His small, calloused fingers tightly clutched the fresh loaf of bread and two shiny apples as he sprinted through the streets, the heavy, stumbling footsteps of the vendor following him. His hair, wild and untamed, hundreds of reds, purples, and magentas, whipped behind him as he turned to look back at the fat old man he stole his next meal from, a grin spreading across his face, sticking his tongue out mockingly. He turned back around as the man yelled expletives and curses at him, and only ran faster as a response.
He’d done this so many times before - he was silent as he snuck under the vendor’s table, grabbed what he wanted, and slithered away with his goods. Sometimes nobody even noticed. But it was hard to ignore the fact that a young boy, filthy, and dressed in rags, who could not afford even a crumb of bread, strolling casually as if nothing was the matter, with much more in his grip. Essentially, that made him stick out like a sore thumb, and that’s usually when the vendor would catch sight of him, and make the connection.
But he always got away. He was never caught. After all, he knew the city like the back of his hand, the streets and tunnels, the secret passageways and shortcuts like nobody else did. If he was in a good mood, he would tease his victim before making himself scarce. And it was easy for him - he could be deathly silent if he wanted to, could fit into almost anything, using his small and light body to his advantage. Today was one of those days, where he would mock the rich man, steal whatever he wanted, and-
He stumbled for a split second when he felt it.
It was strong. Unfathomable. Overpowering.
Nonetheless, he kept running, pushing away the fact that the feeling was getting stronger the longer he ran. Get away from it , his mind said. Shut up, he responded to himself, knowing that the only sidestreet or to safety at least half a mile ahead, and looping back the other way was too risky - someone who saw him running earlier would recognize him, and either try to grab him or call the authorities. And he couldn’t have that.
So he kept running, ignoring the way the back of his neck broke out in a cold sweat and his heart thudded in his chest, clutching his goods tighter to himself as he looked behind him again, only to see that the fat old man chasing him was much closer than he thought. Shit.
He slipped up, looking for too long, he thought, as he collided roughly with something in his path. Shit! He frantically shot to his feet, the collision having knocked him down on his rear. He made to run away, the loaf of bread lying in the dirt, stained, the apples having rolled far out of his reach - but he didn’t care, adrenaline was pumping in his veins as his eyes darted around, because the only thing he could think about was how he needed to get out of here .
For the first time in his life, he was too slow.
A huge, meaty hand, slick with sweat, grabbed him by the throat and lifted him into the air. He kicked his legs fruitlessly, his tiny, useless hands scrabbling at the vendor’s as the man viciously grinned at him. His enormous chest was heaving, ugly pants leaving the sweaty, middle aged man as he eyed the boy in his grasp as he would a dog deserving of punishment. “Thought you could steal my things, you brat? Thought you could get away?”
The boy tried to open his mouth to respond, to either curse or spit in his face - he couldn’t decide which one he wanted to do more, but all he could do was take in air in a strangled breath, trying not to suffocate.
“Well? You bastard, look what you did. You ruined them.” He kicked at the loaf of bread with his muddy shoe. “Go on, you can have it,” he spat, squeezing the boy’s neck even tighter with a gleeful, disgusting leer, “you’ll just have to eat it off the ground, you worthless street rat.”
He couldn’t breathe anymore. He could feel his esophagus digging into his windpipe. His eyes shuttered shut, and panic settled into his veins, his whole body, mind, hell, even his soul screaming in self preservation, telling him to break free or he would die . The tips of his fingers began to burn, then spread up his arms, chest, encasing his whole body as a bright light burst behind his eyelids, and he was on fire, burning from the inside-
The boy gasped as he was suddenly, again, sitting on his rear in the dirt, the feeling of extreme heat now gone, almost as if it had never even been there. Had he imagined it? He slowly turned his head, blinking slowly in belated surprise as beige, oddly familiar to him, filled his vision. He shook himself, clearing his head of unnecessary thoughts as he tried to understand just what the hell happened. He realized that the wall of beige was a man - the same man that he had run into, causing this whole mess.
He was about to snarl in anger at the man, who was dressed in long, flowing beige and white robe, with an odd staff in his hand, when he inhaled sharply, his eyes widening. That feeling. It was coming from this person. He scrambled back, still on his rear, sitting in the dirt road, as he practically shook in fear from one man. “W-wha-”
He stopped as he felt something against his hand, halting his feeble attempt to get the hell away from the man with the long , greying black hair and his weird golden staff. He went against every instinct in his body that told him to keep his eyes on that person in front of him no matter what, turning to look behind him, and nearly threw up right then and there.
The vendor. The vendor that nearly killed him was lying on the ground, unconscious - dead? - covered in blood and burns, his limbs set at grotesque angles. And the smell, oh God - it took all of his willpower to suck up the urge to be sick, covering his mouth with his hands, tears forming in his eyes at the horrific sight.
He heard a step. He whipped back to the man in front of him,body shaking in raw, primal fear - would he end up like the vendor? He was frozen in place as he stared into cool grey eyes, his breathing erratic, bile rising in his throat, the acidic taste of it on his tongue, and he was sure this man could hear his heart beating out of his chest, because he was about to die, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything-
“Are you alright?”
Hearing a voice from the man, who had not uttered a word since, shocked the boy. He didn’t even register the words, he just curled up into a ball, his arms covering his head, hands around his ears, as he broke down. He was muttering nonsense, his blubbering lost in his tears and sobs, sure that this was it.
He didn’t expect the man to crouch down next to him - he didn’t see it coming, as much as he prided himself on his heightened senses. He was blocking out his senses on purpose, pretending like nothing was surrounding him as if this were a dream. The boy heard his voice again, repeating the same thing, and he flinched as he instinctively raised his head to meet his eyes.
Kind, intelligent grey eyes stared into his own violet ones, a look of so much concern that the boy had never seen in his life. And suddenly, the man’s words registered in his head, that he was worried for him. Why? Nobody had ever cared that much about him.
The man chuckled. “Well, that’s because I caused you to be in this mess. This is my fault.”
The boy knew he didn’t say his words out loud.
He stood up shakily, the man following suit a few seconds later. “Y-your fault… you killed that vendor.” His voice came out small, hoarse, and still had an edge of terror to it, although less than before.
The boy said nothing, his eyes narrowing in suspicion, confusion, and fear. The man must have seen the look on his face, the tear tracks staining his cheeks, the exhaustion in his eyes, because he sighed, knowing that this poor boy deserved an explanation. He was grateful that the street was empty - there weren’t many people to witness the act in the first place, but those that had had fled immediately.
“He isn’t dead, but he did come close.” The man watched as the boy’s shoulders drooped in slight relief. He sighed before he continued, knowing what was coming. “But it was you that did that to him.”
The man raised an eyebrow as the boy glared at him defyingly. He expected him to shout, curse at him, perhaps burst into tears, but here he was, his voice full of confidence as if he knew something the man didn’t.
“I felt it earlier.” There was a moment of silence as they stared at each other, the boy’s eyes full of mistrust and fear, the mans’ displaying confusion and intriguement. The boy took a moment to put that feeling into words. “I felt...you. Your presence. It was strong, like it was suffocating me. I felt it all the way from the market.”
The man’s eyes widened now. He had formulated a few theories about this child in the few minutes of seeing him, but this… “You could feel my power?”
“Yes. And you had enough of it to do that ,” the boy replied as he gestured behind him, still not willing to look at the vendor again, “which means it was you.”
It was ironic - if he had actually turned around, he would notice that the vendor was gone, the man he was staring at having transported him elsewhere long ago to heal. If he had turned, he could have blamed the man even more.
“You’re right,” the man said, but he shook his head sadly, a juxtaposition to his words, “I do have the power to do that. But I didn’t.” He took a few steps closer to the boy. To his credit, he didn’t budge an inch, his previous waterworks show completely erased if not for the tear tracks on his face. “I’m not going to hurt you, my boy.” Once again, he crouched by the magenta haired child, a soft smile on his face. “I am here to help you understand yourself.”
He wasn’t impressed. “So start talking.”
The man laughed at that. He was willing to listen - that was a start. He stood up, giving the boy the space he clearly wanted. “You’re a wizard, like me.”
A thousand things flashed before the boy’s eyes as he continued to stare, not saying a word, the silence deafening. Him, a street rat with no family, who was probably born to a prostitute, a wizard? No. No way in hell. Still, the man continued. “That’s how you could sense me.”
“But I’ve never done magic before.” He knew it was a stupid response. He was only seven - magic had to develop at some point. He wouldn’t admit it, but the man’s absurd statement was actually making sense to him.
“Oftentimes, a life or death situation will trigger someone’s magic if they haven’t awoken it another way. Which is odd, because sensory is a type of magic, but if you haven’t been aware that you’ve been using it…”
“Old man, you’re rambling,” the boy sneered, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Oh! I tend to do that. Forgive me. My grandson, he doesn’t stop me when I mumble about this and that… it appears I’ve gotten used to doing it now,” he smiled as he thought of his grandson, who was around the same age as the boy standing in front of him now. “I think the two of you would get along. By the way, child, what is your name?”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” The boy sneered again, his teeth bared, violet eyes darkening to near black. “I won’t tell you. I don’t trust anyone. Let alone some old geezer who’s acting like he wants to hold hands and skip through meadows.” Seeing the man open his mouth to say something, he continued. “Let’s say I believe you. I’m a wizard. Aren’t you done here? Don’t you have some medication to take so you don’t forget your name?
The man knew that this was the boy’s defense mechanism, but it still hurt him to see a child lash out at what was probably his first exposure to care. He quickly smiled. “I’ve said this before, but I will not hurt you, child.”
The boy was beginning to cave. This stupid old man with that stupid look in his eyes was so damn genuine . And he could tell. As much as he was good at sneaking around, he was even better at reading people, even at his young age. He clearly knew when someone was lying to him, and this man was not. But he had never, ever, been in this situation before, where someone was looking at him this softly, gently, like a parent would, and God, he was so confused.
“And so what-”
“Come with me.” The man was completely serious, no trace of a smile, but his eyes were twinkling.
The boy gaped. “Wh- wait, wha-”
“I happen to be one of the most powerful wizards in this dimension. I can teach you to control your powers. You show extreme potential, and I want to make sure you can harness them properly.” He stuck out his hand to the boy, which was slightly wrinkled, weathered with time. It was more than just a shake, it was an entrance to a new life, the beginning of something unknown and thrilling.
The boy did not move to take his hand. “Who are you?”
“My name is Saladin. And you, my boy?”
The child, with the setting sun lighting his hair into a bright, blood red, stared at Saladin for what felt like years.
And then he grasped his hand.