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I cupped my hands together to sip the cool liquid it held. The water ran down my throat, feeding every inch of my body.
It soothed my stomach for less than a second before the ache of starvation was back. I refilled the empty pail and lifted it to my head, the palms of my hands carefully supporting its weight as I turned, ready to make my way back home.
Farid held up one finger. Then he brought up the second. Just as quickly as the third appeared, he punched the boy across the jaw.
The very rage he displayed now. His face was twisted into a mask of grotesque fury.
He straightened his leg and kicked the boy in the gut. The boy fell to the ground, clutching his stomach. The water from my pail spilled in large droplets down my face, hanging off the tips of my eyelashes and fusing with the sweat on my cheeks. His head lolled back, and he stared, expressionless, at the vast expanse of the sky. When he nodded, I helped him to his feet. His eyelid was purple, swollen to the size of my fist from the blow. He could hardly look at me. His face was a wreck, stained with blood and tears.
I regretted asking it. Without another word, he hobbled away, leaning on his right leg. I stared at him until he disappeared from my line of sight.
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Then I turned to Farid, not even bothering to ask him why. He broke out into a crooked grin. I ignored his words and instead scanned him, head to toe. His skin was unmarked, unlike the other boys, who carried their scars like trophies; his unblemished skin marked his victory over all of them.
That boy was brave, fighting Farid. Brave, but stupid. It was about time I got home. My mother would be getting up soon, and she would wonder where I was. I picked up the pail and took the shortcut, wandering away from the main path and into the labyrinth of narrow, congested alleyways. Furry mice scuttled away as they heard the sound of my human footsteps. I stepped past the assortment of trash that decorated the area. The rats had taken refuge in the empty metal cans. I stopped. My ears pricked at the hissing. It was a sound that could only come from the forked tongue of a snake.
I had heard the snake-like voice call my name many times in the past few weeks. At first, I thought it was insects, but now, I knew better. The snake had visited me in my dreams too; I had seen it. It had eyes like dark, infinite oceans, and it would come closer and closer till I woke up, breathing heavy, in a pool of my own sweat. I jerked away instinctively, trying to find my way out of the alleys. The shortcut was a mistake. I quickened my pace, but the voice surrounded me.
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In whichever direction I went, it got louder and louder. Every step I took brought me closer to its owner. The hissing was gone. A dark grey creature about three feet high stood before me.
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His skin was made entirely of stone, and he looked almost like a grumpy cat standing on its hind legs. Certainly not human, but not animal either. A creature of a completely different race altogether—one not from this world. Anything was better than the snake. Where have you been? I put the almost-empty pail down and cradled the heavy creature in my arms.
He put his thick arms around my neck, holding tight. Tap Tap Tap.
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Settling Dearg carefully on his webbed feet beside me, I brought a finger to my lips, gesturing for him to be quiet. I looked up to see Farid sauntering toward me. His green gaze penetrated me, devoid of emotion. Not many people in our slum had eyes as green as his. It was rare amongst our people.
There were rumors that his mother was a devil-worshiping witch. I had known Farid his whole life, but the woman had barely spoken more than a few words to me. Is it a crime to be curious? He turned inquisitively toward where Dearg had stood at my side, but he rubbed his eyes and quickly returned his gaze to my face again.
He would have seen an empty space beside me, nothing more, I told myself. He shrugged before opening his mouth. Friends usually have this thing called trust. I watched his face fall. His eyes turned dark. His beautiful, high-cheekboned face. It was a face so angelic that it almost masked the intensity of his temper. Guilt washed over me.