd been bluntly honest about things like that in the past.
“But what about you?” he asked. “Are you in danger?”
Zashiel hesitated for just the slightest second before saying, “I'm always in danger, Toke. We both are.”
Alarm bells went on inside Toke's head. That hadn't been an answer, it had been an evasion. That only served to convince him even more that something big, something horrible, was happening. Or was going to happen. He couldn't be sure, but what he was sure about was that, somehow, him growing feathers had changed things. Made them even worse than they were before. He believed her when she said he wasn't in danger, but suddenly he became very, very worried about her.
He opened his mouth to demand that she tell him the truth, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Do you remember what you're supposed to do tonight?”
The circus. The show. Him. Tonight. Toke cringed as what felt like all the responsibility in the world came crashing down on his shoulders. Smite it all, how was he supposed to focus on what was important when this nonsense kept getting in the way?
It's not nonsense, he told himself, looking out over the circus barge again. As long as it keeps Mom and Dad sheltered and fed, this isn't nonsense.
Even so, it felt strange that he kept pushing these super important issues to the side in favor of circus business. Well, that wouldn't last much longer. Tonight was their last show in Tad Moru. As soon as the sun rose, they would cast off for the next town. That meant he'd have plenty of time to corner Zashiel and force some answers out of her.
He sighed. Even after he'd given up hope of a relationship with the Sorakine girl, he was still chasing her. He thought of Inaska, waiting for him down below. To his own shock, the girl seemed genuinely interested in him. He still couldn't fathom what she saw in a guy like him, but as long as she was happy he didn't figure complaining about it would be in his best interests.
Next time, you should kiss her.
I should do more than that, he thought, crossing his arms and fidgeting nervously. Maybe I could make her something. Like a...
No! He squeezed his eyes shut and banished those thoughts from his head. That was a dangerous line of thought. He couldn't—wouldn't—go back to making things. Repairing Treyn's benches had been one thing. But going in with the full intention to make something brand new, something never before seen... Toke shook his head. He wouldn't invent. Never again.
A stray thought occurred to him. Did Wayli know? She knew he was blamed for the Gravity Storms, but she and Boam also knew that he hadn't been the one causing them. But Navras had used his batteries to bring them into existence. Did Wayli know that? He doubted it. What would she do if she ever found out? Her family hadn't been killed in the Storm, but they had been made homeless. And that didn't take into account all her friends who must have been buried alive when the city collapsed.
She would hate me, he thought, digging his nails so deeply into his arms that he nearly broke the skin. I could never...
“Toke, focus!” Zashiel's sharp words hooked him like a fish and yanked him out of the ocean of thought.
Ocean of thought. Smite it all!
“Whatever's going on in your head, it can wait for another day,” she said. “Tonight, just concentrate on not making a fool of yourself out there.”
Toke frowned. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Zash.”
More fireworks, and the crowd erupted into applause again. Having nothing better to do, Toke crept further toward the edge of the roof, where he'd be able to see down into the ring. He laid down and slid on his belly for the last few feet. The whole purpose for him being up here was to get him into position without the audience seeing him beforehand. Being spotted watching the show would ruin the surprise.
Below and twenty feet in front of him, Toke watched as the last performer waved to the crowd and took off running for the shelter of the barge's stern. Treyn was back out there in an instant, cavorting around the ring with more energy than he'd ever seen in the usually lethargic man.
“Up next, ladies and gentlemen,” he called, “we've got a very special treat for you tonight!”
He fell still, and all but one limelight went out, illuminating him and him alone in the center of the ring.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to call myself a well-travelled man,” he said, his voice sounding strangely reverent now. “In my travels, I have seen many amazing things. Some were heartwarming.” He put his hand over his heart, and then clenched it into a fist and threw it to the side. “And many were heart stoppingly horrifying! Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce that I have managed to bring one of my greatest findings back with me to show to all of you!”
He suddenly stood at stiff attention. “In the deep and impenetrable forests of the far east, a land which only the bravest of souls have ever laid eyes upon, there lives a creature so terrible that the natives live in eternal fear. Its fur is as thick as wire, and its teeth and claws could shred stone as easily as paper! I tell you, my friends, the expedition that brought me in contact with this beast nearly cost me my life a thousand times over! I ventured forth with a party of twenty—no, forty men! And yet I returned with only five!”
“He's good,” Zashiel noted, lying down next to Toke.
Toke grimaced. “Are you kidding? He's hammier than a pig farm.”
“I think that's the point. He knows that nobody believes him, so he's going for over-the-top dramatics rather than real tension. It's more entertaining.”
Toke raised his eyebrows. “Why Zashiel, that's rather astute of you!”
She smiled smugly. “I can't let you be the only genius around here.”
Down below, Treyn was on a roll. “But worry not, good people, for though I mourned the loss of my loyal men, their deaths were repaid tenfold! For I managed not to slay the foul creature, but to capture it! And now, I present to you, for your entertainment and education alike... the beast!”
A second limelight came to life, and it swept dramatically across the ring to shine on the stage entrance, revealing Dabba's cage—his empty cage. The door stood wide open.
Murmurs rose from the crowd as Treyn did a double take. “N- Now, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. Beads of real sweat were actually running down his forehead. “This is no cause for alarm! If everyone would please just stay in their seats, I'm sure we'll have this worked out in no time!”
Toke couldn't help but smile. If he hadn't seen Treyn practicing with Dabba the day he'd come aboard, he would probably share the audience's unease. Suddenly the captain's overdramatic speech sounded all the more haunting. Toke could see several members of the audience shifting uncomfortably in their seats, as if they were considering getting up and running away.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen,” Toke said, holding his shaking hand out in front of himself, “I must urge all of you to remain right where you are. For you see, this creature is a hunter. It is unlikely to attack you here and now, but should you choose to run, it may mistake you for prey and—”
A deafening roar echoed across the Seventh Swordfish, and more than a couple people in the crowd screamed. Toke grinned. He, of course, had seen the silent command that told Dabba to speak, but it had been so small that everybody in the audience had missed it. The second limelight, still illuminating Dabba's empty cage, suddenly swung around to the other side of the ring, revealing Dabba in all his proud animalistic glory. He roared again, and Treyn stumbled dramatically backwards.
Toke knew the procedure well now, but he still couldn't help but be impressed. While the audience was focused on Treyn, the crew would raise Dabba up through a hidden hatch on the other end of the ship. Then they would walk him quietly in between the circus' other tents and arrive just in time for Dabba's reveal. It was no small feat to walk a smiting lion across a crowded barge without anyone letting anyone see it, but they pulled it off perfectly.
Growling menacingly, Dabba stalked into the ring, eyeing Treyn with the pitiless eyes of a killer. They looked, Toke suddenly realized, very similar to Zashiel's. Treyn yelped with fear and ran for the ring's exit, but the crew cut off his escape with a large metal gate. Toke knew the gate wasn't attached to anything and could topple with light gust of wind, but it served its purpose by looking heavy and intimidating.
“No, you fools!” Treyn cried out, grabbing the bars and pretending to shake it. “Let me out of here before it kills me!”
“We're sorry, Cap'n!” That was Ludsong, putting his hand mournfully over his heart. “But we can't.”
“We'd risk letting the beast out, Captain,” the other man, who Toke didn't know, agreed. “We have to think of the rest of the crew!”
“It has been an honor to serve you, sir.” Ludsong gave him a salute. “We'll always remember you.”
“Always until the day we die,” agreed the other man. Both were backing away, and then they turned tail and sprinted out of the limelight to safety.
Dabba growled again, and Treyn spun around to face it. The lion had its teeth bared now, and it was licking its chops in eager anticipation of a meal.
“N- N- Now, I say, oh evil creature,” Treyn stuttered with his back against the gate, “get back! Back, I say! Back!”
Instead, Dabba pounced. Treyn screamed, but ducked to the side, narrowly avoiding the attack. He fell to his hands and knees and crawled frantically away for a few steps, and then got up and ran until he reached the other side of the ring.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen!” he begged, holding his hand out to them. “Have mercy on a poor fool. Help me up!”
To Toke's amusement, a few people actually reached down to help him, which Treyn pretended not to notice. Dabba roared in frustration, bringing the captain's attention back to him. A second pounce, a second dodge, but this time when Treyn stood up, there was an air of determination about him.
“Very well, creature,” he declared, reaching under his coat and pulling out his twin knives. “If you insist on hunting me, then I shall at least not let myself become easy prey!” He looked to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, I fear my end may have come. Please do not panic, for the beast can smell fear. Let it feast upon me, so that you might all be spared!”
With that, he lowered himself into a fighting stance. Toke's trained eye could see that such a comically exaggerated stance was entirely worthless, but this wasn't a real fight. It's purpose was to look dramatic, and it succeeded in that regard. It was also the signal Dabba was trained to respond to, beginning the next part of the act.
With a roar, the lion charged in, jaws snapping. Treyn skillfully sidestepped him, knives gleaming in the limelight as he slashed down with one. Dabba, as he was trained to do, also leaped out of the attack's way. He retaliated by crouching down and leaping at Treyn, his powerful back legs propelling him through the air almost as if he could command gravity like Toke. Treyn ducked and somersaulted beneath Dabba's paws, springing back to his feet as Dabba landed without touching a hair on his head.
Tentative applause came from the audience. They were slowly beginning to work out that this was all part of the show.
As if to confirm this, and dispel any remaining fear, Treyn put his hands on his hips and walked up to Dabba—still facing the other way—with silly, exaggerated steps, and kicked him square in the rump. The crowd erupted in laughter. Dabba roared and spun around, claws extended, but Treyn had already retreated to safety.
“What ho, foul beast!” he declared with knife raised. “Surely you have not met your match already! Come, show me what it is you are made of!”
This continued for several minutes. The act was, it seemed to Toke, more of a dance than a real fight. Treyn would move, and Dabba would move in accordance. They worked together in a team as well as any pair of people that Toke had ever seen. Some parts of the dance were tense, with Treyn nearly meeting his demise, and others were comical, like when the captain hid from Dabba by clinging to his belly and letting the lion carry him in a circle around the ring, hushing the laughing audience as he passed. And despite the pretense of hostility they both showed each other, Toke could see the bond of trust they truly shared. It was beyond that of a man and his pet, it was more like...
Like me and Zashiel, he thought.
“We should get ready,” Zashiel whispered, as if sensing him thinking about her. “Treyn said we were going on after his act.”
Toke nodded his agreement, and they both inched away from the roof's edge and stood up. Further back, an unlocked chest had been set there for them. Toke lifted the lid, and inside found the long white robe that Treyn had given him the night before. Without a word, he slipped it on over his head. He kept the hood lowered for now, and looked at his Sorakine friend.
“How do you feel?” Zashiel asked.
“Like my stomach is about to drop out my...” Toke caught himself. “Never mind.”
“It's all right.” She drew in a deep breath, looking at the ring, which they could just barely see from here. “I feel that way too.”
Down below, Treyn had finally “tamed” Dabba, and was riding him around the ring like a pony.
“Thank you for your encouragement and support, ladies and gentlemen!” he called to them. “It was only because of you that I have managed to subdue this savage creature. Men! Get this monster back in its cage!”
“Get ready,” Zashiel whispered. She finally slid the helmet down over her head.
Ludsong and the other crewmember came onto the scene yet again, lowering the gate and pushing the cage into the ring. Treyn yelled a command at Dabba, who gave one last defeated growl before retreating to the safety of its cage. The crowd cheered as Dabba was wheeled away.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen...”
“All right, let's go!”
Toke didn't move as Zashiel wrapped her arms around him from behind, and took a running leap off the back of the Seventh Swordfish. Once she was fifty feet away from the ship, she arched upwards into the sky. A year ago, the speed they were going, and the height Zashiel finally leveled out at would have terrified him. These days, though, flying in her arms was as natural as walking. Now that they were high enough that the audience wouldn't easily spot them, Zashiel curved back and began to fly laps around the barge. Toke raised his hood, the white fabric almost completely obscuring his vision to the sides.
“I hope you're ready,” she said as they both looked down. From here, they could barely see Treyn, and they couldn't hear him at all. All they could do was wait for his signal.
“Me too,” he muttered.
The cannons went off below, launching more fireworks up into the sky. This time, they were all green.
“That's the signal!” Zashiel shouted, and angled herself to fly directly over the ring. “Good luck!”
Then she dropped him. Toke's breath caught in his throat from the sudden beginning of his descent, but he quickly calmed himself. This wasn't anything he hadn't done a thousand times. The trouble would begin once he reached the ground.
He held his arms out to the sides, letting the loose white fabric ripple around him as he fell. Though the wind in his ears was deafening, Treyn's words soon became audible.
“He is an unwelcome visitor from the other side. A portender of doom and suffering...”
Toke weakened his gravity, slowing his descent at the last second, and struck the ground. A fine white powder had been sprinkled in the ring in between acts, and his impact blasted a cloud of it up around him, obscuring him from the audience's view. Slowly it drifted away, revealing him dressed in his ghostly white robe and hood. Just as Treyn had predicted, a resounding gasp swept through the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my sick and perverse pleasure to introduce to you... the gaur stukan!”
NEXT TIME: This is it! Toke’s big break into showbusiness! Will he leave the crowd in speechless amazement, or will he leave the Seventh Swordfish in disgrace?