White heat seared Bliss’ throat as she glared at Stix. So many words fought to get out, that none could. Luckily for Stix, he didn’t try to push the issue. Instead, he turned to Fin, gave a nod, and watched as a dozen people started for the river. Even They picked up two children, putting one on each shoulder, then lifted Stone into his arms and walked away without another word.
‘What do you want me to do?’ A boy younger and shorter than Bliss scratched his ear as he looked at Stix.
Bliss tried not to stare, failed, tried not to gape, and failed again. The boy caught her looking at him, and blushed
‘I’m Cane, I’m a fox shifter.’ As if to prove his words, he dropped to the ground, his body melting into the form of a red fox. Scuttling out of the pile of tattered clothes he left behind, the boy fox sat at Bliss’ feet, looking up at her.
She tried to say something, but only managed a squeak. Covering her mouth with one hand, she looked at the rest of them. ‘Do you all change?’
‘No.’ Stix took her hand, a quick frown drawing his eyebrows together. ‘We need to set as many false trails as we can.’ He nodded to the obvious trail the others had left. ‘Trample as much ground as you can. Hopefully they’ll just see the mess and keep going.’ Rubbing his free hand over his face, he took a deep breath. ‘Stay in pairs, if you come across trouble, run, get to the river, don’t fight, just run.’
‘You can come with me,’ Tattoo said, pointing to the boy fox. Without waiting for anyone to reply, she turned on her heel and started beating a path through the tall grass.
‘At least she can put her anger to good use.’ Another boy, younger and shorter, grinned through the grime smearing his face. ‘We will head west.’ He swallowed the grin for a moment. ‘I’m Clip,’ he stuck his hand out.
Bliss’ took his hand, searched for any injury, and sighed when she found none. When she let his hand go, Clip skipped away, another boy about his age and height following behind, his gaze not quite reaching Bliss’ face.
Two boys were left. Still younger than her, their faces criss-crossed with blood and grime, they stood with a quiet grace and strength that made Bliss envious. She, who stood unharmed, her family, though far away, safe, yet she demanded time and energy from those that had clearly been through hell in the past few hours.
‘You two follow the group,’ Stix said. ‘Mash their tracks as best you can.’ He looked at Bliss. ’We will head north, try to get them confused before they even get here.’
Bliss could only nod. The tight sting in her throat threatened to wobble her chin, spill tears from her eyes. The two boys turned to leave. Heart thudding against her ribs, Bliss stepped towards them.
‘Wait.’ She held a hand up.
‘Bliss…’ Stix shook his head.
‘It will only take a moment.’ She reached out and touched the first boy’s face, his eyes going wide before half closing. Though she couldn’t do much to heal their wounds at that moment, she could at least take some of the pain away.
Letting her hand drop a moment, the lingering itch making her flex her fingers, she reached out for the other boy.
‘No.’ He moved out of her reach, shaking his head.
‘I won’t hurt you.’
‘No,’ he said again, stepping backwards.
‘Leave it.’ Stix took her hand, making her follow him away from them.
Bliss kept looking over her shoulder until the thickness of the grass took the boy from her view. ‘I wasn’t going to hurt him.’
‘I know.’ He glanced back at her. ‘He doesn’t like contact.’
‘Why?’ She tried not to trip, tried not to let her bare feet catch on the deceivingly sharp grass. Sweat trickled down her back as the sun rose higher. Heat clogged her breath, stung her eyes.
‘He is a reader.’
She could guess what he meant, but that was all she could do. Her legs ran of their own accord, following Stix as he trampled zigzags and circles through the grass. When he collapsed to the ground, she panicked. Then he pulled her down beside him, putting a finger to his lips, pointing ahead if them with his other hand.
Bliss held her breath as the sight before her sunk in. She’d been surprised by Stones pink streaked green hair, Tattoo’s pink eyes, and Cane’s shifting ability, but what she saw through the thick grass was a whole different thing.
Skin, grey like a shark, covered rigid muscles across their chests and upper arms, their torso and extremities stick thin in comparison. Red scars marked their skin, roping around their arms and legs, thicker ones slashing their stomach.
As they came closer, Bliss had to cover her mouth. Eyes, like red plasma balls, scanned the tall grass. Her feet twitched, urging her to get up and run. As though sensing her flight response, Stix wound an arm around her waist, his other hand covered hers, covering her mouth. For a moment, she wanted to struggle, to scream, to run, then his mouth moved close to her ear.
That one word, barely breathed, stilled her shaking muscles, quietened the scream that stretched her throat. She drew a deep breath, then held it again when a pair of those sparking red eyes stopped on her. She froze. The thing came towards them, drawing two swords from under the loincloth it wore.
Bliss couldn’t help the sound she made at seeing one of the swords. Not even Hollywood could have envisioned something so beautifully gruesome.
Transfixed by the shimmering blade, Bliss could do nothing as the creature slowly walked towards them. Then Stix pulled her to her feet and ran. She no longer felt the grass cutting into her flesh, tearing at her clothes. She could hear the thing running after them, its footsteps louder than her heartbeat, its steps gaining on them with every painful breath.
They broke from the tall grass, the river a silver snake fifty meters ahead. Stix didn’t look back as he dragged her along with him. Bliss wished she had the same determination. Of its own accord, her head turned back, letting her see not one, but five things chasing her.
Pulling her hand free from Stix, she tried to dodge the other way, drawing them away from where the others would be. Stix tried to grab her again.
‘Too many.’ She thumbed over her shoulder.
Stix glanced back, the pinkness from their run falling from his face. He glanced around, changed direction, and headed for a shallow part of the river that led to a rocky outcrop.
Bliss didn’t ask what the plan was. She didn’t want to know until it happened. Either way, she knew someone was going to die. She just hoped it wasn’t them.
They splashed through the water, the droplets hitting her face and back making her gasp. Stix surged ahead, his longer legs slicing through the thigh high water with ease. He scampered up the first six foot of rock ledge, then threw himself onto his belly, holding his hand out to her as she dragged herself out of the water.
Numb to her knees, she couldn’t feel where her feet were, and could only hope she didn’t step in a hole and fall.
Lungs stinging, she ran hard towards the wall. At the last second, she jumped, hoping her hand would connect to Stix’, that he would be able to pull her up before one of the grey things grabbed her.
Their hands met with a slap. She almost sighed, then yelped as Stix dragged her up over the ledge, standing as he did. A crack sounded below. They both glanced down to see one of the grey things slam his sword into the rock ledge right beside Bliss’ toes. Using the hilt of the sword as a bar, it swung its body up to land before them, its heels hanging over the edge.
Bliss didn’t even think. Neither, it seemed, did Stix. As one, they pushed the grey thing back over the edge, sending it crashing into the other five as they tried to follow up the ledge.
All six got to their feet and stared up at Bliss, their eyes sparking.
‘We need to get higher.’ Stix tugged her arm.
She nodded, turning away from the visibly broken arms of the grey things scrabbling up the wall again. What if they couldn’t kill them? What if these grey things just kept coming? What if they found the others?
Then she had no time to think as rocks shifted under her feet. She stopped, tugging Stix to a standstill beside her. He opened his mouth to protest. Too tired to talk, Bliss just bent down and picked up a head sized rock, hefted it to her shoulder and aimed it at the grey thing closest to them.
Not looking at them, the grey thing didn’t see the rock coming. She tried to tell herself it wouldn’t have felt anything as the rock connected with its skull, splitting it, that the face it pulled as it fell was only muscle spasms, not a grimace of pain.
Then she stopped telling herself things, and just threw rocks. Big ones, small ones, anything that would do some damage. Three of the six fell, their blood seeping down between the screed. The biggest of the three left, grabbed one of his comrades, hefting him overhead, using him as a shield.
Bliss stopped lobbing rocks, and started throwing stones as if she was skimming them. Her first one bounced of a knee, opening a red line. Her second did the same along the thick abdomen. Her third opened a line from his cheek to his eye.
Stix kept throwing the larger stones, hitting the other one with consistent accuracy. It fell to its knees, blood covering its body. When Stix’ next throw made it tumble backwards down the outcrop in a bundle of loose limbs, he joined Bliss in pelting the survivor with sharp stones. Between them, they criss-crossed his grey skin with deep gashes.
The grey thing snarled, hurled its dangling comrade at her, then threw its head back and roared. Further upstream, and answering roar echoed.
Bliss stopped panting, her ears straining for screams. Reaching for Stix, his gaze searching the trees blocking the river from view; she caught sight of the grey thing as it lunged at them.
The scream that gathered in her throat came out as a huff when the grey thing slammed her to the ground. She couldn’t draw breath, couldn’t yell, couldn’t move as it ground her much smaller body beneath it.
Blood pounded in her ears, bright flashes illuminated the darkness that swayed behind her closed eyelids. Her lungs gave up trying to expand, her heart trying to beat.
Then everything stopped. She felt weightless, numb. Her body seemed to float this way and that, dipping and rising with the wind. She wondered where her spirit would end up, if it would end up anywhere.
Was it only her body trapped in this strange place? Would she stay on here in limbo? A ghost? Maybe she could haunt those grey things, hunt them down and somehow make them pay for all the lives they’d taken, because she knew they’d killed more than just her.
Slowly, a burn began where her heart should have been beating. The more she thought about the fate of the others, of Stone, Swish and Sox, of the little boys and girl clinging to each other, terrified and hurt, the more the burn spread.
With a knock against her ribs, her heart lurched into an unsteady rhythm. Catching on, her diaphragm squeezed her lungs into action. She gulped a breath, coughed, almost threw up, coughed again, then groaned.
The blood rushing around her body told her about every leak, every bruise, every break. Taking shallow breaths, she opened one eye, the other one refusing to obey.
Stix crouched over her, one arm cradling her shoulders, his other hand resting against her cheek.
‘I thought I was too late.’ He shook his head, his eyes wide, cheeks flushed. ‘I thought...’ he swallowed.
‘I’m okay.’ Bliss tried to sit up.
He caught her grimace, his arm tightening around her shoulders. ‘Be still,’ he said, sliding his other arm under the back of her knees and lifting her up.
She didn’t have the strength to argue. Not when she had to grit her teeth against some not very nice words that wanted out. Instead, she closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing.