• It was an odd sound to hear. The hard slap of fist hitting flesh, a soft grunt of pain as the blow connected, and the ear-jarring snap of ribs cracking. Descent to the ground muffled by the snarls of triumph and a muted cry of fear. Roaring, the world threw itself in a spinning frenzy that made him ill. Flitting away, the sky vanished briefly as the darkness swallowed him.
    Quite suddenly, he was himself again. He was lying on the dirty floor of an alleyway that stank of blood, beer, and unimaginable other things. A rock was cutting into his cheek, and the jeers of his assailants rang in his ears. Beating a tattoo into his brain, his heart pumped wildly as adrenaline surged through him. Limits were nothing when he was pushed this far.
    Pushing himself into a sitting position, he ignored the screaming of his ribs. Right now, nothing else mattered besides beating these opponents and keeping her safe. Smiling blandly at his attackers, he said in his lightest tones, “Is that all you got?”
    Their mocking smiles melted away like the pre-winter snow. He could read it in their eyes, the shock at his boldness, the disbelief of how he could even sit up without crying. Physical pain was nothing to him.
    Brutally ignoring his own agony, he forced himself to stand and smirk in their eyes. “Shall we have another go?” he asked, his tones polite.
    The three boys, ranging from barely teenagers to young men, stared at each other, then leapt at him. With a broad sweep of his right fist, he caught the youngest right in the ribs, cracking as many as he had received. He fell to the ground, whimpering in pain. Disregarding the stinging in his knuckles, he turned to meet the other two. The older looking one charged at him, punching him in the jaw. Despite the stars that danced before him, he kept his ground and pummeled his adversary. Within minutes he was out cold.
    Clenching his fists, he readied himself to face the last of the three. Except that the last opponent was fleeing for his life. Spitting in disgust, he turned to face her.
    Her face was the purest white, and her blue eyes were dilated with fear. The hands that were pressed to her mouth trembled. Something in his face must have softened, and the maniacal light that filled his vision during fights dimmed when he looked into her fearful eyes. Reaching out his hand, he said softly, “Let’s go get your brother.”
    After a moment’s hesitation, her slender hand filled his, and together they walked the abandoned streets.