By Lisa Elis
Kae shifted in her seat as the dean of the Academy squinted at her over his spectacles. “Miss Ruve, it is highly irregular for you to request an audience instead of submitting an application form.”
Kae hesitated. “My ability is… unusual.”
“What exactly is your ability?”
“I …” Kae cleared her throat, which felt strangely tight. “I feel pain.”
“Are you all right, Miss Ruve?”
“No. I mean, yes. But not like that. It’s my ability—I feel pain.”
The dean squinted at her even harder. “What exactly do you mean, Miss Ruve?”
“You have a backache now, sir. Left side.”
The dean’s eyes widened, and his hand moved to his side. Kae felt the pain as he did so and allowed herself to wince.
The dean dropped his hand and stared at her for a long moment, the squint returning.
“No,” he finally said, “this isn’t an ability. It’s… a handicap.”
No one had ever told Kae, straight to her face, that she was handicapped. No matter how concerned they were.
“Miss Ruve, we really would love to have you. Your brothers are amazing students, and I have no doubt you would be too. But you would be under far too much stress with our training requirements.”
He denied her without asking for more information and also made assumptions as to what was too much for her? Kae stood up and grabbed her satchel. “Thank you.” She turned to leave.
“Miss Ruve.” The dean’s chair scraped back. “Let me explain.”
Kae turned sharply. “Sir, I understand.”
The dean opened his mouth but was interrupted by an ear-piercing scream. Kae whirled around.
“What was that?” he demanded.
Shouts rose from below. Kae dashed out the office and down the hallway. She could feel the ache in her back as the dean followed.
She took the wide stone staircase three leaps at a time. A strange squeezing pain that wasn’t hers grew in her stomach. When she rounded the final bend, she saw the commotion.
The students who had gathered in the courtyard pressed against the surrounding walls of the compound, trying to keep away from the center, where a wild-looking young man in street-worn clothes stood on the podium and grinned wickedly. At his feet, a student lay limp.
The dean came up behind Kae. “Keats!” he hissed.
Her brothers had told her about the infamous Keats. Several years ago, he had gotten too wild and arrogant, been kicked out, and gone to work for the city’s biggest crime boss.
What’s he doing back here?
Keats held a cylindrical vial in one hand, something that looked like it had come straight out of the Academy chemistry lab.
“Anyone else want to try and stop me?” Keats yelled, his voice a crackly sort of hoarse that suggested he spent his free time smoking illegal substances.
He raised his hand and clenched empty air. The student at Keats’s feet convulsed violently, and then a horrible twisting pain grabbed Kae’s insides.
Two screams echoed against the stone walls at the same instant—the student’s and hers.
She doubled up on the stairs, grasping for anything within reach. Something clawed at her gut. She twisted in agony, her head striking a step. Next came a ravaging headache, like daggers were stabbing her brain over and over, and Kae’s breathing turned to ragged gasps. The dean’s voice was a distant hum.
The sharpness of the pain eased slowly, until only a throb remained. Kae pulled herself up. Keats stared at her, forgetting the student on the ground, who also raised his head. With shock, she recognized his messy brown hair and sharp jaw.
“NOX!” Kae screamed her brother’s name, pain forgotten, and sprinted towards him.
The closer she got, the greater the pain grew. Vaguely, she realized she had never purposely run toward pain before.
“Nox,” she croaked. Through the haze of her headache, she touched her brother’s shoulder.
As a fresh wave of pain hit her, she nearly collapsed on top of him. Instead she bit her tongue to keep from crying out. This was how it felt to touch someone who was hurting—everything they felt, she felt. In full.
“Nox, please, are you okay? What did he do to you? Nox, don’t die.”
As she uttered those words, she remembered what Nox had once told her about Keats. He could only inflict pain, not injure. The bastard. As the new pain brought rage with it, Kae brought her forehead to Nox’s shoulder and wished with all her strength that Nox would stop hurting and that Keats would die.
Keats began yelling, but she didn’t hear what because her throat constricted, squeezed tighter and tighter. She gagged and felt Nox crawl away from under her, then she collapsed and curled into a ball of misery.
Kae screamed as the pain of a cheek-shattering punch smashed her jaw. A kick-like blow forced the air from her lungs, and she clutched her stomach. Fingernails clawed over her face. A sharp knife-like stab started at her throat and dragged down, slicing her open. And still she screamed and writhed but didn’t die.
After what felt like lifetime upon lifetime, the unnatural pain in her body stopped—snapped away like someone had just switched it off. Kae sagged and lay face down on the gravel, exhausted beyond words, a dull ache growing in her lower left back.
Kae cracked her eyes open and saw the dean and the students all crowded around her.
“KAE!” Nox barreled through, crouching beside her. “Kae.”
“What happened?” she whispered, hoarse.
“I beat Keats up. He’s not coming back.” Nox pulled the stolen vial from his pocket. “I don’t know. Kae, I think you took all the pain into yourself.”
“Miss Ruve.” The dean spoke softly.
“May I see you in my office again?” He squinted over his spectacles once more, but this time, there was something like admiration in his eyes.