Raith’s ratty sneakers hit the pavement in time to his racing heartbeat. The scream sounded again. He pushed himself faster. His lungs cried for oxygen; when he breathed in, the sour odor of decaying garbage and urine filled his nose. A sharp pain stabbed his side, but he ignored it and turned down the next alley. Shadows danced in every corner. The moon never reached this deep into Aura City.
Raith rounded the corner and skidded to a stop so quickly he nearly tripped over his feet.
Five men stood in a circle around a young woman huddled on the ground. From the dim light overhead, Raith could see the way her shoulders shook with sobs. The men leered at her, their intentions clear. Raith’s jaw clenched. The odds were stacked way against him. He had been in a few fights in his life, but never five to one. Despite his better judgement, his hands closed into fists and he stalked forward.
“Let her go.”
The men turned as one. The grin that crossed the face of the closest man sent tingles of warning down Raith’s spine.
“Why should we?” the man asked. He casually lifted the bat he held.
“Let me guess,” another put in with a chuckle, “because you said so?” He flexed his fingers, showing off a pair of brass knuckles.
The scuff of a shoe behind Raith made his heart plummet. He glanced behind him to see two others step out of the darkness. Fear caused the little hairs to rise on the back of his neck. He knew he had just made the mistake of his life.
He had two choices, cower and beg, or die fighting. The expressions on the faces around him hinted that they were not the merciful types. Besides, a sliver of pride was all he had left; he figured he might as well go down with that intact.
Raith took a calming breath and lifted his fists. The sharp crack of the bat against his arm and then his head rattled clear through him. Brass knuckles to the stomach dropped him to the ground gasping for air. He managed to cover his head with his arms as blows rained down on him. The toe of a boot caught him in the ribs and then the stomach. Blood rose in his mouth.
“Why do these hero types always fall for it?” a voice scoffed above him.
“When will they figure out there’s no one left worth saving?” the woman replied.
Out of the corner of his eye, Raith saw her stoop and pull his wallet from his pocket.
“Seriously?” she said in utter disgust. “All this for fourteen lousy dollars?”
The thump of the wallet hitting his back was followed by more blows. Raith felt them in a detached way. His body shook, pain blanketed him in one solid sheet, and black spots filled his vision.
Faces from memories he didn’t want to visit surfaced in his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut tight. Tears escaped to trail down his cheeks. When a final kick struck his head and the darkness took over completely, his last thought was of gratitude that at least he wouldn’t have to see the faces ever again.
The first fluff found him a few hours later. Excited squeaks summoned other fluffs until hundreds of the white floating creatures hovered inches above Raith’s bleeding body.
A man and a woman rounded the same corner Raith had traveled. They stopped short at the sight.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the man grumbled.
“Look how many there are,” the woman said. “Have you ever seen so many of them together?”
“No,” the man admitted. “But he’s older than most.”
“The fluffs have never been wrong.”
The man sighed. “I hate it when you’re right.”
The woman ignored his comment and walked forward. He caught up to her in two long strides, then matched her pace.
Creatures padded at their sides. The boar on the man’s right ruffled its wings, disgruntled to be out so late.
“I know,” the man said aloud. “I’d rather be in bed, too.”
The long-legged cheetah that paced beside the woman sneezed. She ran a hand wordlessly down its back. Tiny flames danced along the animal’s fur and around her fingers without burning her.
Both of their steps slowed when they drew near Raith. The fluffs rose into the air with small puffs as if reluctant to leave him there. Even when the woman knelt next to the body, they lingered above him instead of leaving as they usually did.
“Bex, he’s bad,” she said quietly.
He grunted. “Bad as in I’m going to get blood on my shoes? You know I hate getting blood on my shoes, Zury.”
“Bad as in he might die before we get back to the academy,” she replied.
Bex lowered to his knees as well. He ran his hands over the man’s body, checking his wounds with solemn efficiency.
“I need to get the bleeding stopped. What did they stab him with?”
He eased Raith onto his stomach and lifted up the back of his shirt. Both of them stared at the sight of the strange, twisted skin across his back.
“Are those burns?” Zury asked.
“Yes, but they’re the least of our problems,” Bex said gruffly. He eased the shirt past Raith’s side. His expression became grim at the sight of pliers protruding from Raith’s flesh. “Who stabs someone with pliers?” he muttered.
Zury pulled bandages from her backpack and handed them to Bex. He packed gauze around the pliers and wrapped the wound securely. When he stood, his hands were coated in Raith’s blood.
Zury’s mouth fell open. “Are you sure?”
Bex nodded without meeting her gaze. “If we want him to have a chance of surviving, yes.”
Raith felt himself be lifted into the air. A groan of protest escaped him.
“Let me die,” he said weakly.
Bex and Zury exchanged a glance. Neither said a word as Raith was loaded into the waiting vehicle and taken away.
Flashes of light filled Raith’s vision. He lost all sense of where he was or who was with him. Pain flared from every part of his body. He wanted to yell, to hit something, or to escape, but any movement brought agony.
When it finally became too much to bear, a plea left his lips. “Help me.”
A soft, cool hand slipped into his own. “I’m trying,” a woman’s voice replied. “I know it hurts, but you have to hold on.”
He shook his head and felt tears burn beneath his closed eyelids.
“Yes,” she replied, her voice gentle. “You’re needed here.”
She pressed something to his chest. His protests died away as sleep overtook his weary mind.
He caught a glimpse of her through his fever-bright dreams. A pair of searching blue eyes watched him with sadness in their depths. White-blonde hair framed her face. He thought she was an angel sent to take him away from the world until she put her hands on his side and agony shot through him.
“Stop,” he begged.
“If I do, you’ll die,” she replied. “Breathe. Just breathe.”
But he couldn’t suck in a breath. Tremors began to wrack his body. The woman tried to hold him down, but his lungs burned and he fought to draw in the air that danced tantalizingly beyond his nostrils.
The woman called out. Other hands held him to the table. The darkness that flashed in front of his eyes deepened. Pain knifed through his lungs. His body gave one last jolt and he left consciousness behind.
Surprise filled him when he opened his eyes again to a dark room lit by the faint glow of unknown light sources. He turned his head to the side and his heart slowed.
The young woman had pulled a chair up to the bed where he lay. Her arm was outstretched and her head lay pillowed against it. Exhaustion showed in the shadows beneath her closed eyes. His heart clenched at the thought that he had caused it.
A strand of white-blonde hair drifted across her cheek. He had the strangest impulse to brush it back so it didn’t tickle her and awaken her, but when he tried to lift his arm, it wouldn’t move. He glanced down to find that his arms were tied to the small medical bed.
“You were thrashing so hard I was afraid you’d reopen your wounds.”
Raith turned his head to meet light blue eyes. Any sign of weariness was gone from her face as she smiled down at him. “Welcome back, sleepy head.”
A little creature that looked like a white mouse but had shiny scales instead of fur sat on her shoulder and peered down at him as well. Raith wondered if he was hallucinating.
He tried to reply, but no words came out of his dry throat.
She grabbed a cup from a tray and held a straw to his lips. Raith took several deep gulps before she pulled it away.
“Easy now,” she told him. “Let that sit for a minute. Your stomach’s been empty for quite a while.”
Raith swallowed and managed to force out, “Where?”
Her eyes crinkled at the corners with a smile that brought more reassurance than words ever could. “You’re at Bellington Academy. It’s our sanctuary.”
That word brought the whisper of a memory to Raith’s mind. He saw two forms crouched over him in the darkness. Someone was wrapping his side. He winced and real pain knifed through him from the wound sharp enough to jolt him back to the present. Raith tried to put a hand to his side to ease the pain, but the ties kept him from moving.
“I suppose you’re out of harm’s way now that your fever’s broken,” the woman said. “Let me—” Her gaze shifted to something behind him and she paused. “Now Trekker, put that down.” She rose, her face pale. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
She walked past the bed. Raith craned his neck, but he couldn’t see what was happening.
“Ambry, don’t come in here!” a voice growled.
“Trekker, don’t do—Trekker!”
The sound panic in her voice sent a surge of adrenaline through Raith. He strained against the bonds that tied him down. A scuffle sounded behind him and he heard a feminine gasp of pain.
Raith pulled so hard the tie around his right arm snapped. He tore the one from the left arm and rolled off the bed. He hit the ground with a hard thud. A tearing sensation twisted from his side through his entire body; it stole his breath and made him immediately nauseous.
The fear in Ambry’s voice brought Raith to his knees. He put a hand to his bandaged side and used the bed to push himself to his feet. Leaning heavily on the bed and then the table beyond, he was able to make it to the adjoining room. The sight that met his eyes made him pause.
A young man a few years Raith’s junior held his hands in the air. Bandages wrapped one arm and the side of his face, but didn’t obscure the strange, white glaze in his eyes. His head was tilted to one side and he stared at the ceiling above him without appearing to focus on anything. A bird flew overhead and cawed at him. Electricity ran over the black bird’s wings in waves of blue and green.
Raith tore his eyes from the bird’s frantic flight and spotted the woman, Ambry, huddled on the floor. Her head was bowed and her arms were wrapped around her knees. A whirlwind of air whipped around her. Items from the surgical room, scalpels, needles, gauze, scissors, and other instruments of healing flew through the air as if caught in a whirlwind. Several nicks bled on her arms and one cheek where they had cut her.
Rage burned through Raith and filled him with strength. He charged into the room and tackled Trekker to the floor. The whirlwind didn’t let up. Raith heard a gasp of pain as another blade struck Ambry. He put his hands to the young man’s throat.
“Stop the wind!” he shouted.
He didn’t know how Trekker was doing it, but there was no doubt in his mind the young man was responsible for whatever was going on. He squeezed harder.
Trekker’s eyes widened, then focused on him.
“Stop what you’re doing!” Raith yelled.
Trekker glanced to the right. His gaze fell on Ambry and his face paled. He whispered something and the wind stopped. The items caught in the cyclone fell to the floor in a clatter.
Footsteps sounded behind Raith.
“I-I’m alright, I think,” her shaky voice replied.
Wheezing sounded and Raith realized he was still holding the young man’s throat. He let go and rocked back onto his heels. Trekker sucked in a deep breath.
Hands grabbed Raith roughly from behind and yanked him upright. He clenched his jaw at the pain.
“What are you doing out of bed?” someone demanded.
“He saved me,” Ambry said. Her eyes were filled with tears she didn’t let spill over. A drop of blood trickled from the cut across her cheek.
The hands let Raith go. His legs gave out and he fell to the ground. No longer clouded by adrenaline, the pain in his side was so intense he couldn’t do more than hold his wound and will himself to keep breathing. Wetness touched his fingers. He pulled them away and stared at the deep red that colored his fingertips.
“Carry him back to the bed,” Ambry said, her voice stronger. “He’s torn his stitches and there’s no telling what else.”
The hands that picked Raith up were gentler this time.
“I-I almost killed Ambry,” Trekker said, his voice shaking.
Raith tried to keep his thoughts straight as he was carried out of the room.
“He left a trail of blood,” someone said.
Raith blinked and attempted to focus on their faces. He didn’t recognize either of them. A dark chuckle escaped him at the fact that he was in an unknown place surrounded by strangers while he bled out. The symbolism for his life was unmatched.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s cursed, too. We never should have brought him here.”
He winced as he was set on the bed and curled inward around the wound in his side. It throbbed with an intensity that made his arms and legs go numb with icy shards.
“Ambry, he needs you if you can help,” a woman’s voice called out.
Soft hands touched his arm. “I need you to relax so I can tend to you.”
“Just let me go,” Raith said with a groan.
Silence fell across the room.
A hand touched his cheek. He opened his eyes in surprise at the gentle gesture.
Ambry’s gaze held his with a warmth and understanding that made his heart clench. “You can give up on this life, but it has to be your choice.” She blinked and one of the tears she had fought so hard to hold back escaped to trail down her cheek. “But if it matters at all, I want you to live.”
Raith’s breath caught. He couldn’t take his eyes away from her tear. The physical pain and emotional agony that battled inside of him screamed for him to let it all go, to stop fighting, and to fade away. He would be forgotten completely. It would be so easy.
Yet no one had ever cried for him.
He let out a breath and surrendered to her touch.