The boy sat like a sad king on a stack of broken cinder blocks. In the barrens it was as normal a sight as grey skies and wet streets. One building in a sea of many that had been destroyed by one disaster after another. The stack looked as if someone had attempted to organize the rubble at some point in the past; a project of cleanup long since abandoned. The boy stared down the street; dull eyes focused on a doorway halfway down the block while occasionally darting right and left furtively staying on guard. He was dirty, no less so than plenty of others but dirty all the same. At what one would guess was no older than 10 he had the hands of a machinist; every pore caked with black and his palms and fingers calloused. If he had earned those marks through a skilled trade rather than sheer survival in the barrens he may have a stronger chance of making it a few more years. As it was his skills brought no high price.
He rubbed at his chin, the fuzz already starting to grow only adding more to his disheveled and unkempt image. The curse of his height also came with a boon of early facial hair. He almost had a feeling of pride about the sproutings, but pride was such a foreign concept he couldn't have named the word. His stomach rumbled, but that noise wasn't new, and was likely to never abate altogether. He last ate two days back, but he chewed resolutely now on a piece of gum he'd seen some suit spit out earlier this morning. Flavorless and foul, having something close to food to chew on was more than he'd had on plenty of other mornings.
His right hand rubbed over a shape in his pocket, not obsessively, but for regular reassurance. Occasionally he'd press his fingers down on it to feel the edge of the homemade knife he was currently in possession of. He'd grabbed it a time back after some street trash killed some other street trash. They'd left it, all having graduated to real steel instead of chipped and jagged glass with a taped on grip. With that knife he was safer than he'd ever been before. He'd spent hours and hours now thrusting at imaginary foes in alleys and empty lots having seen to much death by this point to feel his play was anything less than preparation for the future. Still, it was about as much fun as a kid could have digging through dumpsters and hiding from scavengers.
His eyes came sharp back to the building of his focus as the door, tinted black from the inside and graffiti covered from the out, swung open. Five toughs came out: two norms, an ork, a fellow dwarf, and something he didn't quite recognize by meta that was lanky and covered in black fur. They were boys by society's standard, but as survivors turned teenagers, to the young dwarf they were all grown men. The ork was the odd man out; a fact readily apparent by his lack of "patch" adorned jacket. The other four all sported the same filthy denim jackets with the same design painted on the back: black and white skull with flames around it; the same symbol scratched and painted across the two square blocks the HellMasks called home turf.
Ash had seen the four before but felt a sudden sense of panic at the new orkish face. He'd heard talk that they were looking to bring in some fresh blood after a loss in ranks two weeks prior due to a drive by. He needed that spot. Even in the endless sprawl of the barrens he was running out of spots to hide, spots to scrounge, and his back had been against the wall for so long his skin was rubbing raw. He pushed off his concrete seat and started walking quickly toward the group. His short stride made his quick walk look more like a ridiculous scurry. The Masks took notice and gesturing his way wheezed out laughing mockery. His stomach turned over in fear and hate as he noticed the other dwarf laughing harder and meaner, his mirth never reaching his eyes. It was as if he hated the boy for reminding his mates at his own physical failings. Aah felt more alone than ever right at that second. Seeing a dwarf in the HellMasks is what made him think he might have a shot.
As Ash made the final few steps into their midst they spread out surrounding him in a horseshoe, the new face of the ork included in the ranks. Though tall and broad he looked well past malnourished and his sunken yellowed eyes looked back and forth at the gangers, taking his bullying cues from them.
"Whatcha want halfer? Lose your mommy?" Laughed taller of the two humans. He was dark skinned, tattoo's evident on his hands and neck, nose bearing signs of more than one previous break. He has a smoke of some kind tucked behind his ear and his greasy hair was shaved into a disgrace of a mohawk.
Ash looked him in the eye as steady as he could, sheer will keeping his gaze from darting in the fear he felt. "I, uh, I heard you needed new blood, and, uh, I, uh, wanted the spot."
The grouped started laughing, the ork included, though he looked annoyed at the statement. The dwarf stepped forward and gave Ash a shove forcing him to stumble back a step. The boy caught himself and stepped back again quickly as the dwarf growled, his own voice already turned to gravel from smokes and pollution, "why would we want a runt like you? Ya look like you barely stopped pissing your pants ya little drek ball. HellMasks is for men. Not little babies. Get home to yer whore of a mom, if ya even got one."
Over the renewed laughter the boy fought back tears of embarrassment and worked to force the words past his tightening throat. "I ain't no dreking baby." The laughter increased and the noise in his ears mixed with his own pain and hate and hurt deafened him to the rain of insults that started to pour out from the trash in front of him. He began to repeat himself over and over his shouts growing ever louder, voice cracking with age and rage "I'm not! I ain't no fuckin baby! I ain't! Frag you! Frag you! I'll kill you you drek eating asshole. You're the fuckin whore, you are! I'll kill you! Kill you damnit."
His rage and hurt and panic was so all consuming that he didn't even realize that he had thrown himself at his meta mate and was scratching and spitting, swinging at the older dwarf in apparent futility. As the older dwarf grabbed him up and tossed him roughly onto the sidewalk the other gang members were bent over with laughter mocking the useless attack. "Whoo boy Rat, that scrub wants your ass! Bwahaha, he must think he can scare himself a spot into the Masks. That what ya think kid? You gonna make us give you a jacket runt?"
Ash scrambled to his feet and dug out the homemade shiv, the glass gave off barely a sparkle through the dirt and grime. He lashed out at the empty air his eyes brimming and wild. The gangers reacted differently; the ork stepping back in panic though he managed to maintain his mocking grin; the hairy one (who maybe was an ork?) and the second human laughed even harder, shoving each other in shared glee; the dwarf whipped out a length of chain and gave it a twirling flick wrapping his fist in the links, his eyes going harder than before; and the first norm cocked his head and gave the boy a second look more appraising than before. He held up his hands "easy kid, easy. Everyone calm the fuck down. The runt here wants a shot. Last I checked there wadn't nothin good on the trid tonight, and technically Skinny here ain't been officially jumped in yet. Whaddaya say Skinny, you ready to defend yer spot?"
The ork looked shocked and looked at all the parties involved. "What? Are you kidding me? You gotta be fuckin wit me." He laughed nervously. "He's kiddin, right Rat? Right? Rat?"
With a challenge in the air the pack had turned serious. The dwarf called Rat looked like hate served cold as the bro he had sponsored was being called out. He had no choice but to side with Wraith, the gang's leader. "What bitch, you think the skull comes free? Naw. Every cut gets EARNED. You gotta beat some kid? That's the easiest in I ever seen. You ain't gonna make me regret throwing your name on the table are you?"
The ork straightened up and flexed his hands before clenching his fists. "Naw Rat. You ain't gonna regret shit. I'll beat down this runt so bad he'll wish he never woke up today. " He rolled his neck and squared his shoulders taking the fighting stance every punk is forced to learn eventually.
Ash tightened his grip, the edges of the glass sharp through the tape. As he fought down the bile and tried to calm his fear Wraith added "Beat down? Naw. This shows going the distance. This fight ends with one new body, and one new brother
The young dwarf seriously thought about running right then and there. As Skinny started toward him he became aware of the empty sidewalk behind him. He stepped back once. Twice. A third step and then the mocking voice of Rat slipped through his growing terror. "That's right you little bitch. Run. Show us what you really are. Run, so I can enjoy finding you later. You ain't HellMask material now, and you never will be." Those words hit his heart in the last place where innocence lay hidden. Rat was right. Ash was dead. Today or tomorrow, you couldn't avoid the fate that the barrens life seemed to doom its residents to. Running was the same as laying down. Same ending different time table. Staying. Fighting. At least then he had a chance. Eyeing the height and reach of the older boy it didn't feel like much of one, but it existed.
He stopped stepping back and started sidestepping, feeling in front of himself with the shiv, just keeping the tip moving. Skinny stepped forward giving the knife an eye, but seemingly paying it no respect. He lunged forward swinging his fists in a flailing hay maker,sloppy, but with far more power than Ash could ever muster. As the boy stumbled backwards he could feel the rush of air from the passing blow. His knife swung nowhere close to flesh in his panicked counter and the ork lunged again forced the dwarf to dodge. After his third such dodge Ash managed to catch his opponent in the arm, shearing open a nasty cut and forcing a pained garble from the ork. Ash had drawn first blood! Thrill coursed through his veins and his lips pulled back in a snarl.
The two stepped cautiously around each other for a few seconds while they reevaluated their opponents. The ork seemed to have gained a new sense of resolve; a seriousness that made his next works more chilling. "I was gonna ask em to let you live runt, but that shits done. You cut me with that trash once, but the next blood its gonna let is yours." And with that he lunged forward a fourth time, Ash was ready to strike at the anticipated opening. Instead though the ork pulled up short and when Ash's arm came darting in Skinny grabbed the wrist and twisted it out forcing a cry of pain from the boy, stifled quickly by a fist hammering into his face. The knife fell to the sidewalk with a dull clunk and the dwarf almost went limp from the sheer force of the blow. He stayed upright though and started beating at Skinny's hand desperate to break the grip. His efforts were wasted though and the second and third blow all but did him in. His mouth was full of blood and his face felt like a smashed melon. For not the first time but likely the last he became infinitely aware of his youth. He could feel his arms, frail still as a child, and his legs seemed so small and weak. He saw himself from the outside, his awareness awed and pitying of this child, innocence so long lost, hopeless and weak. He wanted his mother and may even have choked out as much through the blood and the knuckles. He saw his own legs buckle and felt as much as saw the ork fall down on him. He saw the ork shove up off the concrete and get his balance on one knee. Punch. Punch. Punch. The blows weren't landing just in his face. His arms took it, his chest, his stomach, his neck. He saw the ork pick up the rag doll boy bringing them face to face and suddenly he was back in his own body. Skinnys face was larger than life, jaws working as spittle and sound poured forth. His face was mottled with yellow and red, peppered with the boys blood. And he was crying. Tears were flowing in a torrent through the splatter of the dwarfs blood. "You're a fucking kid!"the ork sobbed, the slow rhythmic pounding of his fists stealing moment after moment from the dwarf. "What the fuck man! Why are you here? I didn't want this. "Didn't." Punch. "Fucking." Punch. "Want this." Punch. And through it all Ash actually felt pity for the ork at having to go this far just for a scrap of family. Age gap aside, they were both kids and they only wanted the same thing: a home.
Ashley felt himself reach his hands up and swipe across the face of the ork. Almost lifeless they wiped at the tears pouring down. And it all stopped. For just a moment the ork stopped moving and screamed wordlessly into the boy's face, fist swinging wildly in the air willing itself downward to finish this slaughter. And a different voice screamed out in Ashleys head.
Ash screamed, jagged and broken. It was a scream that stole the breath from bystanders, and drilled a hole in your mind ever to have place in your nightmares. As if worked by a puppet master his body spasmed back to life and his limp hands locked onto the head of the ork and his scream ripped out more savagely than before. His voice was as from the netherworld's, the metaplanes, the wild ancestors long dead. His hands locked hard on the skull and his eyes burned into the ork. From nowhere and everywhere heat came pouring and the wails of heartbreak from Skinny turned to wails of panic and inescapable pain. The boy could feel flesh roasting under his fingers as he saw the orks eyes go wide with unmitigated terror and searing pain. Ash's hands clamped down harder, all his limited strength as a vice on the head above him. He gripped and a power moved through him from all directions that made him feel both vast and tiny all at once.
The last thing Ash saw before the blackness was a flaming blazing skull framed by the ever grey sky.
A few weeks had passed since he had awoken in a smoke filled grungy room. On that day, as his senses refocused he came to realize he was in the clubhouse of the HellMasks. His face had been raw, bruised and blood caked, but he was alive. He had been dressed in his own filthy duds and a less filthy denim jacket that he would later find bore the mark of his new gang.
Although he wasn't sure then how to recreate it he was already feeling the changes that his new found magic was bringing. Yesterday he had finally been able to make something happen: another fire. His first intended spell. He felt powerful for the first time ever.
His new family gave him respect. Now that he had tasted it, he would never again go without. He thought about what was to come and what his place would be in it. His thoughts were interrupted as a less than friendly face walked up. Rat stepped up close and with a nod gave Ash the high sign.
"I been meanin to talk at ya man, ever since the fight. I was pretty sore watching my boy go down like that but I'm past that drek. I see the future, right? And with wiz in the mix the HellMasks got a bright one. Up to me then, our beef is done. We're brothers to the colors now. So all's good and no grudge,k?"
Ash looked at Rat feeling like he'd aged another 5 years in these last two weeks. He saw the fear and the respect there. He saw the boy standing before something so much more. Ash grabbed the proffered hand and bumped shoulders in the only hug these boys knew. Through a still swollen and healing jaw he said "We're cool man, but no grudge? Hell no. Brotha, the way I see it a grudge is about all I got left. I'm guessin it's the only thing that saved me in that fight. After it's all said and done I figure none of us got much to our name except the grudge we bear to this whole plex. Shit man, maybe to this whole world. When it comes to grudge I'm full up."
Rat chuckled and proffered a smoke. Both young dwarfs lit up and leaned back against the wall. Dull eyes took in the street and wordlessly they watched the barest drizzle let just enough wet down to color the concrete. A block worthless and broken, but for them, for now, it was just enough.