By the time Stix fell onto his bed, having run the six flights of stairs and hallways, dodging the irritating decorations, the itch had spread throughout his body, making his palms damp, his skin tingle.
What was taking his orb so long? He didn’t want to wait, not when his future loomed mere hours away.
Stoically, he ignored Stone, who sat mid sit up, cheeks red, striped socks pulled up past his knees.
‘Finish your sit up for Farts sake,’ Stix said. ‘And stop staring at me.’
Stone grunted as he did his last five, then lay flat on his back, puffing. ‘Why do you eat in the new hall?’ he said.
‘Because it’s quiet.’
‘We aren’t that noisy.’ Stone rolled onto to his stomach and began counting push ups under his breath. ‘Unless your ears are getting sensitive.’
Stix glared at his roommate.
‘I know your birthday is in two days, but you can’t dwell on it, you have to live for the now, or you’ll miss all the fun.’
‘It’s in less than two days.’ Stix gritted his teeth. ‘And missing what fun? Watching you and the others playing your stupid games? That’s not fun, its torture.’
‘Ah.’ Stone nodded as he finished his push-ups and lay spread out like a star fish, his cheek squished against the slate floor. ‘You’ve hit the fourth stage of turning seventeen.’
‘That’s just what Hear says.’
‘No. It’s true. I did my science experiment on it last year.’ Stone sat up and stretched his arms over his head. ‘There are seven stages in all. First is ignorance, everyone has that until they turn sixteen.’ He began counting off on his fingers. ‘Second is the laugh it off stage. You went through that earlier this year when you kept saying it was a myth, and it wasn’t going to happen to you. Third is seeking change. I don’t know when you had that moment, but you must have because now you’re in the un-funness stage. Next will come love and other things, sixth will be fitness, then you’ll just give yourself up to your fate, whatever it may be.’
‘I guess you’re at the fitness stage?’
‘No. I’m only just sixteen, I’ve only just come out of ignorance. Besides, by the time I get to seventeen, things will have changed, and if they haven’t, I’ll find a way to make them. As long as Sick and Tired keep out of my way. Have you noticed how long they take to do anything? An hour they spent yesterday trying to dye the cat orange, I tried to tell them black wont dye, but would they listen? No. Then Tattoo came in and saved the poor thing. Have you noticed how pink her eyes are, or how her hair looks like midnight on a Wednesday. Do you think she would ever go out with me?’
‘Are you actually asking me, or are you just ranting again?’
‘I’m asking.’ Jumping to his feet, Stone began jogging on the spot, his arms pumping at his sides, sweat beading on his face. ‘You were with her last year, so you know what she thinks. Why did you two break up anyway?’
Stix lay back on the bed and put one arm over his eyes. ‘She got too serious for me. All the doom and gloom stuff she came out with. I’m glad I’m not a girl, the stuff they go through when they turn sixteen is way worse than what we do turning seventeen.’ He shook his head and pushed up on his elbows to watch Stone alternate between looking like a sticky toddler chased him, to gliding across the polished floor in his socks.
‘Well, she’s gone through the Change, and survived, so she knows what she wants now, who she wants. Would she go for a guy like me?’ He suddenly stopped mid jog, one leg in the air, one arm crooked high. ‘Why would she. Look at me. I’m nothing compared to you.’ He let his foot and arm drop as he faced Stix. ‘You’re the unmotivated thinker who lays awake all day and plots world domination all night. I’m just a sentimental athlete who can’t keep his mouth shut whatever the hour.’
‘She’s not interested in me.’ Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Stix got up and clapped a hand on Stone’s shoulder. ‘If you want her, go get her.’
‘But girls don’t like that sort of thing.’ Stone followed Stix out the dorm door and down the half flight of stairs to the old dining hall. ‘They don’t like guys that chase them.’
‘Have you ever chased a girl?’ Stix asked as he sat at the table between Fin and Swish. The two girls looked at him, Swish with her fangs and furry ears showing, Fin with her sandy skin and liquid grace.
Opposite them, Cane’s cheeks glowed red at the sudden inclusion into such a conversation. His fox tail twitched up behind him, his ears not knowing which way to go. Beside him, Sox grinned, one horse ear on Stone, the other on Stix.
‘No. They say chasing girls is bad luck, mostly because the girl is more likely to punch you than kiss you.’ Stone sat beside Cane, shaking his head. ‘Why do you keep your fox tail and ears on, Cane?’
‘Just because you’re jealous, Stone, doesn’t mean Cane or Sox should hide what they are.’ Stix glanced towards They as he spoke, hoping They weren’t looking back at him.
Unfortunately, They stared at him with fierce orange eyes, all four of them. They were the only ghost twins in the school. Not that They were a ghost. No one really knew what They was. One train of thought said They had been hungry and eaten someone from the toes up, only stopping when They got to the head.
The fact that They had two heads on abnormally large shoulders - something the swim team took full advantage of – told Stix that it was more likely that, at some point in their formation, They had supposed to be twins, but had only come out with a twin head.
‘I’m not jealous.’ Stone crossed his arms over his chest, then sighed. ‘Okay, I am. I want wings.’ He looked at Cane as though the boy could grant him a wish.
Cane gave a slow shrug and ducked his head.
‘If you want to fly, see the dragon master, he’ll hook you up with a couple of Gleeps,’ Sox said, then tapped Stone on the shoulder when he didn’t answer.
‘I don’t want to fly. There’s no way I’m strapping myself to a couple of fluffy creatures that just happen to have wings. They aren’t even real dragon for Farts sake.’
‘You said you wanted wings.’ Sox frowned at him. ‘Why else would you want them, other than to fly?’
Stone hugged his arms tighter to his chest, his gaze trying to keep from landing on one of the girls.
Stix saw and nearly laughed. ‘I bet your fox tail gets the girls talking,’ he said to Cane, then looked at Sox. ‘And your long horse tail. I’ve seen the amount of times you come out of class with it braided and beaded.’
Cane blushed a deeper shade of red.
‘So, you want wings.’ Sox grinned and nodded.
Either side of Stix, the girls giggled. About to frown at them, he froze as something darted up his leg. He jumped when it bumped against his thigh.
Watching him, Cane sat stiff, his ears twitching.
Stix slowly inched his hand down his leg, half expecting to feel something icky, or at least furry, clinging to his trousers. Instead, he felt the cool vibrating roundness of his orb.
‘What are you smiling about?’ Stone watched him with a frown. ‘You’re not supposed to be happy, you’re in the un-funness stage still.’
On his left, Fin raised an eyebrow and tried to look down at his lap. He moved so she couldn’t see, curled his fingers around the orb and stood up.
‘Well, I have some moping to do, so I can’t be bothered to see you all later.’ He waved his free hand in the air as he walked off, stoically avoiding looking at They.
In his dorm room, he opened his hand and let his orb float before him. It exploded tiny sparks against its sides to make a smiley face.
Eyebrows raised, Stix crossed his arms over his chest. ‘This better be good,’ he said.
In answer, the orb shot down the stairs towards the new dining hall. Instead of stopping at the hall, his orb kept going deeper, towards the new kitchen. Stix followed it. He’d never been this deep into the earth. It made his skin itch.
Stopping after two flights of steps, he glanced over his shoulder, then back at his orb. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Exactly what I was about to ask,’ a shadow on the wall said, its voice like rock grinding against rock.
Stix blinked. He’d heard the cooks and platter maids whisper about the shadow talkers, but he’d always assumed alcohol had been involved in the sightings. Now, as dark things edged along the wall, melding into one big shadow as it slithered towards him, he wasn’t so sure.
‘Not talking?’ The shadow slipped to the floor and started towards Stix’s feet.
‘Not stopping,’ Stix said, turning to hurry after the orb waiting at the kitchen doorway. Keeping away from the other shadows that lurched and swayed as he passed, he followed the orb through the kitchen and into a small, unfinished pantry.
He looked at the orb.
It bobbed up and down, then side to side, until it disappeared for a moment. Stix stepped closer and found he stood at the dark mouth of the tunnel.
‘I’m not going in there.’ He looked back at the kitchen. Shadows swung from wall to floor, the closest one trying to pull itself away from the chair holding it to the ground.
If the orb had had shoulders, it would have sagged them. Then it lit up, literally, sending bright yellow light half way down the tunnel. Stix frowned, watching as tiny dark fingers tried to slither out of the cracks lining the earthen wall. Then he gave a sigh, ducked his head, and followed the orb as it swayed its way into the tunnel.
Behind him, he heard a chair scrape. It sent a shiver down his spine, and he couldn’t bring himself to look back. Putting one hand on his head, he wished he had his hat. It had kept him safe from everything for five long years, until one day, a girl had pointed at his hat and laughed at him.
He’d slipped it from his head, let it drop from his fingers, and never looked back. Two things had come from that day. He’d been forever scared that something, somewhere, would grab him from behind, haul him away and slowly kill him, and he’d hated girls.
That fear still held him with bony fingers, though he’d never admit it, but he’d found some qualities about girls that he could like. The fact that they were rational, straight talking creatures for one. He knew exactly what they thought, what they wanted. Nothing ever came as a surprise when a girl was involved.
Not that it always made life easy. Knowing Tattoo had their life planned neatly in a little notebook somewhere didn’t exactly fill him with joy. If anything, it made him sweat. He didn’t want to know he would marry her in three years, or that they would have two and a half twins and live on the edge of town with three cats and a goat.
And just because Tattoo had their life mapped out, didn’t mean he would be there to not enjoy it in less than two days time. He almost wanted to not survive turning seventeen, just to throw her plans into chaos.
Stepping out of the tunnel to find himself at the base of the ridge, he took a deep breath. That was another good thing about girls; they took your mind off other things. He let his lips curl into a smile for a moment, then cleared his throat and set them in a thin line again.
The orb hovered above his head, seeming to look one way, then the other, it dropped to a few inches above the ground and snuck out from the cover of the hedge, and took off across the courtyard to the forest beyond.
Stix watched it go, then shrugged. Parting the leaves of the hedge, he poked his head out, looked around, saw no one near, and stepped out into the open. Whistling, his hands behind his back, he took one step, then another. When no one yelled out, and nothing grabbed him from behind, he walked faster, until he ran across the open courtyard and dove into the thick undergrowth of the forest.
He stayed on his back, looking at the mottled grey-green leaves as they bobbed in the light breeze, while listening to his slowing heartbeat. When the orb nudged his shoulder, he turned his head to look at it, and saw the shadows of the branches reaching out with long spiny fingers. Stix jumped up and ran, not waiting for the orb to show the way.
Luckily, the orb was just as fast, and zoomed in front of him, zagging to the left along a darex path, then zigging right at a horseshoe shaped pond. They burst into the clearing before Stix had time to see it was a clearing. He’d already run halfway through before he stopped.
When he did, he turned back to see the orb hovering above something. Stepping closer, he frowned. Not the normal frown that all teenagers perfected as soon as they turned thirteen.
This was a genuine frown that puckered the muscles between his eyes and scrunched his mouth.
Untamed orange hair covered the head and shoulders of her slight body.
Yes, he nodded, her.
He looked at the orb.
The orb juggled in the air, excited.
The orb jiggled faster.
Stix felt as though someone ran a finger down his back. He couldn’t stop staring at the girl. Sweat prickled his skin. He’d never understood the idea of beauty before. Now he did, he wanted nothing more than to just stare at her forever.
Then his orb shivered, filled with grey wispy smoke, shrunk, and ducked behind him. The girl moved. He looked around, then went and knelt beside her, his hand hovering above her shoulder.
She looked even better than she had in the orb. Lightly, he touched his palm to her shoulder, felt her move against him, heard her soft groan, and found himself frowning again. Had the trip in his orb hurt her?
He glanced at the orb still hiding behind him. ‘Is she okay?’
The orb vibrated and turned a muddy brown.
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
The orb began to shudder. Stix held his hand up. ‘It’s okay, don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll be fine.’
He looked around again, then back towards the ridge. He could sneak her back through the tunnel, as long as he stayed away from the shadows. Getting her to his dorm might be a bit harder. He bunched his mouth to one side as he thought.
Maybe he could pass her off as a project. He straightened his mouth and sucked in a breath. If he got caught, they would take her off him, send her home. On the other hand, if he didn’t get caught, he would be able to hide her under his bed until he figured out how she was supposed to help him.
With a decisive nod, he scooped her up into his arms, warmth spreading over his skin to seep into his chest where he held her against him. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. She smelled like nothing he’d ever smelt before. He thought he caught a hint of vanilla, but other than that, the tangy sweet smell eluded him.
Opening his eyes again, he looked down at her. The way her lighter skin stood out against his, her hair falling over his arm so soft and bright. Eyelashes the same colour as her hair hid her eyes from him, but he knew from seeing her in the orb, they were a soft purple.
Shaking his head, stopping the errant thoughts, he pulled his gaze from her and stood up.
Something on the ground glinted. Squatting again, he picked up the small rectangular thing. Turning it over in his hand, he frowned, then slipped it into his pocket. Standing once more, he started back towards the ridge. At the edge of the courtyard, he stopped. Cocking his head to one side, listening for footsteps, he wet his lips with the tip of his tongue, tasting the air.
Once again, he tasted vanilla, and something else, something deep in her skin, something ingrained. Putting his mouth against his shoulder, he wiped his lips on his shirt. A deep breath in, ignoring the scent of her, he ducked his head and hurried across the open space to the hidden tunnel.
The orb bobbed over his shoulder and tried to glow. It managed a light that radiated out about a foot.
Standing at the mouth of the tunnel, his thoughts on things grabbing his shirttail, Stix didn’t take notice of the first tremor. By the time the second and third ones rippled up through his shoes, the alarm screamed throughout the school grounds.
Half way across the clearing, a great chunk of dirt exploded. Clumps of grass and soil splattered the stone wall either side of him, some hitting him in the back, making him jump.
More bits of garden and grass leapt out of huge holes in the ground, flinging themselves against the wall, until the wall began to crumble under the assault.
When the first boulder fell just to Stix’s left, he stared at it, still trying to make sense of it all.
Then the orb head butted him, pulsing red.
‘Take us somewhere safe.’ Stix looked up to see another grey boulder from the turret coming his way, fast. ‘Now.’ He closed his eyes and ducked, clutching the girl to him, as though crouching over her would save her.
A zap, like lightning, shot through his body, deafening him, scorching muscle, melting bone.
I’m dead, he thought, as the pain subsided. Just like that. Not even seventeen, and I’m dead.
Opening his eyes, he blinked. Encasing them both, his orb hurried through the treetops and shot skyward. Below, he could see the rock trolls throwing lightning balls at the school. Behind them, stood an army of Rogues ready for battle. It took him a moment to realise the army readied themselves to battle the school.
It took his orb only a few heartbeats to fly over the ridge, past the treed plateau that formed the top and front of the school, then across Nell river. When it came to rest in a meadow of dragon grass, Stix didn’t think to ready himself for the zap as it dropped them out. He landed on his back, the girl still unconscious in his arms.
Looking around, his heart thumping, he let his gaze stray to the east. Already, smoke bruised the sky, an eerie glow shadowing it. He swallowed and shook his head. Nothing made sense.
They were school kids.
Why did the Rogue want to march on them, destroy them.
Laying the girl down in the grass, he smoothed her hair off her face, then leaned close to her ear. ‘I have to go, but I’ll be back. If you can hear me, just stay here and wait, I will come back.’
Then he looked at the orb where it sat filled with smoke, shivering.
‘You have to take me back. We have to help them.’
The orb gave a shake and turned black.
‘Now,’ Stix said.
The orb seemed to sigh, then scuttled closer. Doubling in size, then again and again, it swallowed Stix with a zap. Lifting high up, it headed back to the school.