Chapter 1




A blackbird fluttered through the open flap of an enormous circus tent. Only one boy out of the hundreds of men, women, and children sitting inside noticed. The boy was as thin as a rail with bushy brown hair and bright blue eyes. His name was Jack Staples, and today was his eleventh birthday. Jack sat sandwiched between his fourteen-year-old brother, Parker, and his mother, whose age he did not know.


No one else in the crowd had noticed the bird because their attention was drawn to the center of the tent where a girl in a crimson hooded cloak walked along a rope suspended between two platforms. The girl’s daring walk was only part of what had theonlookers so entranced. Not far beneath her tightrope, two lions— one with a golden mane, the other’s black—circled and snarled. As the girl walked the rope, the beasts leaped and swiped their razor- sharp claws, barely missing her feet. With each miss, they roared their frustration, and the crowd gasped in fear.


Encircling the lions was a blazing ring of fire. And just out- side the flames were four tumblers. Each held a torch and moved continuously, somersaulting and leaping about to ensure the beasts stayed within the circle of flames and away from the watching crowd.


Jack should have been mesmerized by the death-defying spec- tacle, yet he was becoming more irritated by the second. As the balancing girl neared the center of the rope, bringing the bottoms of her feet closer to the lions’ claws with every step, Jack couldn’t stop his eyes from drifting upward. The annoying blackbird was still flapping about near the tent ceiling.


This girl, thought Jack, is only moments away from being eaten, and here I am looking at a stupid bird!

Jack’s eyes shot downward as the crowd gasped. The girl flailed her arms, trying to regain her balance. Jack clutched his brother’s hand as the rope pitched and swayed beneath her.

Throughout the tent, the crowd shouted instructions and words of encouragement. Just as it seemed the girl was sure to plunge to her death, she stretched out her right leg and stood on the toes of her left foot. Amazingly, these movements allowed her to regain balance.


A collective sigh of relief rose from the stands as the balancing girl took the final step to the center of the rope. The beastsbounded upward, gnashed their teeth, and roared wildly. Outside the flames the tumblers flipped and spun as their blurred torches sent sparks hurling in every direction. Jack didn’t breathe. Even when something hard and cold bumped against his leg from beneath the bleachers, he barely noticed.


As the tightrope walker crouched low, she wrapped her crimson cloak around her body. At the same moment, the tumblers gave a final leap before also dropping to their knees.

The black-maned lion roared as both beasts bounded upward, snapping their jaws at the girl taunting them from above. Yet the girl also leaped high, spreading her crimson cloak wide and per- forming the most magnificent spinning backflip.


As she landed, the rope pitched dangerously beneath her, but she maintained her balance. And when she extended her arms wide, the crimson cloak enveloped each, making her look like a bird with wings outstretched. From beneath her hood, the girl grinned widely.

For a moment, perfect silence hung inside the circus tent. Even the stupid bird was quiet. And then, as if it were the easiest thing in the world, the tightrope walker stood tall and bowed, giving an extravagant flourish of her cloak.


The crowd roared their praise; Jack let out a great sigh of relief. When the poised girl turned to continue up the rope to the oppo- site platform, she made it look as if the rope were as wide as a road and she didn’t have a care in the world. The applause grew to a crescendo as men threw hats and children high into the air.


“I was so scared!” Jack had to yell to be heard above the cheers of the crowd.


“Me too!” shouted Parker. “Did you see how close those claws came?” Parker made a growling sound and curled his hand into a claw, mimicking the lions.


Jack laughed as his eyes drifted to the ceiling once more. The blackbird was still flapping about and screeching loudly. As the girl continued her walk to safety, the ridiculous bird rammed into the ceiling one final time and then plummeted downward in a daze.

Crouched low on the sandy ground was the black-maned lion. Its eyes were also locked on the falling bird. With a new target in sight, the beast leaped higher than ever before. And though it missed the bird, it did manage to chomp through the tightrope.


Shrill screams erupted as the lion landed on the sandy ground. Fingers pointed toward the dazed girl who was now lying between the two beasts. The lions seemed puzzled at the girl’s presence, yet it was only when the four tumblers leaped into the ring of fire that the beasts became angry.

The tumblers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, shouting as they whirled their torches with dizzying speed, thrusting them forward in a threatening manner. But the lions stood their ground. No matter how close the men came, the beasts refused to back away from the girl. They paced in front of her, roaring at the approach- ing men.


The tumblers were now so close to the lions that they could have touched the beasts with their firebrands. Yet the lions swiped at the torches, refusing to move. As the men took yet another step forward, both lions let out a defiant roar, then turned and took three running steps toward the now unguarded ring of fire … and jumped.


The crowd surged into motion, people screaming and running wildly in every direction. The lions’ roars were like thunder as they bounded into the mass of men, women, and children, nipping and swiping at anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way.


Jack was terrified. His mother grabbed his hand, as well as Parker’s, and began running toward the exit. Even without the lions, though, the run was perilous. The crowd had become fran- tic. Everyone sprinted blindly with no regard for those around them. It was chaos.


Jack’s mother skidded to a stop, knelt, and pulled both boys close. As the panicked crowd sprinted past, Jack could see where she was looking. On the far side of the tent, a young girl sat on the sandy ground, screaming. A short distance away, the golden lion stalked slowly toward the girl.

Jack’s mother placed Parker’s hand over his. “Parker,” she shouted, “take your brother and get him out of here. I need to go help that girl.” As the crowd rushed past, bumping and jostling them without care, Jack’s mother bent and kissed each of them on the forehead. “Make your way to the wagon, and I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” Without another word, she gently shoved them in the direction of the exit, then turned and ran back for the girl.

Jack was panicked. Parker dragged him a few steps toward the exit, but Jack escaped his brother’s grasp and ran backward, desperate to find his mother in the crowd. What is she doing? he wondered. She’s going to be eaten by the lion!


Parker caught up to Jack and tugged his arm, shouting, “We have to keep running!” Jack hadn’t realized he’d stopped. Whenhe turned to continue his run, the fabric walls of the circus tent burst into flames. Someone must have knocked over one of the lampstands, he realized. Both boys shared a fearful look as the fire spread quicker than Jack could have imagined. They bolted for- ward again as the flames shot toward the ceiling and thick smoke filled the air.


Jack struggled to keep his feet as Parker was knocked to his knees only to get up again and continue running. Jack looked over his shoulder one last time in hopes of finding his mother, but she was lost amid the smoke and hysteria. As he turned back, he collided headfirst with someone’s elbow. Bouncing backward, Jack landed flat on his back on the sandy ground.


For a moment, everything went dark. Then, as his vision returned, he felt disoriented. He stared at the ceiling in a daze. It was positively beautiful. Bright flames danced far above as bits of fire and ash fell all around. He lay on his back watching in wonder, the flaming walls and ceiling seemingly spinning around him.


“Jack!” Someone’s scream interrupted his cloudy thoughts. “You put me down! Jack! Can you hear me?” the voice screamed again.


Why are the walls on fire? And why does my head hurt? Jack’s mind felt sluggish.

“Jack! Get up! I’m telling you, put me down!” The same voice shouted again, yet this time it sounded farther away.


I recognize that voice. That’s Parker! As he sat up to look for his brother, tears leaked from his eyes. The air was filled with billow- ing smoke that was growing thicker by the second.


“You let me go! That’s my brother in there! Let me go!”


Jack finally saw him; Parker was in the arms of a large man who was carrying him away like a sack of grain. His brother hit the man with his fists and continued yelling to Jack.


“Get up, Jack! It’s coming! You have to get up! The lion is coming!”


Before Parker could say more, the man had carried him out of the tent.


As fire exploded along the cloth walls, Jack remembered where he was. And with the memory came a paralyzing fear.