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Chapter Forty Five

Toke stood up in the boat, watching as Kuerlo's ship drifted past in front of them like some great lazy lake monster, and found himself holding his breath.  It may look lazy now, he knew, but that would only last until the beast caught the scent of potential prey—and in this case, a tiny lifeboat would probably look like the perfect snack to the fearsome warship.


He held his hand up to his ear, listening.  The ship was still more than seventy feet in the distance, but sound carried well on water, and he could just barely make out voices.  Not well enough to hear what they were saying, but he relaxed when he it became clear they hadn't been spotted.




“You plannin' on doin' this sometime today, boy?” Ludsong asked. “Or can we turn around and head back?”


Toke barely heard him.  His head was in the void, turning the ship every which way, trying to decide which angle would be the best to approach from.  Of course, the answer was so obvious that he needn't have even wondered.


“Zashiel,” he said, “how about giving me a lift?”


She nodded and put her arms around Toke, but stopped when Ludsong reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder.


“She isn't going to help me fight Kuerlo,” Toke spat before the first mate could say anything. “She's just going to—”


“It ain't that,” Ludsong cut him off.  He hesitated, then sighed. “Boy... don't die out here, all right?”


Toke raised his eyebrows. “You almost sound like you care!”


Ludsong's face immediately soured again. “Don't get me wrong, you little aftdragger.  I still don't want you marryin' my daughter.  But that don't mean I necessarily want you gettin' yourself killed out there either!”


“Worry about yourself,” Toke said. “And if I were you, I'd hurry up and get onboard before all the good seats are taken!”


Zashiel flared her wings, making the dark waters around them flash yellow, and they took to the sky.  Their liftoff wasn't anywhere near as gentle as their landing, and Toke could hear Ludsong cursing below them as the boat rocked violently.  Kuerlo's ship quickly shrank as they gained altitude over it, and then Zashiel began to circle around it, like a vulture eyeing some soon-to-be-dead animal.


Not a vulture, Toke thought as he eyed the pirate ship below. We're a hawk getting ready to swoop in on some unsuspecting mouse.


That made him feel better.  Down on the water, Kuerlo's warship had been the predator, but here in the sky it quickly became the prey.


“Toke,” Zashiel said into his ear, “this is your last chance to change your mind.  Are you sure you want to do this?”


In answer, Toke reached up and raised his hood. “Kuerlo got the better of me last time.  I think I deserve some payback.”


“Just remember what I said.”


“My last shred of innocence... in exchange for the woman I love.  I've made my decision, Zashiel.  That's a trade I'm willing to make.”


He felt her nod. “All right, then.  Go make me proud, Toke!”


With that, she let go of him, and he began to fall.  Toke immediately angled himself forward into a nosedive, streaking through the fog like an arrow.  Even as he fell, he drew his axes, gripping them tight with anticipation.  He didn't like the thought of killing Kuerlo, but for Inaska it would be worth it.


As he drew nearer, the crew began to come into view.  The dotted the ship's deck like ants swarming over a log, and there behind the helm Toke easily spotted their captain.  He still wore the bright blue coat Toke had seen him in last time.  Even more noticeable than that was his golden sword, worn tied to his belt without a sheath to hide its beauty.  Not a single person saw him as he rapidly descended toward them.


Right.  Let's do this! he thought.


He flipped himself right-side up and weakened gravity's pull just in time for his dramatic landing, staying just heavy enough to make a satisfying boom when his feet touched the deck.  He crouched there on the floor, counting on everyone's shock to keep them from immediately attacking him, and slowly stood up.


“Captain Blackbane Kuerlo,” he announced, raising his visor-covered eyes to look at his foe, “I've come for you.”


To his surprise, Kuerlo didn't seem all that... surprised.  The captain stood behind the ship's wheel, tapping it thoughtfully with one finger.


“Have you now?” he asked a few seconds later. “You're that boy from the circus barge, aren't you?  Come for a rematch, I assume.”


Toke pointed one of his axes at him. “You're a thief and a murderer, and I'm here to make sure no one else in Vlangur ever becomes one of your victims.”


Kuerlo nodded as if that were the most natural thing on Fissura. “Tell me, boy... is the Calix Cura with you, today?”


“What?” Toke asked in surprise. “N- No, just me.”


Kuerlo nodded again. “Good.  Kill him, men!”


Toke felt the gravity fields around him shift, and he immediately spun to his right, leg outstretched, and kicked one of the pirates in the jaw.  The unfortunate pirate was knocked clean off his feet, falling headlong into one of his mates, who started a domino effect, taking out three more pirates before they could even reach Toke.  Another managed to creep up behind him—or so he thought, before Toke reached back and hooked his arms underneath the pirate’s, and did a half-flip that ended with Toke landing on top of him, a good fifty pounds heavier than he had been before.  The pirate groaned, and Toke rolled to his feet, nimbly dodging another attack in the process, and looked up at Kuerlo.


“Stop wasting my time, Captain,” he called up to him. “I'm here for you, not them.”


Kuerlo laughed at him. “That isn't how this works, boy!  If you want the captain, you have to deal with the crew!”


The crew laughed in agreement, their bloodlust rising as they came at Toke from behind again.  Toke rolled his eyes and anchored himself to the closest pirate, making him fall right into Toke's embrace.


“Whuh- let me go!” the pirate yelled when he found himself inexplicably stuck to him.


There was a thick wooden railing that ran around the edge of the ship, and Toke anchored himself to that.  He fell across the width of the deck, taking the screaming pirate with him, and landed on the railing sideways, the floor appearing to be the wall to him now.


“Ever been a battering ram before?” he asked.


“Say what?” asked the pirate.


Before the remaining pirates could recover from their surprise, Toke anchored himself to the identical ledge on the other side of the ship, and immediately fell toward it.  He flipped over in midair, letting the screaming pirate act as his shield as they plowed straight through the middle of the crew, knocking them all down like ninepins.  Just before they landed, Toke quickly reversed his gravity yet again, planted his feet back on the floor, and spun around and hurled the pirate back the way they'd just come, letting him take out another large chunk of his own crew.


“Kuerlo!” Toke yelled, rounding on the captain again. “Fight me one on one, and I'll leave the rest of your crew unharmed!”


Kuerlo leaned casually on the helm. “I don't particularly care what you do with them.”


Toke glanced at the crew, and then shrugged. “Have it your way, then.”


And with that, a blast of yellow light careened across the ship.  It happened faster than Toke's eyes could see, but he still heard the crack of shattering wood, the brief yelps of surprised men, and then a good dozen splashes as their bodies hit the water.  He turned around to see a large chunk of the crew missing, and an equally large hole broken through the ship's railing.  The yellow light grew brighter, and Zashiel rose above the deck once again, a chakram in each hand.


“I'll deal with these nimrods, Toke,” she said loudly enough for everyone to hear. “You take care of Kuerlo.”


Toke turned to face the captain again, and grinned. “With pleasure.”


With a look of calm resignation on his face, Kuerlo finally drew his golden sword and stepped away from the helm.  The legendary weapon glittered even in the fog.


“Well, boy?” he called down. “I haven't got all day.”


“No,” Toke agreed, bending his knees, “you don't!”


He jumped, his momentum carrying up and over Kuerlo, and landed behind him.  The moment his feet touched the ground, he was spinning, his axe held out, ready to end the fight with one well placed swing.  To his shock, though, Kuerlo spun around just as quickly, and Toke's axe bounced harmlessly off of his golden sword.  He tried to bring his arm back for a second attack, but Kuerlo thrust with unbelievable speed, and Toke was forced to leap backwards to avoid being skewered.  Toke skidded a few feet when he landed, and then anchored himself to the ship's wheel and fell toward it.  He swung both axes as he came, one to hit Kuerlo's left, the other his right, but Kuerlo deflected both wing a single swipe of his sword.  He followed up with a second swing, this one ready to cleave Toke's head from his shoulders, but Toke dropped to the floor and rolled, wincing as the golden blade whizzed past above him.


Smite it, he's good! he thought.  He should have been prepared for this after seeing him and Inaska fight back on the Swordfish.  The idea that Kuerlo would go down easy had been, he realized, incredibly stupid.


“You aren't the first brave soul to come chasing me, boy,” the captain snarled, stabbing downwards again.  Toke rolled, and the sword sank into the wood as easily as if it were water.  Toke stared at it, wide eyed.  If it could split wood that easily, how much protection would his jacket offer?


Kuerlo pulled it back out, without even a glimmer of fear in his eyes. “And you aren't going to be the last, either.”


The sword came down in an overhead strike, and Toke anchored himself backwards so that he slid across the deck, out of the way, and then leaped back to his feet.  Then, with a shout, he charged at Kuerlo.  The captain raised his sword, eyes glinting with amusement, but then he blinked in surprise when Toke jumped over him.  This one was a low jump, barely clearing Kuerlo's head, almost like they were playing leapfrog, but Kuerlo had been anticipating an attack, and was already thrusting with his sword directly where Toke's heart would have been.  That gave Toke the opening he needed, and he spun around just like last time,





Toke swung so hard that, when he missed, he sent a small gust of wind billowing across the deck.  He stopped and blinked, confused.  Kuerlo had been right

there—right smiting there! How had he missed?


His stunned confusion lasted less than a second, but that was more than enough for Kuerlo to come up out of his roll, spin around, and lash out at Toke.  Toke yelped and leaned back, the tip of the sword coming less than an inch from his nose.  Kuerlo spun with his own momentum, taking the sword in both hands, and brought it down in another overhead strike.  Toke dodged to the side, feeling the wind brush his cheek as the blade swung down past him, cutting through the floorboards again.


“Attacking me from behind?” the captain cackled, looking at Toke with a new fire in his eyes. “I like you, boy!”


Toke raised his axes defensively. “If there's one thing I've learned, it's that fighting fair is a good way to get yourself killed.”


Kuerlo nodded in respect. “Wise words.”


Then he threw himself at Toke like a rabid animal.


His sword came down, and Toke caught it between his crossed axes.  Up and down, up and down it came, battering against Toke's defenses like an avalanche of golden rage.  Toke managed to block every attack, but Kuerlo was strong, and the mere impact of his strikes made Toke’s arms ache.  Finally, though, Kuerlo relented, and Toke ducked down and tried to kick his feet out from under him.  The captain danced out of the way, surprisingly spry for his age, and then swung for Toke's neck.  Toke grunted, leaning back and letting the golden sword pass over him, and then thrust himself back up, weakening his gravity so that the motion hurled him into the air again—with Kuerlo's beard firmly in his grasp.  It was so long that Toke was able to jump right over Kuerlo and land behind him, and it still reach the ground.


“Sinking son of a—mmph!” Kuerlo roared as he got an unexpected mouthful of his own beard.  It was so thick that Toke doubted he could even see.  With a laugh of triumph, Toke stomped down on the tip of the beard, pinning it to the floor, and raised his axe to finish the job.


And froze.


“Are you sure this is what you want?” Zashiel's voice rang inside his head. “Once you do this, there's no going back.”


“It's for Inaska,” he whispered, and swung...


... Too late.  With a crazed howl, Kuerlo spun around, golden sword flashing, and cut through his own beard.  The moment it was out of his eyes, they bugged out with inhuman rage, and he lunged at Toke.  Toke sprang backwards, but Kuerlo followed him, swinging his sword this way and that like a madman.


“I SPENT THIRTY YEARS GROWING THAT BEARD!” he roared, spittle flying from his mouth into Toke's face.


“I'm sorry!” Toke yelled back truthfully. “It obviously meant a lot to you!”


Toke retreated another step, and found himself with his back against the wall.  Kuerlo drew his sword back, ready to ram it into Toke's chest.  Thinking quick, Toke put his foot against the wall and threw himself into a vertical somersault that carried safely out of Kuerlo's reach.  The sword sank into the wall where he had just been.


“I'll cut off your hands,” Kuerlo ranted, looking up at him with insanity in his eyes. “I'll cut off your feet!  I'll drag you from the back of my ship until gulafish have eaten every scrap of meat from your bones!  Nobody touches my sinking beard!”


Toke leaped from the wall and landed back on the floor, spinning to face Kuerlo before backpedaling away from him.  The pirate captain chased after him, swinging his sword left and right with no thought except to slice Toke into itty bitty pieces.  Toke raised his axes and looked for an opening to attack, but the golden sword was coming too fast, too hard, like one of the turbines on Navras' Terracaelum.  Instead, Toke continued to retreat, step by step, staying just out of Kuerlo's reach.  With his powers reaching out behind him, Toke could feel the helm looming behind him.


“Stand still and die!” Kuerlo screeched, and stabbed.


Weakening gravity yet again, Toke leaped backwards and landed right on top of the ship's steering wheel.  It wobbled back and forth violently, but Toke, windmilling his arms, managed to keep his balance on it.  With a howl, Kuerlo swung again.


For one split second, Toke let himself retreat into the void.  In there, time slowed down, and he was able to think.  He had underestimated Kuerlo, and it was becoming more and more obvious that he wouldn't be able to beat him in a fair, hand-to-hand fight.  He needed an advantage.  An advantage that Kuerlo couldn't take from him.  An advantage like...




Toke glanced upward, and the answer came to him instantly: the rigging!  Up above them was a spiderweb of ropes running from one mast to another, holding them in place and keeping them from bending too far in strong wings.  Perfect.


The void vanished, and time snapped back into motion.  Toke didn't bother jumping—it would have taken too long—and settled for simply anchoring himself to the mast closest to him.  He flew up off of the helm a nanosecond before Kuerlo's sword struck, cleaving the thick wooden wheel in two.


“My wheel!” Kuerlo screamed. “My beard!  My wheel!  Have you no respect for what's sacred, boy?”


Toke fell upwards into the web of rigging, and then released his anchor on the mast and landed on one of the thick ropes.  He teetered for a second, and then reached out and grabbed another for balance.  He glanced backwards, and was happy to see that the rest of the deck was clear, the crew lying scattered all over the place, either unconscious or dead.  Zashiel stood in the middle of them, looking none the worse for wear, and when she saw Toke looking at her, she leaped into the air and flew up to him.


“Good job,” he said while Kuerlo paced back and forth below like a caged animal. “You all right?”


Zashiel rolled her eyes. “Please.  The Nails put up a better fight.”


“Get down here and fight me, coward!” the captain yelled up at them.


“Why don't you come up here, Cap'n?” Toke yelled back, mimicking Ludsong's accent.


“You must think I'm a sinking fool!”


“Why, Captain Kuerlo, I would never think such a thing about a respectable man like you!” Toke grinned. “But if you don't, I'm going to wait until you're asleep and cut the rest of your beard off!”


Even from this high up, Toke could see the way Kuerlo went rigid with outrage.  Without a second thought, he raced for the net that would lead up to Toke's perch.


Zashiel watched him with amusement. “Are you okay?  Why isn't he dead yet?”


“He's better than I expected,” Toke said, frowning. “I can beat him, but I'm going to have to use my head.”


Kuerlo was halfway up the net.


“Well, if you're sure,” Zashiel said with a shrug. “Remember, just call me if you need help.”


Toke shook his head. “I can't do that.  Have you found Shen yet?”




“Then go—”


“Sleep with Selek, aftdragger!” Kuerlo roared, stopping where the rope Toke stood on was tied to the mast.  Toke raised the axe in the hand that wasn't holding him steady, ready to fight again.  Up here, Kuerlo would be at a severe disadvantage, while Toke could—


He cut through the rope.


“Smite!” Toke yelled as the rope fell out from under him.  His free hand was still holding the other rope, and that kept him from falling back down to the deck, but the sudden weight made his injured wrist flare up again and he bit back a cry of pain.


“Toke!” Zashiel yelled, reaching for him, but Toke waved her away.


“I'm fine, I'm fine!” A quick look saw Ludsong standing towards the aft of the ship, watching them with keen interest. “If you touch me, I fail the test!”


“But you—”


“Shen, Zashiel!  Go find him!  Now!”


With a look of clear dissatisfaction on her face, the Sorakine girl descended to the deck and ran to go below.  With a grunt, Toke hooked his axe around the rope, and began to heave himself up—until that one gave way too.  Toke yelped as he found himself suddenly flying across the ship again, the rope still clenched tightly in his fist and carrying him straight toward Kuerlo.


Fine by me, Toke thought, and gritted his teeth.


Just as the rope brought him within Kuerlo's reach, Toke let go of it and spun in midair.  His axe met the captain's blade, deflecting the attack and throwing Kuerlo backwards with the force of it.  He couldn't match the pirate captain for strength, but the velocity of a full grown man flying through the air more than equaled Kuerlo's sheer muscle.  Unfortunately, his grip on the net help, and Toke whirled around to face him again even as he flew across the ship.  Instead of looking at Kuerlo, though, his eyes followed the climbing net upward.  It started out wide at the bottom, but narrowed the further it got to the top of the mast.




He anchored himself to the mast, and his fall abruptly reversed, carrying him to the point where the net was tied to the thick wooden pole.  As he fell, Toke drew his second axe, raised them both, and then brought them down just as he landed.  The ropes were thick, though, made to be able to support the weight of several men at a time.  Wound together, they made a knot that was nearly as hard as a rock. His blades sank less than an inch into them, and the net held true.


“Smite,” Toke whispered.  Down below, Kuerlo chuckled and began to climb toward him.


Raising his axes again and again, Toke hacked at the knot, to no avail.  It was too thick, the ropes too strong, and Toke was just a human.


He stopped.  No, not just a human.  What if he could...


Kuerlo was only a few feet below him now, and his chuckles grew into crazed, high pitched cackles.  He raised his sword, and Toke closed his eyes.  He didn't seek out the void, though.  He found the new thing inside of him, the well of power.  Just like when he had fought Finch, he grabbed the imaginary trap door keeping it closed, and heaved upwards. He only opened it a crack, but still gasped at all the power that surged out of it.


Just a crack.  The door was heavy, and raising it even that much took considerable effort.  But... as that stream of power rushed into him, scant though it was, the doorway began to feel lighter.  He began to feel like, if he wanted to, he could open it even further now.  And then further.  And further!  Every inch he opened it would grant him the power to open it another inch, making him stronger, faster, casting off all the feeble limitations he had lived with up till now, until...


Kuerlo screamed with delight, and Toke's eyes snapped back open.  No, he wouldn't open the well all the way.  Not yet.  Instead, he took the thin sliver of power that had been granted to him, raised his axes, and brought them down on the knot.


It split right down the middle like a ripe melon.  


“Goodbye, Captain Kuerlo,” Toke said, watching as the wicked pirate began to fall.


Then a dagger came out of Kuerlo's belt, sank into the wood of the mast, and his descent stopped.


“Boy,” Kuerlo snarled, “I'm not the one who'll be dying today!”


A clap of thunder rang through the air, and Toke glanced up to see the sky darkening with angry looking clouds.  The storm Treyn had promised was here.


Down below, Kuerlo gripped the mast with his legs, holding himself up with the dagger he'd stabbed into it, his golden sword glittering in the other hand.  With a quick lurching motion, he withdrew the dagger, thrust himself upwards with his legs, and then drove it back in again, a good five feet closer to Toke's perch than before.


Lightning flashed, reflecting brightly off the captain's sword, and Toke stood up.  With a little luck, lightning would strike the golden blade and the captain would be electrocuted by his own weapon.  Toke knew better to trust to that, though.  If there was one thing in life he didn't have, it was luck.


“This would be a lot easier, Captain, if you would just smiting die!” he said.


Kuerlo growled, and then swung his sword.  He wasn't close enough to hit Toke, yet, but Toke leaped backwards anyway, landing on the underside of the crow's nest.


“Oh, am I inconveniencing you?” Kuerlo yelled up at him. “I'm so sorry, I'll just jump right off this mast here and now!”


Toke shrugged. “I’d appreciate it!”


Thunder shook the sky again, and Toke felt the first telltale drops of rain on his jacket.  Kuerlo must have felt them too, because he glanced uneasily at the mast he was hanging from.  They were both thinking the same thing: once it got wet enough, Kuerlo wouldn't be able to keep his grip.  With a feral cry, Kuerlo actually kept his promise, and threw himself from the mast.  Toke couldn't help but gasp—until he caught hold of another rope.


Toke tightened his grip on his axes.  He'd let this go on too long, and now the storm was here.  Time to end this.  Bending his knees, Toke launched himself off of the bottom of the crow's nest, his jump carrying him back down toward the deck, and then arched back up toward the captain.  Kuerlo had hauled himself to his feet on top of the rope, with one hand bracing himself on another rope just as Toke had done before.  Toke raised one of his axes as he streaked upward.  The line was taut under Kuerlo's feet.  One quick swipe, and the captain's own trick would turn against him.


But, again, Toke hesitated.


“Is this the kind of person you want to be?” Zashiel asked inside his head. “I thought you wanted to be better than that.”


“Shut up!” Toke yelled.  It was too late, anyway.  He had hesitated too long, and instead of cutting through the rope, he collided with it.  It bounced up and down, nearly throwing Kuerlo off of it, but the captain stayed where he was.


“You can't do it, can you, boy?” he laughed. “Under all those fancy moves and that shiny coat, you're just a kid playing with swords, aren't you?”


Toke hooked his arms under the rope, gasping for breath.  A gust of wind came from the north, shaking the rope, and Toke swung on it like a hanged corpse.  His mind raced.  He was vulnerable like this, but he'd be vulnerable if he took the time to climb up as well.  All Kuerlo had to do was thrust that smiting sword down at him, and the fight would be over.


No... I can do this.  I can!


Then why hadn't he already?


“Half my crew is dead because of you, boy,” the captain said. “The other half's either dying or injured.  What did I ever do to you?”


“You attacked my ship first!” Toke spat.


Kuerlo pointed his sword at him. “I was only there for you.  If you'd come with me, I would have left everyone else alone.”


“And I only came here for you, so take your excuses and stuff them!” Toke yelled back.  More rain fell, making the rope slick.


Kuerlo's expression grew grim.  “I told you, I don't care what happens to them, boy.  But after what you've done to me... I think I might be paying your barge another visit!”


Toke's eyes widened, and Kuerlo cackled.


“That's right, you aftdragger!  I'm gonna do to them what you just did to me!  Who's on that boat, eh?  Family?  Friends?  A wife?  They're all gonna—”


Toke didn't hear the rest of what came out of his mouth.  It felt like his mind was... sinking.  Sinking into darkness.  Like when he went into the void, only this darkness wasn't empty.  It was filled with anger, with heat... WITH FIRE! That fire flooded his veins, energizing him, giving him strength, and with that strength he thrust his arms down, propelling himself up and over the rope.  In the blink of an eye, he understood.  He could do this.  He could kill Blackbane Kuerlo.  He wouldn't do it just because someone told him to, though.  He couldn't do it out of selfish ambition.


But to protect the ones he loved?  Toke could kill him for that.  He could kill him a hundred, thousand times over, and even more!


Kuerlo swung, and Toke saw the attack coming in slow motion.  Throwing himself to the side, Toke spun in midair three times with his axe held out.


The first spin deflected the golden sword.


The second sent it tumbling down to the deck, with Kuerlo's hand still clutching it.


The third cut through the rope Kuerlo was standing on.


Kuerlo's footing gave way, and suddenly he was hanging by one hand from a rope at least thirty feet off the ground—a wet rope, in a thunderstorm, with his other hand suddenly missing.  Toke righted himself in midair just in time to meet the captain's eyes.  They widened in surprise as he realized what Toke had done, and then in horror at what awaited him down below.  It was a look Toke had seen once before, the night Lampa Adal had tried to kill him but ended up throwing himself out of the top story of a building instead.  It was the feeble, helpless look of someone who knew they were about to die.


“N- N- No, please!” the once-fearsome pirate begged him. “Don't!  I'll do anything.  Anything!”


Without a word, Toke raised his axe and swung it, cutting through Kuerlo's other wrist.  The fist remained wrapped around the rope, but a scream tore from Kuerlo's mouth as the rest of him fell down, down, down—crunch!


Lightning flashed and thunder boomed.


With a sigh, Toke released the rope and floated gently downwards, feeling strangely... empty.  Kuerlo's mangled body waited for him down on the deck.  Toke's feet touched the floor, and—


“SON OF SELEK AFTDRAGGER SINKING SHADOWFISH!” Kuerlo roared.  Even though his body was broken beyond any hope of repair, he somehow managed to roll over and lunge at Toke.  Toke stepped back in surprise, but then caught the two bloody stumps midswing.  It wasn't hard.  The captain had very little life left in him.


“How are you still alive?” Toke asked in wonder.  The only reply he got was a rabid, inhuman screech.  He pushed him away, and Kuerlo flopped down onto his back.


“I can't sinkin' believe it,” a new voice said, and Toke turned to see Ludsong tramping over to them.  He looked down at the fallen pirate in utter shock. “You actually beat him!”


 “I told you I could,” Toke said, reaching up and lowering his hood.  The rain was coming down hard enough now to plaster his newly dyed hair to his skull. “I told you not to underestimate me.”


Ludsong nodded solemnly. “You proved me wrong, boy.  A deal is a deal.  Just finish him off.”


Toke looked down at Kuerlo, writhing weakly on the floor, mewling like a kitten.  Blood gushed from both his stumps, mixing with the rainwater that pooled around him.  Now that his rage and adrenaline were both fading, the sight left him feeling sick.  He had done that.  Him.


“Not yet,” he said, looking away.


“What?  Boy, you've already killed him!  Do the right thing and put him outta his misery!”


“I know!  But... not yet!”


“He's sufferin'!”


Toke spun away. “Zashiel!”


“I'm here,” she answered, her glowing wings marking her in the stormy darkness as she ran back up onto the deck.  She stopped when she saw Kuerlo lying on the ground. “Why haven't you—”


“Because we might still need him.  Where's Shen?”


“I, he...” Zashiel gave him a bewildered look. “I couldn't find him.  But you can't just—”


Toke wasn't listening anymore.  He spun around, grabbed Kuerlo by the front of his coat and, summoning his Sorakine strength again, picked him up off the ground and slammed him into the mast.


“Where is he?” he roared into the pirate's face. “Shen Garrowfleck, that old man who told you where to find me.  Where have you smiting hidden him?”


Kuerlo didn't answer.  At first, Toke worried that he had gone and died on him... but then his lips rose in a feral grin, and he began to laugh.  It was a laugh devoid of anything human, the last raspy breaths of a psychopath who no longer cared that he was dying because somehow, someway, he had suddenly decided that he had won.


“The old man?” he gurgled, blood dribbling down his chin as he spoke. “He... He... Hehehe!”


“Tell me!” Toke screamed at the top of his lungs, slamming him into the mast again. “Tell me, or I swear I'll make your death a hundred times more painful than it already is!”


“Toke!” Zahsiel yelled, mortified, but he ignored her.


Kuerlo's eyes opened, and swiveled to look down at him. “The old man... he said he got tired of waiting for you.  Said... said he was gonna go find you himself.  On the... the circus barge.  He was gonna... end things... there.”


All feeling fled from Toke in an instant, and he dropped Kuerlo.  The captain gave a pitiful moan, but Toke paid him no mind, and slowly turned to look out into the direction they had come from.  Shen had left to confront Toke himself.  Only, Toke wasn't there.  He would arrive at the Seventh Swordfish to find, not him, but his parents, and Wayli and Boam, and...


“Inaska!” he screamed.  Without a second thought, he took off running and threw himself over the edge of the ship.


He fell for half a second before Zashiel's arms wrapped around him, jerking him back upwards just before he hit the water.


“Toke, you smiting idiot!” she yelled into his ear.


Toke didn't say anything, and Zashiel didn't need to be told what to do.  She gained altitude, fighting the raging storm's wind, and turned toward home.  Then she flew as fast as her wings could carry her.


Not fast enough.  Not fast enough!


Inaska, hold on!  I'm coming!



NEXT TIME: *sniff sniff* Do you smell that? That, dear readers, is the smell of…THE FINAL SHOWDOWN! Toke against the man who’s been hounding him all these months. Or is it? Could there, perhaps, be someone else who wants a piece of him even more than Shen does?

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