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“Are you ready, Toke?”
He and Zashiel were in the center of the Seventh Swordfish's ring. A clear blue sky looked down at them without a single cloud to mar it, and a cool, gentle breeze tugged at Toke's hair. It would have been a pleasant start to the day, if not for the fact that a Sorakine wanted to beat the life out of him.
At their request, Treyn had granted them use of the stage this morning. The ring was an oval, several times longer than it was wide, and its length stretched across the entire barge—more than serviceable for their arena. They faced each other, twenty feet apart, surrounded by the step-like rows of benches and, Toke noticed, more than a couple crew members. The sailors who weren't on duty had all gathered to watch him get thrashed by the fearsome Sorakine.
Treyn, himself, was among them. Zashiel hadn't told him what their act was, but Toke felt it was pretty obvious. Treyn had hired them after seeing them fight, so Zashiel surmised the best way to impress him would be to do it again. Only this time, they wouldn't be fighting him.
They'd be fighting each other.
Toke had his doubts about this, but since he hadn't been able to think of any better ideas he kept them to himself. More than anything, Toke dreaded the bruises he would surely have before this was over.
“You know the drill,” Zashiel called to him. Reaching into one of her pockets, she tossed him a pair of small rubber slips. The throw went wide, likely on purpose, and Toke hastily anchored himself to them, drawing them to his hand. “All you have to do is not let me kill you.”
“Just like old times,” he called back. The rubber stretched easily, and he used it to cover the sharp, deadly edges of his axes. Zashiel did the same with her chakrams.
“It was a year ago, Toke. That hardly qualifies as 'old times.'“
Toke clenched his fists around both his axes. In truth, he wasn't overly worried about the fight. He knew Zashiel wouldn't hurt him—not seriously, at least. And besides, he wasn't the same person he had been the first time they sparred. Toke the whiny inventor’s student had become Toke the Juryokine, who had killed Dranibor Navras and saved Hashira from destruction. Zashiel may have been stronger and able to fly, but that didn't mean this would be an easy fight for her.
He squeezed the weapons a little tighter, and flinched when the muscles in his right hand spasmed. The two of them hadn't trained together since his injury. He would have to make sure he didn't try to block one of her attacks with that hand. With her Sorakine strength, he didn't doubt that she could end up crippling his hand entirely. He tried to tell himself that she knew that and would pull her punches… and nearly burst out laughing.
A wary glance told him Treyn was watching, legs crossed and half asleep.
I hope you enjoy this more than I will, he thought ruefully.
“Are you ready?” Zashiel asked, holding her chakrams out by her sides. Toke pulled his hood over his head, the dark visor covering his eyes and nose, and nodded. “Defend yourself!”
She launched into her first attack instantly, flinging her right hand chakram at him. The spinning metal blade flew across the distance between them in the blink of an eye, but Toke's feet had already left the ground. He jumped and spun over it, using his momentum to hurl one of his axes back at her, and landed just as the chakram embedded itself in the bench behind him.
“Hey!” he heard Treyn shout, suddenly wide awake. “You're fixing whatever you break!”
Zashiel lashed out with her second chakram, knocking Toke's axe out of the air. The halfhearted gesture sent it flying halfway back across the arena before clattering noisily to the deck. The crewmembers above them started to mutter. That was fine with Toke. Let them assume he was some weak, helpless little runt. The look on their faces would be that much more enjoyable when he actually put up a fight.
Holding out his hand, he summoned the axe back to it and lowered himself into a fighting stance. Likewise, Zashiel anchored herself to her lost chakram and it flew back across the arena into her hand—and Toke followed it. Anchoring himself to the benches behind her, he shot towards the Sorakine girl feet first. Flaring her wings, Zashiel jumped over him with ease, and Toke released his anchor, having to re-anchor himself to the seats behind him to keep from slamming face-first into the ones in front of him. The gravity shifted slightly behind him, and he dodged to the side right before another chakram sliced through the air where he had just been standing. Before Zashiel could summon it back again, Toke spun around and hurled his axe at her. He did so without having to aim, since he could feel her gravitational field even before he could see her. Zashiel threw herself to the right, narrowly dodging the attack—and the axe buried itself in the wood in between two spectators.
Aw, smite, he thought. The two sailors scrambled to get away from the weapon like it was a poisonous snake.
“Watch it, ya aftdragger!” one of them yelled at him. “You're gonna kill someone!”
Toke extended his hand and summoned his axe back to it. It struck his palm harder than he expected, and pain lanced up his arm. He grunted, but refused to let the pain show on his face. Zashiel was already moving before he could clear his head of the pain. She swung one of her chakrams in an overhead strike, and Toke ducked out of the way before backflipping over the following attack. Zashiel was at least five times as strong as he was, probably more. Trying to parry her attacks would just end with broken bones. His only option was to dodge everything she threw at him until he saw an opening to attack. Luckily, when one could control gravity, dodging was the easiest thing in the world.
Toke leaned to the side, his weakened gravity helping him keep balance where a normal person would have toppled over, and Zashiel's blade sliced through the air above him. She followed it up with a strike at his exposed neck, but Toke anchored himself to the benches opposite him and used the new pull of gravity to flip out of her way. After anchoring himself back to the floor again, he dropped to one knee, extending his other leg, and spun in a circle, trying to kick Zashiel's feet out from under her. The nimble Sorakine leaped out of his way, her dodge transitioning into a flip that brought both of her chakrams down at Toke simultaneously.
Toke let out a yelp that he desperately hoped Treyn didn't hear, and hastily anchored himself to the wall in front of him. He slid across the ground, Zashiel's blades just barely missing him, and then threw himself forward. The pull of gravity brought him back to his feet, and then he spun around and swung at her. A casual flick of Zashiel's chakrams sent his axe flying out of his hand with a flash of pain in his wrist. He tried to pull it back toward him, but before he could anchor himself to it Zashiel unleashed a blinding flurry of attacks. Knowing he had no hope of blocking any of them, he retreated, trying to stay a few inches out of her reach. He grappled backwards with his powers, anchored himself to the benches, and his feet left the ground to fall toward them.
And then he stopped.
Zashiel planted her feet firmly, obviously increasing her weight, and Toke began to fall back toward her again. He was caught off guard—with her superior strength and her wings, Zashiel rarely resorted to using her powers the same way he did. But when she did, she used them every bit as effectively. Toke strengthened his anchor on the benches behind him, pausing his journey toward Zashiel, and heard a few crew members cry out when the seats wobble underneath them.
Smite, Toke thought. There was only way out of this: forward.
He released his anchor on the benches and shot toward Zashiel. Zashiel spun, chakrams extended as he flew at her, and Toke re-anchored himself to the ground at the last second. He landed on the floor and he ducked, letting her attack pass over his head even as his feet continued to slide toward her, and then struck out with the axe in his left hand. Zashiel whipped her chakram out, catching the crescent-shaped hook in its ring, and yanked backwards. Toke weakened his gravity and was flipped upside down. Though the weapon was jerked from his hand, his sudden flight got him away from her other attack, her fist driving toward his chest.
He landed facing her and, balling his fist, swung a wild punch at her face. It was only meant to distract her while he pulled his weapons back to him. He knew his human strength wouldn't even faze a Sorakine. But as his fist hurtled toward her... something happened.
It felt like a flare had been lit inside his stomach. It didn't hurt, but energy suddenly flashed through his entire body. His punch connected with Zashiel's cheek, the Sorakine girl obviously not the least bit afraid...
And she collapsed under the impact.
Toke froze. “What the smite?” he whispered.
His knuckles stung, and the sudden surge of power had vanished just as quickly as it'd come. Zashiel lay sprawled on the floor at his feet. Toke’s mind reeled, trying to comprehend what had just happened. That shouldn’t have been possible. He may have had a Sorakine's powers, but his body was still that of a human. Even the weakest Sorakine could overpower a human with ease. To think that a single punch from him could have floored a proven warrior like Zashiel was absolutely unheard of.
Zashiel stirred, and pushed herself onto her knees. Toke leaned forward, concerned.
“Zashiel, are you...”
She turned to him, and the look she gave him was quite possibly the most terrifying thing he'd ever seen. A bruise was forming on her cheek where he'd punched her. Slowly she got to her feet, and grinned at him.
Toke took a deep breath. I'm dead.
Zashiel charged at him with weakened-gravity speed, swinging both of her chakrams at him at once. Toke leaped backwards out of her reach, and then front flipped over her head to land behind her. He spun around, holding out his right arm to punch her again, but the Sorakine girl was already aiming a blow to deflect his attack. Toke's mind kicked into overdrive. If his right hand collided with hers, his injury would flare up more than ever, possibly ending the fight. His swing was too strong to divert before impact, though. For less than half a second, he summoned the void, then anchored himself to the wall behind him, and then switched it for the one on his left, increasing his weight as much as he could in that space of time. The ensuing pull of gravity spun him out of Zashiel's way, and her chakram whiffed past less than a foot from his face. Zashiel was quick to regain her balance, but Toke had already begun his next attack.
Weakening his gravity as much as he could, he leaped straight up, Zashiel's next attack passing below his feet. The jump took him twenty feet into the air, and all the onlooking crewmembers had to crane their necks back to see him. Just like he'd predicted, Zashiel was quick to follow. With her wings, the sky was her domain, and Toke was at a complete disadvantage—or so Zashiel thought. The moment her feet left the ground, Toke anchored himself directly to her and increased his weight. The sudden shift in gravity threw off Zashiel's ascent, pulling her to him the same way she had pulled on him earlier. She was stronger than he was, though, and so was able to resist. That was fine.
He slammed into her with enough force to make his teeth rattle, grabbing two handfuls of her jacket. Zashiel elbowed him in the back, knocking the breath from his lungs, but he ignored the pain. He was still anchored to her, which meant that as long as he maintained that anchor the only place he would fall was straight toward her. Planting his feet on her hips, he thrust himself away from her, promptly falling straight back and landing hard enough to make her lurch in the air. She grunted in pain and took another swing at him, but he had already flipped up and over her head to her other side, where he again jumped away and landed on her.
He may not have been as strong as a Sorakine, or even as fast, but he was smart. He could win any fight he got into if he could just think his way through it. Zashiel was right, though. The bounty hunter had gotten the better of him yesterday. Toke might have been a great fighter, but that defeat told him he wasn't good enough. Not if he wanted to protect his friends and family.
He came plummeting towards Zashiel for the third time, but by now the Sorakine girl had figured out his strategy. Spinning in midair to face him, she extended her fist. Smite! That was all it would take to bring him to a complete, painful halt. Changing tactics at the last second, Toke anchored himself to the ground again. His descent curved downwards so that he fell underneath Zashiel. Then he anchored himself to the far benches to carry himself behind her, and then re-anchored himself to Zashiel, flying up towards her back and—
Zashiel thrust her elbow behind her, hitting Toke square on the forehead.
The hood of his jacket absorbed a lot of the impact, but it was still enough to completely break his concentration. The inside of his skull buzzed, and he would have fallen back to the deck of the Seventh Swordfish if Zashiel hadn't grabbed him by the shoulder. It wasn't done out of mercy, though. She whipped him up and over her head and let go, sending him flying straight down into the benches below. There was an earsplitting crack as the wood snapped underneath him, and then he struck the floor. Again, his jacket took most of the impact, but pain still lanced up and down his body. He lay there, head spinning, barely able to register Treyn's angry voice, or the shadow looming over him.
With a grim look on her face, Zashiel lifted him off the ground, and took off into the air again. Pirouetting like an airborne dancer, she threw him as hard as she could. The barge passed below Toke in a blur of color and motion, and then suddenly there was nothing but blue.
Smite it all.
Toke had just enough presence of mind to weaken his gravity before splashing down in the cold lake. His lightened weight kept the landing from being fatal, but he could still feel where new bruises were going to form with every flip and roll he did across the surface of the water. When he finally ran out of momentum and sank below, it took him a couple seconds to collect himself and figure out which way was up. His head broke the surface, and he gasped for breath.
“Smiting woman,” he grunted, seeing the Seventh Swordfish slowly drifting past him, a good forty feet away. “That was unnecessary.”
Just as he was wondering if he would have to swim back to the boat, Zashiel took off from the deck, her yellow wings sparkling in the early morning sunlight. Frowning, Toke waved for her, hoping his white jacket would make it easy for her to spot him. It did, and a few seconds later she was hovering just above him.
“You going to tell me what that was all about?” she demanded, a frown on her face.
“What was what...” Toke looked at the bruise on her face. “Oh.”
“I... I...” Toke looked around, as if the answer might come bobbing along in the water. Finally, he shrugged. “I don't know.”
Zashiel narrowed her eyes. “You nearly knocked me out cold with that punch. That shouldn't be possible.”
“You're telling me! I'm just as surprised as you are.”
Zashiel frowned again, clearly not happy with the situation.
Is she upset because I nearly beat her? Toke wondered. Or is it something else?
“Toke...” she finally said.
“Can we talk about this somewhere else?” Toke cut her off. “Like, maybe back on the ship?”
Zashiel looked at him for a long minute, but then nodded. Dipping down a few feet, she scooped him out of the water and turned back toward the Seventh Swordfish.
“So, do you think we impressed him?” Toke asked as she flew him back.
“I don't know.” Her voice was flat and emotionless.
“Don't you think that last part was a bit... overboard?”
Zashiel didn't so much as smirk.
It wasn't that bad, Toke thought.
They came back to the ring and Zashiel landed, setting Toke down beside her. They both turned to Treyn, who didn't appear to have moved an inch during the whole thing.
“Well, Captain?” Toke called to him. “What do you think?”
Treyn blinked and sat up. “What do you mean what do I think?”
Toke frowned. “That was our audition. What do you think?”
“You mean that fight just now? That's your idea of an act?”
“It's what made you hire us,” Zashiel reminded him, folding her arms stubbornly.
Treyn stood up and walked down into the ring. “I hired you because that fight showed me what you were capable of. That doesn't mean I wanted you to fight as your tn’longle act!”
Toke deflated a little. “Oh...”
Zashiel, on the other hand, wasn't giving up that easily. “Why not? People love a good fight!”
“Until someone actually gets hurt,” Treyn shot back. He pointed at her cheek. “What am I gonna do when one of you breaks the other’s leg, or their neck? Call off your show until you get better?”
That actually gave Zashiel pause. “I, well...”
“And besides that,” Treyn turned and pointed at the benches Zashiel had destroyed, “you'd be putting the audience in danger. I can't let you do that. So no, you're not fighting each other in my circus.”
Toke shared a look with Zashiel, and sighed. “Fine. What do you want us to do, then?”
Treyn got a thoughtful look in his eye, and he put his hand to his chin. “I've got an idea that might work.”
“What is it?”
“I'll tell you about it later. For now, though,” he jabbed a finger at the broken benches, “get to work!”
NEXT TIME: Nothing good ever comes from the words “Treyn got a thoughtful look in his eye.” More often than not, people end up dead. And a lot of things wind up on fire. It’s almost enough to distract you from Toke’s impossible punch…