What Have I Done?
At first, there was nothing but the pain. The pain was a white-hot ball of fire behind his eyes, and everything else was dull and gray by comparison. Except, there was red, too. Ben had read about people getting a red haze in front of their vision when they got mad. He wasn't mad, though. He blinked, and his eyes felt sticky. It dawned on him that the red haze was blood. His blood.
His ears were ringing. Nothing had ever hit him that hard in his life. He wasn't really sure what had happened. It would never have occurred to him that someone had attacked him. Ben's idea of violence mostly came from TV, so when somebody hit you from behind, they clonked you over the back of the head and you were unconscious before you hit the ground.
In real life, the crowbar had fetched up against the side of his face, its chipped wedge ripping the skin from his chin to his cheek. Panic drove spurts of blood into the air, his little heart pumping as hard as it could. Fear gripped his senses, and began to drive him down. Everything began to go dark.
Oh no... NO! Ben's thoughts screamed, but all that came out of him was a gasp. It can't happen again... he wanted to beg, but his body wouldn't obey him. It had already fallen to one knee. He could feel his muscles tightening, coiling like a snake getting ready to strike. ...please... he begged weakly. His head fell forward, and his eyes shut on their own. Terror closed over him, and drove him from his senses. The world went black.
Ben's left elbow whipped back, catching his attacker in the diaphragm. His body jerked up with the motion, carrying all its force into the hit. Ben's right hand whipped around, striking the man's throat. Ben's wrist flicked, his fingers twisted deftly-- the man's trachea answered with a wet crunch.
"Qalitz," Ben spat, and whipped his hand away. The man collapsed into a filthy pile at the child's feet.
Ben's body hung in the air by its shoulders, as though some unseen force was trying to lift him to his feet. He swayed, his knees buckling. There was a darkness swirling, thick in the air, that distorted everything around the boy. It curled around him like smoke. Where they touched him, those tendrils of black burst into blue-white flame.
The boy's eyes rolled up into his head, the barest rim of green still showing in blank white orbs. The color drained from his face, and his cuts stopped bleeding abruptly.
Ben's mouth opened, and a hiss seemed to form in the world around him, sizzling through the smoky distortion that surrounded the child. The sound did not form words so much as it burned words into air, in silky tones that wound around each other and licked against the derelict's fading mind.
"That's a baaad monkey," the boy mused. "No." He stopped, his pallid lips turning up in a half-smirk. "Even animals know better than to attack their own young. How miserably human." The words struck a chord in the man, touched a nerve that made the derelict try to moan.
The man was little more than a pile of charity clothes and matted hair, now. His flesh was sunken, and coated in a thick layer of filth. His yellowed eyes were screwed shut in pain. Nothing could shut out those unearthly words. He couldn't move, couldn't even speak.
"Now, what shall I do with you?" The boy lurched around the man's prone body, head cocked as if examining the man despite his empty eyes. "I can't decide whether you disgust or amuse me." His head rolled to the other side. "Though to be honest, it changes your fate but a little."
The man tried to speak again. Blood bubbled from the corners of his mouth, but he could make no sound. The darkness surrounding the boy was so palpable. He could feel it swallowing his entire world. He could feel his heart pounding, but even that was muffled and far away. Panic iced over his thoughts, chilled him to the bone. He felt as though he'd already died, and his Hell had just begun.
"Oh, don't be so dramatic," the boy chided him. "Your neck isn't broken, just your trachea. It'll actually take you quite some time to die. You're just immobilized by the pain." The boy stopped behind the man's head. The derelict struggled to move his head, but the pain of his swollen throat kept him still. All he could do was listen. He felt like he was falling into every poisoned syllable, sinking further and further away from the world.
"Frail bodies." The boy let those words slide into the air, then let silence fall-- a choking, unbearable silence that begged to be filled. "I know," the silken tendrils filled it again, "Beg me for your life. For a life that's harder to end."
The bubbles were smaller and fewer, and there was less blood coming out of the derelict's mouth now. Beg? He couldn't breathe. His neck felt like it was thicker than his chest, and every breath was tinier than the last. Everything in him burned for air, like every cell was on fire and screaming. But he could not beg. He couldn't even talk.
"You don't have to talk," the boy answered impatiently. "Try it. Who knows?" The sound trembled, a quiver of something-- amusement? Something darker. Something the man couldn't identify. Something that struck an even deeper chord in him-- reverberating desperate, primal terror. "It might even work out for you."
But on the other side of that darkness lay something even more horrible. Death. Oblivion. Worse than damnation, worse than judgement-- a feeling of nothingness that closed over his heart and slowed it beat by beat. Deep down he had long since given up on his soul. Was he even human enough to have one, anymore? He wasn't sure, and he didn't want to find out. Everything left in him focused into a white-hot yearning to escape, to be saved from that nothingness. He would take anything over the prospect of nothing.
"Yes," the boy hissed, a sultry note of pleasure threading itself through tones of contempt. "I thought as much." He walked around the man's head, and lifted his right hand. He pressed the palm towards the derelict, and the world itself began to whisper. The blue-white glow around the child grew brighter, and each whisper fed into that glow. Sounds began to form in the light, and each solidified into a dark curl on the child's palm.
Symbols began to burn themselves into the boy's flesh, as though the child's hand were being branded. One by one they pulled themselves together. In the fog swilling through his mind, the derelict saw names in these lines, but couldn't understand them. Whatever they were, they filled him with a strange kind of warmth. As soon as his attention flicked towards one, another pulled it away.
He felt himself drawing closer and closer to the symbols, trying to see what was hiding in them. Closer and closer, until he couldn't feel the pain of his body any longer. Closer and closer, until the light went from warm to unbearable heat. Still, he longed to be closer.
"Vodh." So many voices, all singing the same word. He could hear it, he could feel it, he could almost taste it, and it sent shivers through him. "Adastz hai." Yes, something in him answered. Always. Always.
"You creatures are as predictable as you are contemptible," the voices whispered. Those were the only words the derelict had left, the only thoughts that mattered. They wound their way into him, and then he had nothing at all.
A foot landed squarely in Ben's chest. All the air went out of the boy, his body went limp as a rag doll's. A shock ran up his spine-- an automatic spasm of survival instinct that interrupted all else.
"FUCK'S SAKE!" The shout cut through the murk, yanking Ben back to his senses. Ice blue eyes sizzled through those coils of smoke, burning the darkness away with a light so bright Ben could hardly bear to look at it. Nathan's lanky frame was shaking, pallid fists clenched at his sides.
"This is exactly what I'm talking about!" Nathan jabbed an accusing finger at the boy. "Don't you get it? You're a danger to everything around you!" Nathan's voice grew softer, but at the same time, more compelling. "Now pick yourself up!" The command was impossible to ignore.
Ben struggled to sit up. His senses felt dull. His body had gotten so heavy, just the effort of keeping his eyes open felt like more than he could deal with.
"Thanks to that stunt," Nathan muttered, his eyes avoiding the mess at their feet, "we've probably drawn the attention of every harvester in this city." Dimly, Ben realized Nathan was breathing hard, fighting for air with every breath. There was some kind of pressure in the air, and it got more and more crushing with every second. "You'll be lucky if I get you out in less than fifty pieces." Nathan wiped his forehead, pushing strands of damp blonde hair out of his eyes.
"Oh my God..." Ben's voice came out as a dull croak. His throat hurt, and his nose was dripping. Absently, he wiped at it, and his hand came back bloody. "Look at him!"
But Ben couldn't, not really. He could barely focus his eyes. He didn't need to see the mess on the asphalt to know every detail of that horrible, mangled pile of tattered flesh and hollowed bone. "What have I done...?"
Nathan didn't answer. He grabbed Ben's wrist, and hauled the boy to his feet. Nathan was tall and slender. His long-legged stride was hard for Ben to follow. Even with Nathan running at a gentle, easy lope, Ben could barely keep pace. He couldn't pay attention to where they were going, or what had happened. The struggle to keep up was all he could manage.
That struggle was all too familiar to Ben. He was the youngest of three children-- he'd been running after his brother and sister all his life. They were built tall and slender like Nathan-- like Ben's father. Ben just never seemed to catch up to any of them. He was built small like his mother. People told him when he grew up, a growth spurt would solve everything, and then everything would change. Hard as he tried to grow up, nothing ever seemed to change.
Now nothing ever would.
"Yelling at me isn't the only way, you know!" Ben gasped, as he began to fall behind. "You're the one who knows what's going on!"
Nathan said nothing.
"You're the one who told me I couldn't possibly understand!" Ben yelled after him, "Why don't you tell me anything that could HELP me?"
Nathan swept past him, headed for the side of the road. As he passed, his eyes slid back to Ben. "Don't lock your knees," he said. He grabbed the rail with one hand. In one smooth motion he vaulted onto it, then let go. He kicked away from the railing. His coat flared out behind him-- a soft caramel-coloured expanse of fabric that, for a moment, seemed to float on the air. Ben froze, his blood stopped in his veins by memories of his nightmare. Nathan dropped out of sight, but Ben could still see spectral after-images of those wings.
Ben gulped past a hard lump of fear lodged in his throat. He clambered over the rail, holding onto it with both hands for as long as he could. They'd run to a low bridge, and it was a long way down into the canal below. The more he looked down at the dirt, the further away the dirt seemed to be. There were CAUTION signs all around him, and Ben was heeding them. He edged, at most an inch, away from the railing. There he stopped, biting his lip.
Nathan was already on his feet, dusting himself off. He let out a short, frustrated sigh, and crossed his arms. He watched Ben with silent disapproval, tapping his right elbow with the slender fingers of his left hand.
Ben edged over to where a little fringe of grass stuck out from the side of the bridge. He leaned over, trying to get a better look at the way down. Carefully, he tried to lean out over the drop. The grass slipped beneath his sneakers, and his feet went out from under him. Before he could react he was sliding feet-first down the side of the canal.
Ben tried to grab at the rocks, kicking and scrambling against the skid of slick clay. Just as he started to find some traction, the toe of his right sneaker slammed hard into the mud. Ben pitched forward. His other knee slammed into the canal wall, and instinctively he threw his arms out to catch himself. He collapsed into an ungainly pile at the base of the cliff, and lay there, face-down in the clay.
A tug on his shoulders, and he felt himself being hauled up. He swung a little as he slid forward, the fabric pulling across his chest and under his arms. Nathan had grabbed a handful of Ben's red turtleneck, and was dragging him down the canal. Ben just let himself be dragged. He didn't want to fight it. He didn't want to move.
"You would have cleared it, you know," Nathan said softly, as they crossed beneath another bridge. The sky was warming, and Ben could see a soft purple glow between his lashes. "It doesn't really help to cling like that."
"I know," Ben muttered, sullen. He opened his eyes slightly, and watched his hands drag along beneath him. Nathan was so strong. Never in Ben's life could he have carried somebody like this-- like he was picking up a puppy by the back of the neck or something.
"See, this is something no one has ever been able to explain to me--" Nathan mused, his tone gentler now. "Why jumping scares you monkeys more than falling."
Ben let his head drop. He had no answer to that. He had no answers to anything, anymore.