A Flare of Dragons

 

Prologue

 

The moon was clear and almost full in the sky, casting eerie shadows on the yard outside a small, respectable-looking house.

Something dropped to the ground with a muffled thump, half-hidden in the shadows. The silver veil of the moon seemed to shiver slightly as a boy climbed out of the window after his possessions and landed on the thick grass. He groped for his bag and hoisted it over his shoulder with a grunt, staggering under the weight.

The boy was not quite dressed like a peasant, but neither did he resemble a highborn child. He was young - about ten years old - and his hair was a particularly vibrant red color. Even with just the pale glow from the moon, it was easy to see an ugly purplish bruise that circled his right eye and almost forced it shut. Under the sleeves of his shirt were dark, finger-shaped bruises - marks of rough handling.

The boy's face was set in an expression of solemn determination as he looked back at his house. The flickering of a lamp could be seen through the open window, and from deeper inside, the sharp raised voices.

Never again…

With that last glance, he turned his back on the house and walked away.

The traveling case was heavy enough to keep the boy shifting it around as he walked - though a lot of that nervous movement was caused by tension. He was sneaking off - no, he was running away. There were too many things that could go wrong with this simple plan, but it was the only option left. It didn't matter if it was too dark or that he wouldn't be able to see where he was going outside the city. The people he'd been living with might come after him.

He had to get away.

Standing in his path was the part of the city he had to pass through to get to the eastern gate - a section that was not the safest place to venture into late at night. But he had to attempt it, because the eastern gate was the only one he could slip through without having to face any guards.

Perhaps… they won't notice me. He glanced uneasily at the increasingly shabby houses that lined the streets. Most of them loomed up like dark sleeping ghosts, looking out over him with dull indifference to whatever plight caused him to flee the city.

Whatever happens, it's an alternative to going back, the boy reminded himself, trying to calm his nerves. There's no way I can live here any longer. Staying meant more beatings - more confinement and restrictions. More refusal to allow him training for his latent magical talent. More driving him into independent study, as much in a desperate attempt to escape the atmosphere in the house as to teach himself control of his powers.

He wouldn't stay. He couldn't stay.

For the next half hour he made slow careful progress down one street, switching and doubling back occasionally. He didn’t want to be followed, and although he knew nothing about the streets and the people that lived there—he prayed that he was making unnoticed progress.

He paused in the shadows of a dirty and rancid-smelling intersection, trying to keep his feet out of the putrid water that had spilled over the clogged drainways. He jounced his bag on his shoulder, his arm more than numb. All of his possessions were in the bag—and an hour ago he would have never believed that such a small amount could weigh so much!

He sighed, peering around the corner as the drunken laughter of several men carried over the street, and the almost-booming sound of music from the brothel two houses over. The men, he noticed, were welcomed into the brightly-lit interior with smiles and squeals of delight.

Welcome for as long as they don't run out of gold, anyway…

When the door closed, he darted across the street and slipped down an alleyway. He hoped he wouldn’t step in anything, hoped he wouldn’t run into anything either—the moon was falling at the wrong angle to provide light.

One of his hands slid up almost instinctively to brush against the wall as he walked - the other he held out in front of him. At least he wouldn't smash into anything face first…

Something grabbed the outstretched forearm in a harsh grip, jerking him off balance. "Oi… what'd we got here?"

He let out a startled cry - and clamped his mouth shut. Noise wouldn’t make things better - not around here. This can't be good…

The attacker roughly tugged him closer. Something smelled rank - overpowering even the scent of stale beer and waste in the streets. The hand that held his arm so tightly was large and powerful - and its owner seemed to match the hand perfectly. He could make out a faint outline of a much taller boy leering down at him.

"Some kinda rich boy!" another voice jeered, and there were harsh, answering laughs.

More than one… The night had definitely taken a turn for the worse. Thin prickles of fear were starting to intrude on his thoughts like cold shivers down his spine.

"Out past his bedtime!"

"And no mommy to hold his hand!"

More harsh laughter followed that.

"Hey! What's in the bag?"

"Let's get us a look!"

He gasped involuntarily as hands began to tug at the strap of the traveling case, and clenched his fingers tight. No…my things…He kicked out, more from instinct than the desire to harm, and wiggled violently. His breath was harsh in his throat, his heart thundering in his ears. It blocked the caws of laughter.

"Come on, bring him over to the fire!" the first said with an obscene laugh. Hands squeezed on his arms as one of the other boys caught his legs, despite how much he struggled noiselessly.

There's too many… even if I got free it wouldn't do anything…

As they carried him further into the alley, a third grabbed at his bag. He couldn’t stop them this time, and made a faint noise of distress. It must have occurred to the three that he might start making noise, then, for a large and dirty hand fastened over his mouth. He gagged once, trying to breathe without choking, and fought the urge to bite.

The one with his bag cackled and swung it gleefully—he could hear his belongings tumbling around, the crack of glass as something shattered.

He glared in the darkness, chest tight with the repressed urge to cry, to scream, and discovered the small bit of rationale left.

There wasn’t anything else to do but wait and see what happened.

He hated feeling helpless…

"What's in it?" The faces of his adversaries were clear now, highlighted by the light from the fire. They looked like nightmare images - ugly, leering faces, gawking and sneering at him. Not a few were greedily eyeing the bag their packmate carried.

"Let's see." The one holding the bag tore open at the top and turned it over, dumping all of his belongings out onto the ground. A few more of his delicate glass chemical bottles shattered, and his books made loud thumping noises as they scattered on the cobblestones - only slightly muffled by the clothing that came with them.

The treatment of his possessions stirred outrage at the back of his throat. That's everything I own! He had to swallow hard to squash the feeling, trying not to meet the gazes around him.

The bag was thrown to the ground. "Nothing," the one who'd been picking through the heap said, kicking the pile of books in disgust. "Kid doesn't even have any copper!"

There were loud expressions of discontent from around the fire. Another shot of almost-panic swept him up as the one holding him gave him a shake. "He's holding out on us!" the guy announced loudly. "Let's rough him up and give him a search!"

The response to this suggestion was one of loud approval.

"Give him something to squirm about!"

"Make him tell you where his money's at!"

"Shake him down!"

"Loosen him up!"

All at once the boy holding onto him shoved him forward, hands grabbing and tugging him forward. There seemed to be a million hands pawing at him as he stumbled, pushing at the offending limbs and squeaked when rough jagged nails scored along his wrists. His arms were twisted behind his back, painfully tight when he struggled, but there was nowhere to move. Fingers reached in under his sleeves, tugging at his belt, searching for the coins that he wasn't carrying. Panic was slowly starting to settle in…

Somebody… anybody… help me!

Leering orange-colored faces peered at him, mouths with discolored teeth laughing at him. Scars and grime-crusted skin, grabbing ruthless hands.

He felt sick, panting hoarsely, and bared his teeth desperately. Oh please… oh please don’t…

By this time most of the pack was gathered around his struggling form, laughing and reaching out to grab at him mockingly.

"Oh, poor baby—"

Someone kicked his knees when they didn’t discover anything of value, and a fist cuffed him alongside the head. He bit his tongue to keep his silence, glaring through the haze of tears at the dirty trousers and scabbed knees and bare stomping feet as they danced around him.

There was a motion off to the side, as he turned his head.

A boy, dirty and staring with wide fearful eyes in their direction, was crouched in the shadows of the alley near the gutted house. He was just out of range of the firelight, but the glow on his skin and eyes marked him clearly.

Is he one of them? he wondered as one of the thugs growled out a question.

"So now what're you good for, huh?"

The boy in the shadows crept forward, towards a space set under the jagged and broken stairs, reached out with thin and grimy arms. He was young, younger than he had thought, and as he watched, the boy groped, and started to pull something from the under the stairs.

"Hey! What's that kid doing?"

The attention seemed to shift from him then. He barely had time to see the boy pull back with a heavy-looking purse in one dirty little fist… But it was time enough to see a taller figure emerge from the shadows behind the would-be thief - and then the gang swarmed up around them, and the yelp of surprise from the kid was lost in the outraged shouts of the gang. A few angry yells came through above the noise.

"That's ours, you little rat!"

"Yeah, don't you know what happens to stupid little thieves?"

"Cut off his hands!"

"Gut the little bastard!"

Acting on his first instinct, he took advantage of the fact that the group's attention had shifted from him and scrambled around for his books, pulling them up from the ground hastily and trying to stuff them back into the bag in time to make a get-away. I have to get out of here… I can't wait for them to remember me…

But then he looked up, and his hands slowed.

The older boys had formed a circle, and through the cracks between them, he could see the kid being shoved around. The boy was struggling, a fierce, frightened glare on his face, lashing out at his captors with a wild energy that seemed only to earn him rougher treatment. He was so thin… probably starving… Stealing from that gang had to be an act of desperation.

I… I shouldn't…

He shouldn't help. Logically, he knew it wouldn't do any good - not for the kid, and not for himself. But he wanted to… he wanted to do something

But the next moment he knew he couldn’t do anything.

"Let's see the rat squeak!"

One of them pulled a blade out, the metal gleaming red in the firelight, and slashed. It left a line of blood across the boy’s arm, and he screamed in a shrill frightened voice.

"Don’t! Don’t—I don’t want to!" the child screamed as another kicked him forward. The largest of the thugs—the one that had initially grabbed him from the alley—reached down with a paw of a hand and yanked at the jangling bag of money.

"Got his grubby finger spots all over it!"

The kid cried out as it was yanked from his grasp, then screamed again, ducking, as the tip of the boy’s dagger sliced his cheek.

"Dirt everywhere - that's rats for you!"

"Got rat blood all over my blade!"

Farther away the runaway sat clutching one of his thick books, frozen and cold with the display of cruelty. I can’t help him…I can’t do anything for him! He felt sick, hated the sense that all he wanted to do was grab his things and run while he could, and hated the feeling of watching some defenseless kid get his throat cut out of desperation.

Stop them! he told himself. Stop them! You should try!

"Get over here, rat!"

The little thief sniffled, yanked upright by the thin ragged shirt—he watched it tear in several places as the burly thug shook him roughly. His face was pale, and he was whispering something. The surrounding pack merely jeered and laughed, dancing in to jab mercilessly at the thin arms and legs, pricking him until multiple spots of blood began to trail down his skin.

"Look at him wiggle!"

"He's squeaking! Hear it?"

…stop them…he thought weakly. But he couldn’t. His knuckles when white on the book, the leather denting under his fingers, and he bit the inside of his mouth to stop from yelling. To save himself and stay unnoticed.

The big thug, the one still dangling the kid by his clothing, laughed. "Let's see if rats bleed to death like people!" He drew a knife, jagged and rust-stained. It looked painful. He brought it up slowly, showing it off as the kid whimpered, his head jerking back from a cruelly tangled fist in his dark hair.

The blade pressed against his throat, the thug laughing again.

The boy gasped once as the blade pressed tighter, blood seeping forth.

Gasped twice when the surrounding pack roared in a frenzy of bloodlust.

Gasped thrice—and the air flashed into an explosion of sound.

Everything seemed to slow down at that point. The gang was still shaking the kid, laughing and taunting him - they didn't even seem to notice the noise… or the way the energy was gathering… So much energy… the air could explode…

But only the runaway could see it… because only he could use -

Magic!

The kid's eyes were rolled back in his head, as if he'd passed out from fear. The big guy was holding the knife, grinning around at his companions, moving slow like the air had become as thick as water. And the energy kept getting pulled in… all around the kid…

Get down!

And he dove forward, abandoning his books, covering the back of his head with his hands and trying to roll away before it hit.

That was when the light came bursting out of the kid - like a giant mushroom top, expanding as it spread out from him, engulfing the gang in a pure, white, firy light. The edges of it slid along the ground, power sizzling with it, almost reaching the frightened runaway.

And then it fizzled out.

After a few tense moments, he shakily pulled his arms back. There was silence all around him - only the weak crackling of the dying fire broke it. There were no more jeers - no shouts, no laughter.

Just silence.

He raised his head slowly, and looked around.

The gang members were strewn about on the ground, some at odd angles, some slumped face-down in the mud. From where he was sitting, only a few of the faces were visible, but the expressions were grotesque - ugly masks of shock and horror, the eyes wide and unseeing.

Not ever seeing again.

Oh… gods…

And at the center of it all, the boy thief knelt on the ground, his hands pressed against the mucky stones, face turned down, trembling all over with fear and shock.

He did this? The runaway exhaled a low murmur of wordless shock. How? How did he - ?

What if he does the same to you? a part of him whispered fearfully. Pick up your stuff and get out of here! The sensation of panic surged through him, as he scrabbled in the dirt for his things and stuffing them hastily into his mangled bag. It didn’t matter that his clothing was somewhat stained from his chemicals, that the scent of sulfur would reek for days. His books, he noticed, were still in good condition as he pushed them inside one by one. His breath came in rapid shallow bursts, and his body ached where fingers had bruised him.

It didn’t matter—he had to get out of there, away from the bodies and the dangerous magic.

A whimper of suppressed sound caught his attention in the silence. Against his screaming judgement, he glanced up.

The boy was still sitting there, crouching on skinny legs. His hands were pressed to his mouth, and the eyes were wide and streaming tears. He looked scared. The older boy watched, still unnoticed by the child as he stuffed the last tome into his bag, and wondered what the hell he was thinking.

The boy was absolutely terrified, small and rocking on his feet as he tried not to cry.

No, no, don’t you dare think about it! He can’t come with you!

The runaway bit his lip. But he’s so young…and I think…

I think he couldn’t help it.

You don’t have time for this! another thought crossed his mind. You have to get out of here! What if there are more of them?

He slung the bag onto his back, eyeing the small huddling boy.

A moment later, unconsciously making the decision, he crossed the distance and stepped gingerly between bodies to reach the boy’s side. He paused far enough away to remain unthreatening, and tried hard not to look at the bodies.

"Hey," he whispered. "Are you okay?"

The boy squeaked and jumped backwards before he managed to glance at the runaway, thin wiry body tense. He didn’t speak, only regarded him with wide dark eyes.

The redhead shifted impatiently. "Well? Are you able to walk?"

The kid just stared at him, apparently not over his shock. He was still shaking all over, and he didn't speak.

This was clearly going to take some time. "Here." The older boy offered a hand, smiling a little to put him at ease. "We should leave soon. It wouldn't be very good if someone were to find us here." He crouched down, still holding out his hand. "You can come with me."

The boy blinked, surprised enough by the offer that he seemed to forget his fear for the moment. "... with... you...?"

"That's right." He reached out a little further, and the boy hesitantly allowed himself to be helped to his feet. "We can run away together," the redhead offered, sliding his bag over his shoulder again before resting what he hoped was a friendly hand on the boy's shoulder. "It's the appropriate thing to do, don’t you think?"

The younger boy stared at him for another moment, reaching up and wiping the tears from his face with the back of his hand. "Okay," he whispered, and offered a faint, pale imitation of a smile.

The runaway smiled back. And let's hope we can discover how to control this ability of yours, he thought, privately.

Before it does some real damage.

 

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