Another small rock bounced off the boy's arms, raised defensively against the shower of dirt and pebbles being thrown at him by the other children.

"Witch's changeling!" one little boy yelled, hurling a handful of dust and stones.

The victimized child tripped over a hummock of grass as he hurriedly backed away. He had heard the names before; his mother had died giving birth to him, and his father had passed away soon after, stricken with grief and madness. He had been passed from house to house throughout the village for as long as he could remember, since no one would keep him for long. He was a quiet, industrious boy, with a yearning for the love that he had missed in his parentless childhood, but even the adults in the little hamlet made the well-known signs to ward off evil and witchcraft when he passed by. He could always see them out of the corners of his eyes, hurriedly sketching sigils in the air, but knew only that it meant he was unwanted. Every message he had ever received seemed to hold that same meaning.

As quickly as he could, he scrambled to his feet. He had always been excluded from the other children's games; he had known better than to come and watch their little sports in the field on the outskirts of town. People were cold and stern, he knew, but children were cruel and wicked. He scooted backward, still holding his hands in front of his face.

One of the larger boys advanced, made bold by his victim's apparent fear and weakness. With much show and puffing his chest out, he affected what he thought to be a grown-up expression.

"Ye're not wanted here, witch-child," he taunted. "Don't ye know? Ever'one in the village knows that ye killed yer mother and drove yer father crazy because ye're a demon's get!"

The smaller boy shook his head in denial, sniffling back tears.

"S'true!" the big boy shot back viciously. "Ye're a devil's son! Ever'body says it!" And with that, he reached out and shoved the other boy savagely.

With a gasp, the ostracized child stumbled backward into a tree; his hands slapped against its bark, seeking purchase to maintain his balance. The rough edges of the ancient growth caught at his soft, pale skin, opening shallow gashes across his fingertips, scattering a spare rain of crimson droplets through air and dust. The boy watched the tiny splashes his own blood made on the ground, and through his tears, they seemed to snap into unnatural focus, crystal-clear images in the chaos of his shattered life.

Deep inside him, something snapped.

Without drama or preamble, the tree sagged and darkened, taking on a diseased, leprous look. Its branches curled and kinked, blackening and dropping flakes of bark like chaff. The healthy leaves shriveled and crackled, floating away like ashes on the sudden chilly wind that kicked up in the field.

The children backed away. Some of them screamed and ran back toward the village, shrieking for their parents. A few of the older ones, though pale and shaken, stood their ground, seeing it as their place to deal with the situation.

Their remedy was to hurl more stones, as opposed to touching the cowering lad with anything that might cause his filthy witch's plague to crawl onto them.

They circled him, kicking dust and pummeling at him with whatever rocks they could find. He closed his eyes and curled into a ball, pleading with them to stop in hoarse croaks they did not hear. In the sky above, unheeded, a storm was building—thick, black clouds heavy with rain and thunder.

Finally, beaten beyond his endurance, the boy covered the back of his head with his battered arms, curling into an even tighter ball, and screamed.

The sky broke with a vengeance, and lightning flashed over carnage as a wave of darkness blasted outward in all directions from his abused body. Growing in size and malevolence with every inch it expanded, the circle of black energy flared on. Grass and flowers withered instantly as it rushed through them like a wind of death. The ground it crossed dried up and splintered as though no rain had touched it for a decade; splotches of gray, poisonous lichens and funguses bloomed into being over everything. The earth became a wasteland of dust and ashes, boiling away into black sand as buildings and people collapsed, screaming under the pain and pressure of the dark tsunami.

The entire village was gone in a matter of seconds. All the people who had tormented the boy, tortured him with indifference and superstition, found their wards against evil totally ineffective as their skin crisped and fell away. Their blood boiled up into a cloud of crimson mist, and their insides slid down through their unsupported bones to land in a pile of slime and viscera upon the dying soil. None were spared: Men, women, children, and the old saw death approaching and, with no time for more than a look of abject horror, died suddenly, violently, and painfully.

At the end of a minute, the magic played out, spent in the destruction of the surrounding terrain. The ground had sunk into a deep crater with the young boy at its center, nearly a hundred feet deep where he lay and several miles in diameter. At the edge of the pit, plants and small animals continued to drop dead in wisps of hazy smoke. Blood from nowhere boiled like water out of the parched and crack-riddled earth, to run in rivulets and pool in little hollows on the sides of the crater.

Only when the cold rain had diluted the congealing fluids and begun to wash the loose sand and dust down toward where his form still cringed at the depression's heart did the boy look up. Around him in a circle lay the still-decomposing remains of his unfortunate peers, the sight of which caused him to jerk away and claw upward toward the rim of the bowl in terror. He made it to his feet and, blind with rain, fear, and the bitter, metallic taste of the bloody vapors that still befouled the air, raced toward the questionable safety of the distant trees.

How long he ran, he did not know, but he did not stop when his leg muscles began to complain in burning spurts, nor when his breath grew short and ragged. When his side started to send him pain in time with his strides, he hit the treeline at the crater's edge. The first row of trees was quite dead, rotten all the way through and collapsed at weird angles upon each other. The next was bereft of foliage and clinging barely to fading life, their naked branches clawing at the weeping sky like skeletal hands held up in supplication to the mocking gods. When green leaves and underbrush began to show themselves some distance into the forest, the lad began to cry, tears streaking his pale cheeks, teeth clenched to keep from sobbing away the air that burned his lungs, but which was necessary to sustain life.

Even then, he did not stop running.