Tim clasped his little sister’s hand as his eyes darted around. He didn’t like this area of town. He didn’t like it at all. This was deep into the territory of the Five Hand gang. He had no idea why they went by that name, but he knew their reputation well enough not to want to run across them.
He was in their territory, but in a shopping centre. The only shopping centre to stock the particular toy that Zara, his little sister, had set her heart on. So here they both were. They’d reached the shop and he’d bought her the toy without any trouble. Now they needed to get back out of the gang’s territory.
That shouldn’t be a problem. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and there were plenty of other kids around, from teenagers as old as Tim down to those who were Zara’s size and would be just starting out in their school journey.
It shouldn’t be a problem. But Tim was streetwise enough to know shouldn’t be was not the same as wouldn’t be. Especially not in this gang’s territory.
So far he hadn’t spotted anything specific that worried him, but they still had a good way to go to be safe. Several minutes more to leave the shopping centre, then ten minutes of brisk walking before they could be fully outside of the gang’s territory. Even then he wouldn’t feel safe until they’d walked another five minutes.
Then, and only then, would he consider jumping on one of the buses. A bus was too risky in the gang’s territory. It could leave him and Zara trapped with no way to get away. He would not take that risk. Especially not when Zara was with him.
They walked on, still without anything happening. As the exit from the centre came into sight Zara pulled hard on his hand.
“I’m hungry!” she said. She pointed at a nearby stand. “I want a hot dog!”
“We can get something to eat when we’re closer to home,” said Tim.
“But I’m hungry now!” Zara said.
She stuck out her bottom lip and stared defiantly back at him. He felt her body language change through the hand he held. He knew from experience that trying to drag her away from the stand would involve an awful lot of effort on his part. Worse, it would draw attention, and that could be dangerous.
He sighed. “All right! We’ll get a hot dog.”
“Two hot dogs! You have to have one too! It’s no fun if you don’t.”
Tim had to smile. “Fine! Two hot dogs. Come on.”
He still kept looking around carefully as they moved to the stand, making sure to be covering the whole area, while not looking like he was anxiously studying his surroundings. Not an easy thing to pull off, but he’d had plenty of practice.
He ordered the two hot dogs, watched as they were put together, then took two of them in one hand as he handed over the cash with his other. The hot dog seller seemed to take an age to sort out the change before he finally handed it back. Tim turned with a smile to hand Zara her hot dog… then froze. His stomach dropped, and adrenaline flooded through his system. Zara was gone!
Dammit! He hadn’t even consciously chosen to let go of her hand. Hell, he wouldn’t have worried if he had. She’d wanted the hot dog! He’d never imagined she’d wander off and leave it behind. But now she was gone!
Calm! He had to keep calm! He couldn’t shout for her, that would draw attention. But he had to find her. And fast. Even putting the Five Hand gang aside, this wasn’t was an area his little sister should be walking around unsupervised! The thought of what could happen made his stomach churn.
He glanced around rapidly, trying to work out where she could have got to. She couldn’t have gone far. Not in that short a time. Which direction should he go? If he chose wrong, if he went the wrong way, he might lose any chance to find her.
But if he didn’t do anything he certainly wasn’t going to spot her. He kept looking around, trying to decide what to do. Then he noticed a nearby fountain with steps leading up to it. It would give him a higher vantage point. Not high enough to draw attention, he hoped, but high enough. He moved over to it quickly, fighting not to run.
He was only halfway there when he felt the feeling he’d been dreading rising within him. The hair on his arms started to prickle. His heart beat faster. He tasted metal on his tongue.
Dammit! He couldn’t let that happen! Not here! Too many people would see. Too many people would know. Too many people would get hurt! He couldn’t let it happen. He had to find Zara before losing all control of the situation.
But where was she?
Tim climbed the steps of the fountain and quickly scanned the area. He looked in all directions, but he couldn’t see any sign of Zara. Dammit, she was just so small. She could be anywhere and he wouldn’t see her amongst the older kids and adults.
Then something caught his eye. Over the crowd, at the edge along the wall, he just caught sight of a shock of hair striped green and red. His stomach lurched. He only knew one person who had hair like that. Baratz. The brother of the leader of the Five Hand gang. And trouble. Major trouble. Not someone Tim would ever want to be near normally.
He knew that about Baratz. But he also knew something else. He’d heard the stories. He knew Baratz had a sick fascination with children. With young children. Zara was exactly the sort who would catch his eye.
Baratz had disappeared again, but Tim saw the top of a service door opening and then closing a few moments later. He wasn’t certain Zara was with Baratz, not completely, but he couldn’t risk assuming she wasn’t.
He started to push and shove his way through the crowd, not caring now that he was drawing attention. As he forced his way through the feeling was building within him. All he could taste in his mouth now was metal. His blood was pounding faster and faster. He had to clench his teeth together.
Somehow he made it to the door, pulled it open, and rushed through. He’d expected to find a corridor. Or worse, a set of corridors to choose from. He’d expected finding Baratz to be difficult.
It wasn’t hard at all. He’d barely stepped into the room before he saw Baratz only ten steps away. And with him was Zara. She stood in front of Baratz, facing him. His hands were on her shoulders, gripping so hard she was crying out in pain and his knuckles were white.
The gang member was so absorbed in what he was doing he didn’t notice Tim until he was within three paces. Then Baratz turned and glared.
“What the hell do you want?” Baratz spat.
“That’s my sister,” said Tim. He kept his voice level. He really didn’t want to get into a fight with Baratz. Not because he couldn’t take him, but because of the consequences that would follow if he did.
“So?” sneered Baratz. “You do know who I am, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, Baratz,” said Tim. “I don’t want any trouble. That’s my little sister. She wandered off. Thank you for finding her and looking after her. I can take her home now.”
Baratz actually cackled. Not laughed, cackled. Tim could feel the dark energy surging in his gut. He knew he had to stop this now. If he didn’t then… no, he couldn’t let that happen. He had to end this.
“Please,” he said. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. Just let Zara go and we’ll walk out of here.”
“See me hurt?” Baratz looked at him, shock on his face. “Are you threatening me? Do you have any idea what will happen to you if you even lay a finger on me?”
“Yes! I do. I just want to take my sister and get out of here. Please, Baratz.”
“Run along, big brother. When I’m done with your sister you can take her home. Or maybe I’ll keep her for a little longer. She is so sweet looking. I might want to take a little longer with this one.”
He squeezed his hands even tighter on Zara’s shoulders. Tim gritted his teeth, the churning in his stomach even worse as he felt the power grow. He had to stop this right now. If he didn’t he wouldn’t be able to keep control and all hell would break loose. If that happened dealing with the Five Hand gang would be the least of his problems.
Baratz clearly wasn’t going to listen to reason, so Tim did the only thing he could. His first shot out, smacking into Baratz’ nose. Blood exploded everywhere. Baratz gasped, stumbled back, then tripped and fell onto his back. He lay there cradling his nose, blinking blood from his eyes. He was no threat. Not for the moment. Tim knew he should grab Zara’s hand and get them the hell out of there.
But he couldn’t. The energy roiling in his stomach was too strong. If he tried to grab Zara and go it would become overwhelming, and then Baratz would truly pay. And likely so would a number of perfectly innocent people in the shopping centre outside. Turning and running wasn’t an option. Not yet.
Tim stepped forward and slammed his foot into Baratz’ side. The gang member cried out and rolled away, clutching at his ribs. Tim lashed out again with his foot. And again… and again. He was trying to limit the damage. Not kicking anywhere that would break anything. Enough to cause a lot of bruising, but not anything life-threatening. With each blow he felt the surging energy in his stomach ease. Finally it had settled enough. Not gone, but settled. He crouched by Baratz.
“You brought this on yourself,” Tim hissed. “And you have no idea how lucky you’ve been. Let it end here. Don’t come after me. Don’t send the gang after me. If you do then what’s happened to you here will seem like a stroll in the park. Do you understand?”
Baratz didn’t reply. He just lay there, whimpering. Tim stood for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Really, there was only one option. He wasn’t willing to kill Baratz, much as the loathsome creature probably deserved it, even though it might give him a better chance of avoiding the five hand gang’s retribution. He just had to hope that Baratz believed his warning.
Tim turned, scooped the crying Zara up, and left the room with her hugging tightly around his neck. No one seemed to notice them coming back out into the shopping centre, and he kept Zara in his arms, her face pressed against the shoulder, so no one would notice the tears running down her cheeks. He wasn’t sure she had any idea what Baratz had been planning, but even if not she’d had one hell of a shock.
He forced himself to walk at a reasonable speed. Not running, not drawing attention. Even if Baratz kept quiet about who had given him such a kicking, if any of the gang noticed Tim hurrying from the area they could easily put two and two together.
They passed the hot dog stand, but Zara made no comments about being hungry. Tim was glad. He just wanted to get away. He could still taste metal in his mouth. He could still feel the power knotting in his stomach. His pulse was still racing, and his skin felt electric. The danger wasn’t over yet. They had to get away from the area, and he prayed nothing else would happen to tip the balance to disaster.
To Tim’s surprise, he and Zara made it out of the gang’s territory without further incident. Tim kept walking for another fifteen minutes, not his usual five, before he finally decided they could get on a bus. Even then, it was as much because his arms were burning from still carrying Zara as because he felt safe.
Zara had been silent the whole time Tim carried her, but as they sat side by side on the near empty bus she reached over and took his hand in both of hers.
“He wasn’t nice,” she said, her voice subdued.
“No. He wasn’t.”
“Thank you for stopping him. He was hurting me. I didn’t like it.”
“What happened to the hot dogs?”
The sudden change of direction made his head spin. “I… I don’t actually know. I had them in my hand. I turned to give you one, but you were gone. And then… I don’t know. I must’ve dropped them somewhere.”
“You didn’t drop my Very Fuzzy Larry Llama, did you?”
The concern in her voice for the toy they’d gone to buy was actually stronger than that for her experience at Baratz’ hands. Tim hoped that was a good sign.
“Of course I haven’t lost it!” he said. He grabbed the rucksack he’d been wearing and had only taken off when they sat down on the bus. He opened it and handed over the prized toy.
Sara squealed, and pulled the creature into a hug. Tim guessed it was kind of llama shaped. But he was certain no llama was ever rainbow coloured, or had eyes that large and dopey. Still, Zara was happy. That was all that mattered.
No. She was happy and safe. That was all that mattered. For the moment. If the Five Hand gang came looking for him then he’d need to make sure Zara was safely out of the way. After all, he was her big brother. It was his job to make everything all right for her… no matter the cost.
Two weeks had passed. Two weeks with no sign of retribution. Tim had heard rumours a rival gang had beaten Baratz up, but no details of which gang or why. Tim certainly wasn’t going to go asking questions about it and draw attention his way. But with two weeks gone he was starting to think that just maybe Baratz had listened to his warning. Damn, he hoped so.
It was a Saturday evening. Tim and Zara were in the small flat they’d been assigned. It was just the two of them living there. Tim had never known his dad, and his mum had died in an accident the year before. A stupid accident. Some drunk who decided his eighth pint made him a better driver, and so he’d be fine to drive home. Somehow, on the way home, he’d managed to mistake the path for the road. Right where Tim’s mother had been walking.
She’d died instantly, he’d been told, as if that would be a comfort. And because he’d been nearly seventeen, and because Zara needed to be looked after, he’d been allowed to take over the flat.
He got money from the state. Not a lot. Barely enough for the two of them to live on. He did odd jobs where he could to bring in more, but mostly he made sure that Zara was safe. It was what his mother would have wanted. And it was what he wanted.
He still had plenty of friends, and even got to go out drinking some evenings. Three of his mother’s friends were happy to take turns looking after Zara for an evening. She was never any trouble for them. She was never any trouble for him. Other than when she got fixated on a new toy, which then meant he had to tramp across town to wherever it was on sale.
Suddenly one of his friends, Matt, was banging on the door. Not gently knocking. Pounding. Tim’s heart sank. Matt was one of his best friends, one of the few Tim had told the truth about what had happened with Baratz. And he’d only told those few so he could ask them to watch out, to warn him if the Five Hand gang came calling.
After two weeks he’d thought he was safe. Now Matt’s pale face told him he’d been wrong.
“They’re coming,” Matt said. “A lot of them. They’ll be here in three or four minutes. I ran the whole way.”
“Thank you! Quick, take Zara. Get her away. A long way away.”
“Really? Are you sure you don’t want to go with her?”
“I can’t go far enough. Not without leaving everything behind. Take Zara. Keep her safe. They’re going to give me a beatdown. Maybe a bad one. But they’re not going to kill me. What I did to Baratz left a bunch of bruising, nothing more.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Go! Zara, go with him.”
“Tim,” she said, sounding like tears weren’t far away. “I’m scared! What’s going to happen?”
“Everything is going to be fine. I’ll be fine. But you must go with Matt. He’ll… he’s going to get you ice cream! Triple scoop, whatever flavour you want.”
“Even if it’s triple scooped double chocolate?” she asked, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“Especially if it’s that!” said Matt. “In fact, you can have four scoops. Come on, the shop will shut soon.”
Zara squealed, grabbed Matt’s hand, and they raced off. Matt glanced over his shoulder and Tim mouthed thank you. At least now Zara would be safely out of the way. With that taken care of, he would take what was coming. Trying to avoid it would only be worse in the long run. But that didn’t stop his heart racing, or stop him tensing as he imagined the gang’s retribution.
The gang took their time. It was nearly ten minutes before most of them turned up, though Tim heard a few moving into the area well before then. They didn’t want him to leave, and they wanted him to know they were coming. They were giving time for his fear to build.
He took a deep breath, opened the door, then stepped out to wait for them. Now he saw those sent to keep him from running. One or two with evil smiles on their faces.
More started to turn up. By the time Baratz and his brother Leo arrived there were at least twenty gang members surrounding Tim.
Baratz was still moving awkwardly. A few faded bruises showed under his skin. His nose definitely wasn’t as straight as it had been before. Tim couldn’t help but feel a grim satisfaction at that.
“Is that him?” Leo demanded of his brother.
“That’s the bastard!” snapped Baratz. “He sucker punched me. Before I could fight back he was laying into me.”
Tim knew he should keep quiet, but found his mouth opening anyway.
“Bullshit! You were too busy hanging onto my little sister by her shoulders you perverted creep. If you hadn’t been then you might have managed to stop the punch!”
Leo actually sighed and shook his head.
“I should have known, he said.” Then he glared at Baratz. “You should have told me.”
Baratz squirmed under the gaze, and just for a moment Tim wondered if this would change things.
Then Leo turned and glared at Tim, and he knew it changed nothing.
“I can understand why you did what you did,” Leo said. “Family is family. But that’s why I’m here. This……” He gestured, and sneered at Baratz, who shrank back. “Is my brother. You did give him a beating. You know I can’t let that stand.”
Tim took a deep breath, then nodded.
“All right. Now I know what’s behind it I’m not gonna take any pleasure in this. Just an eye for an eye. You gave him a good beating but nothing more than that. Now it’s your turn.”
Leo gestured and several members of the gang moved in. Tim knew he shouldn’t resist, but he couldn’t help it. His arms came up and he tried to turn to keep them all in view.
Several of them grinned. One moved ahead of the others, this one smirking. Tim was tall but still quite gangly, and this member of the gang seemed to think he could deliver the beatdown on his own. He was well into his twenties, bulked up from steroids and weights. Strong. Dangerous.
And so slow. Tim stepped in and smashed the heel of his hand into the thug’s nose. He knew he shouldn’t. He knew he was making things worse for himself. But damn, it felt satisfying.
The large man reeled back, cursing, but even as that happened someone smacked Tim on the side of his head, another struck under his ribs, and still more hands grabbed him.
He tried to struggle but he stood no chance against so many. They laid into him with hands and feet. The moment he was on the ground he curled up, trying to protect his head. The blows just kept coming.
As they did he started to taste metal on his tongue. His stomach started to roil. At first he thought it was the effects of the beating. Then he felt his skin begin to tingle and knew it was not that at all.
“No. No!” he groaned. Those around him laughed, the gang members thinking was talking about the beating. A beating which suddenly stopped. He sensed more than saw Leo crouch by him.
“I’m afraid I lied to you,” Leo said. “The Five Hand gang doesn’t do an eye for an eye. You cross us, we crush you. Especially as you seemed to think it was a good idea to fight back against our retribution.
“That’s all bad for our reputation unless we deal with it. We’ll break a few of your bones. And then a lot more. And then we’re gonna kill you. After that… much as I don’t like the idea, I’ll let my brother have your sister. Anything else and we look weak. And that I will not allow.”
There was a moment of silence, then something hard smashed into Leo’s leg. He screamed at the pain, though he didn’t think anything was broken. Yet. As his scream ended he heard those around him laughing.
The pain wasn’t what worried him. He could feel the power roiling in his stomach. Could feel it growing. It was already far beyond what he’d felt when Baratz tried to take Zara. He knew the power was reaching a critical point. A point of no return. What would happen beyond that he wouldn’t even wish on Baratz.
“No!” He groaned out. “No Zara!”
Baratz laughed harshly, apparently misunderstanding. “Yes, Zara! Don’t you worry. I’ll make sure to take good care of her after you’re dead.”
Tim slumped back down. It was too late. He could feel the power flying around the area. It was going to happen. There was nothing he could do to stop it now.
“Get off my brother!”
Zara’s piercing tones cut through everything else. There was shocked silence for a few moments. Tim was the first to recover his voice.
“No! Zara! Get away from here! You must! Run!”
“Too late!” laughed Baratz.
He’d already crossed to where Zara stood and now grabbed her shoulder with one hand.
“No!” shouted Tim. “You mustn’t!”
“Yes!” shouted Baratz. “I can and I will!”
Then he frowned, before turning to stare down at where his hand was touching Zara’s shoulder.
“What’s… what’s happening?” shouted Baratz, panic starting to edge his voice.
“I warned you!” shouted Tim. “I told you not to come looking for us. And when you did I tried to get Zara well away. I’m sorry. Sorry for all of you. I tried to save you. I failed.”
“You tried to save us?” laughed Leo. “You tried to save us? That’s very kind, but…”
He was cut off by Baratz yelling. Tim could feel the energy now. It was pressing in on the area, pulsing as it did so. It was going to happen. It was happening. It had gone too far. There was nothing he could do to stop it now.
Baratz’ yell turned into a piercing scream as he desperately tried to pull his hand away from Zara’s shoulder. He couldn’t budge it. And then, as everyone watched in horror, his arm started to blacken. Flesh and clothes corrupting, melting away, but still Baratz couldn’t free his hand.
Leo rushed over to his brother, trying to pull Baratz clear, but he couldn’t. Baratz’ hand remained locked on Zara’s shoulder. And now Leo was stuck, unable to release his hold on his brother.
“It’s started,” said Tim, his voice leaden. “May the light have mercy on your souls. Though I know it won’t have the chance to.”
“Help me!” shouted Leo.
Three of the gang ran over, taking hold of Leo to pull him away from Baratz. They couldn’t. Tim knew they could have pulled with the force of a jet engine and it wouldn’t have been enough. Nothing could separate Leo from Baratz, or Baratz from Zara. And now the three were touching Leo they had sealed their own fates.
No. That was wrong. Their fates were already sealed, no matter what they chose to do. Other gang members, those with a little more presence of mind, were staring at Zara. Seeing the crackling red aura now surrounding her. Seeing her eyes, which had become black pits of darkness.
“You hurt my brother,” Zara said, except it wasn’t her voice now. Her normal voice was in there, but there was something older, darker, and far more powerful alongside it. “You. Hurt. My. Brother!”
The gang members who weren’t attached to Leo turned to run. But while their bodies turned, their feet stayed rooted to the spot. Tim winced as he heard at least one bone break as the gang lost their balance and fell to the floor.
A broken bone would soon be the least of their worries. Tim could see the blackened corpulence starting to spread from their feet and up into their legs. The same corruption that was spreading across Baratz and had started to spread to Leo. It was too late now. Too late for all of them.
The screams started. Awful screams. Not just screams of physical pain. Screams of people whose very souls were being shredded and devoured.
“I tried to warn you,” Tim whispered, knowing none of them would hear him even if he was to shout.
“What the hell?”
Tim’s head snapped around, and he saw Matt standing and staring.
“Sorry Tim,” he said, his voice shaky. “Zara gave me the slip. She shouted that someone was hurting you, and then she was gone. I couldn’t catch her up. She was so fast. And now…”
His eyes went to Zara, and his mouth fell open.
“No! Not Matt!” shouted Tim, turning his gaze back to Zara.
She laughed, and for a moment when she spoke it was only her own voice.
“Of course not! I like Matt. He was going to buy me ice cream. I won’t hurt him. He didn’t hurt you.” Then she glanced around, her black eyes burning as she glared at the members of the gang. When she spoke again, the harsh overtones were back.
“They did. They came here to hurt you. They came here to kill you. They must pay.”
Tim nodded. Not in agreement, but in acceptance. This wasn’t something he could prevent. It wasn’t something he could persuade Zara to stop doing. They were far past that point.
He could feel the power flowing through the area. A power he’d always been able to feel but no one else seemed to notice. He knew Zara would not stop now. Knew she could not stop now. But at least she seemed to have managed to keep it focused. This time.
None of the gang around him were blameless. They’d all come knowing they’d be involved in a beating, and likely a murder. He had no doubt they’d all done dozens of dark things. But still… no one deserved this.
“Matt,” said Tim, his voice low and intense. “Turn around. Walk away. You never saw this. It never happened.”
“What’s happening… the gang… others will come!” Matt managed to say.
“None will come,” said Zara, her voice grating and harsh again. The voice of a being of immense power. “All of them are dying.”
Tim turning and stared at her.
“All? Some of them must be miles away back in their territory.”
“All!” said Zara firmly. “The evil in them is so strong I have no trouble reaching out and finding it. Devouring it. I am the avenger. I am their judgement. All of them will die.”
Tim swallowed. This hadn’t happened before. Zara had never shown this much power. Was it because of those she was dealing with? Or was she growing stronger over time? He had no idea, so he turned to Matt once more.
“Matt, thank you. I was trying to stop this from happening. You did your best. This isn’t your fault. It’s not mine. They brought this on themselves. Remember that. Now go!”
Matt stood there, face green from what he was seeing. Finally, he turned and ran.
No one else came looking to see what was going on. That was part of the effect Zara created when this happened. No one would investigate the screams, nor would they remember anything had happened.
The fact Matt had managed to force his way through that part of the effect showed how much he cared about Zara. That in turn might well be the reason he’d been spared. Whatever the reason, Tim was pleased neither he nor Zara would have Matt’s death on their conscience.
With Matt gone there was nothing to do other than watch as all the evils the Five Hand gang had ever meted out were repaid a thousandfold.
Tim grabbed the go-bags and looked around to make sure nothing had been forgotten. He realised the damned toy which had started all the problems was sitting on Zara’s bed rather than being packed to go. He picked it up and threw it to her.
“I’m not sure I want him any more,” she said. “I’m bored of him.”
“You’re bloody well taking him!” snapped Tim. “Especially after all the trouble that came from getting him.”
“Yes, big brother,” said Zara.
Her voice was normal now. She was normal. The power had left her and had left no sign of those who’d been killed. But the two of them had to leave. Questions would be asked. Matt might end up saying something, and even if not, it was too dangerous to stay around. There were others who’d be interested in what Zara could do, in studying or controlling it.
Tim had to keep her safe from that. After all, she was his sister. He had to protect his sister. His little sister. His sister who hadn’t aged or grown since before he was born and was likely to look the same on the day he died.
So it was time to move on. They’d had to do it four times when his mother was alive. She’d handled the details those times, but she’d trained Tim while she did. He knew how they could disappear and start a new life elsewhere. How to ensure Zara could live unmolested, her powers hidden.
That was hugely important. Not just for her, critical though that was to him. Important for the world. For if others learned of the power she held and tried to exploit it there would only be one outcome. Judgement day. The end of everything.
So Tim and his little sister would have to vanish again. The world would be safe again. For a little longer…