Terra's Guardian (Chapter 1)
The burning under Ray’s skin began the moment he woke up.
It lasted through morning assembly; a familiar fiery itch travelling from the centre of his chest, down his arms and ending at his fingertips. Ray managed to hide his shaking hands from the other students by keeping them stuffed into his pockets, but couldn’t disguise the slight tremors that flitted through his shoulders. Most students were glassy eyed as the head teacher droned on about the Santos Boarding School’s New Year’s resolution, but some noticed. Ray’s heart sank as he saw them nudge each other, glee rapidly filling their faces as they turned to look at him.
They knew what happened whenever Ray West’s body was wracked with spasms. And they were all waiting to see a repeat of the drama four years ago. Ray clenched his hands tighter. The burn in his arms grew in intensity. The visions would strike him soon…
He was the first to stand once the assembly was declared over. Ray hastily shuffled down the row of plastic chairs, almost tripping over a well-placed foot.
“What’s the rush, gypsy?”
Ray drew in a shaky breath before turning to face Trevor, who was withdrawing his foot back under his seat.
“Nothing,” said Ray, giving Trevor a tight smile. “Just hungry, you know – “
Trevor snorted disbelievingly, his eyes trained on Ray’s trembling hands. “Gypsy freak.”
Ray looked away and carried on making his way through the crowd. Partly because he needed to be alone five minutes ago, and also because the ease at which Trevor flung slurs, with his lip curled. It wasn’t so long ago they were helping each other learn the times tables.
There was a large throng by the door but Ray wrestled through it, wincing occasionally as someone’s elbow dug into his stomach. He was racing down the corridors within seconds. Ray headed to the toilets on the first floor. Longer to get to but not many went in there.
Walls went by in a blur of dull grey, with an occasional splash of colour in the form of motivational posters. Ray turned corners and took shortcuts effortlessly. He could find his way through Santos with his eyes shut, after living in the large, ugly building for ten years now.
Ray almost smiled as he turned into the long windowless corridor that bridged the secondary and primary schools together. He was almost there. Just a bit more of a walk and -
“Stupid black mutt!”
Ray froze at the sound of the rough yell. He knew that voice, and he could hazard a guess at who the anger in the voice was directed to. Ray’s stomach churned and before he knew it, his feet were carrying him to the source of the noise. He raked a hand through his hair wearily. This was just typical. Of all the times for those kids to get into troubles.
It was a short run down to the end of the corridor and he sighed to find Cora standing on her tiptoes, trying to peer through a darkened classroom’s window. She looked close to tears, her face a mix of fear and vulnerability only a ten year old managed to achieve. Her eyes widened to see him.
“I’ll handle it,” Ray told her, steering past her gently to move towards the classroom’s door, from where more raised voices resonated.
The first thing he saw upon bursting through the door, was Lewis, right-hand fisted in the collar of a tiny boy, Theta, Ray confirmed quickly. Earth, it was so typical for the boy to get tangled up with Santos’s meanest bullies. Lewis’s left hand was raised and balled but he paused at the sight of Ray. A slow grin with a cruel edge stretched across his face
“Hey, it’s the gypsy freak!”
Snorts of laughter greeted Lewis’s sneer, coming from the small group of boys and girls lounging in the chairs. Theta managed to wriggle out of Lewis’s grip, walking backwards to get closer to Ray.
“Hi!” said Ray, plastering on a smile. “Look, I don’t even know what they did this time – “
“This brat here stole my Seeker newspaper,” said Lewis, his face colouring red. Ray could see the newspaper resting on the teacher’s desk, its front page peppered with headlines of Seekers apprehending Obsidian Criminals. “You teaching him your gypsy ways now, Ray?”
Ray’s heart was hammering in his ribcage but he managed to plaster on a smile. Lewis had seemed grateful a couple of days ago when Ray helped him with his physics. Surely, Lewis hadn’t forgotten, though being stuck in Santos during the Year- End holidays was enough to turn anyone’s mood sour. Ray sometimes wondered what was worse – having dead parents like his, or having parents who simply didn’t care. “Look Lewis, I’m sure Theta’s really sorry –“
“Like hell!” Theta crowed, sticking his chin out. Earth, Ray really wished the boy would learn to keep his mouth shut. “Me and Cora just wanted a look, right? The magazine isn’t yours anyway, you stupid scarecrow – “
Lewis growled and made to move forward, causing Theta to yelp and run to join Cora. With the two of them clinging to his legs, Ray could only stand still and try not to gulp as Lewis loomed over him. Morosely, he pictured his gravestone, “Here lies Ray West, only fifteen and deserved everything he got for being so terribly pathetic”.
“Since they’re your brats, you say sorry,” snarled Lewis, drawing a smattering of sniggers from his friends.
“Sorry,” said Ray, ignoring the way Theta’s grip on his hip tightened. “I am so sorry – “
“Say it on your knees, gypsy freak.” Lewis was starting to grin, spurred on by the encouraging jeers that filled the room. “Come on.”
Ray bit his lip. The burn was flaring higher than before, making it feel as though thousands of hot needles were stabbing him from the inside of his chest. Any minute now, and the visions would hit, and Earth, he couldn’t go through it in front of Lewis and his gang. They’d never let him live it down.
Firmly removing Theta and Cora’s hands from the back of his shirt and trousers, Ray dropped to his knees. He had to crane his head up to look at Lewis’s towering form, a warm flush rising up his face as shrieking laughter echoed around the classroom.
“Sorry,” said Ray. “We’re very sorry.” He could feel Theta and Cora shaking with anger behind him, but they thankfully remained quiet.
Lewis’s grin widened. He leaned over and Ray flinched – he knew from experience that Lewis’s bite was just as bad as his bark - but Lewis merely patted the top of his head.
“Good gypsy,” crooned Lewis.
Ray clenched his jaw, feeling his hands shudder even more violently. Romani, he ached to correct Lewis. Romani. Gypsy was such an ugly word. It cast him out of the group straight away. As though his brown skin was a stain to avoid. As though he wasn’t even human.
Everything suddenly went silent. Ray could still see Lewis laughing with his friends, see them talking as they gathered their things, presumably to go get lunch. But it was as though someone pressed a mute button that stopped any sound from reaching Ray’s ears.
Ray let his shoulders drop with relief as Lewis and his gang left the classroom. He didn’t bother getting up. The visions always came straight after the silence and any second now…
The world tilted around him. Something tingled and bubbled in his chest, and a white light filled his eyes….
The name ripped out of his mouth – only it was far too feminine to be his voice. He was in some sort of tunnel, enveloped in darkness and barely able to see anything….There! Light! An Indian girl was holding a flickering torch, its glow illuminating little of the surroundings. Ray remembered her name from the last vision. Durga.
And he was moving towards her – only it wasn’t him moving. It as though he was inhabiting someone else’s body, unable to do anything but look through their eyes and listen through their ears. The brief glimpses of the body Ray was in told him nothing much. He saw arms covered in green leather, a right hand that carried a blood splattered axe.
The scream burst out of him again, full of panic. Durga was holding onto Seth’s arm, her teeth gritted with effort. Ray felt his stomach drop to see Seth, his blond hair messy with dirt and face twisted into a pained grimace, being pulled into a side tunnel so dark that the blackness looked solid. Ray wondered for a second at what it was that was dragging Seth. The torchlight flashed into the side tunnel for a brief second, and Ray glimpsed a hand with claws hooked securely around Seth’s ankle –
Ray gasped back into awareness. His vision was blurry at first, but a few more blinks, and Theta and Cora’s worried faces came into focus. Ray automatically tried to smile at them reassuringly but though the burn, the fire in his chest had disappeared, his muscles felt too tired to respond. Sluggishly, he wrapped his arms around their bony frames and hugged them tightly.
As always, after a vision, questions circled his head. Ray closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Why was all this happening to him? The visions, the way fire seemed to run through his veins, at least once in a month…And who were those people in his visions? Whose body did he always seem to find himself in?
A mockingly loud caw came from in front of him. Ray didn’t want to look but he forced himself to open his eyes. There, perched on the windowsill, was the crooked necked crow. It cocked its head and stared at him through cruel red eyes and bloodstained beak. Ray felt bile hit the back of his throat but he forced it back down. Instead, he tightened his hold around Theta and Cora, ignoring their giggles about how he wouldn’t let them up. He didn’t want them to turn around and see the crow – and Earth, there it was again, again, haunting him always. It didn’t matter anyway. They wouldn’t be able to see the crow. No one ever saw it.
Ray snorted bitterly. He really was a freak.