As the orb dodged lightening bombs, flying debris and arrows, Stix held his breath. How could anyone else still be alive? He’d only been gone a matter of minutes, and already the mammoth building lay like a rotted carcass, its bare bones strewn across the blackened grounds.
The dungeon, where he’d sat not half an hour before, sat broken open, its floor cracked down the middle, and still more lightening bombs fell into it, splitting it open to fall into the kitchen area below.
‘There,’ Stix said soundlessly, and pointed to the stairs that led from the dungeon to the upper dorms. The orb flew to where the stone steps fell away to nothing, but lead up to, hopefully, survivors. It dropped Stix on the ledge, then pressed against his back as he stumbled backwards, towards the yawning darkness of the kitchen two stories below.
Huffing in a breath, Stix looked from the dead drop, to his orb. ‘Thanks,’ he said, holding his hand out. The orb dropped to his palm, shrank to the size of a marble, and hummed as Stix slipped it in his pocket.
He took the steps two at a time, not daring to stop as the walls shook with the unending lightening bombs thrown at them. Dust and smoke settled heavily in the passageway, even though the slowly lightening sky replaced most of the ceiling.
Coughing, Stix paused at the first stairwell long enough to hear screaming coming from the girls dorms to the right. Sprinting after the sound, he leapt over fallen boulders that used to be the upper walls and ceiling of the hall.
A flat run isn’t how he should have taken the blind corner, and he had no doubt Tattoo would tell him that at some point in the future. Right then, though, she just grabbed his arm to stop his headlong dash, and turned him to see where the screaming came from.
His leg replaced by a Stix sized boulder, hands clamped around his bloody thigh, sat Stone. His bloodshot gaze lifted to Stix, his mouth moving but no words escaping. Colour drained from Stone’s face, then his torso folded forward, his cheek resting against the boulder.
Like flipping through a notebook, it took a moment for Stix’s brain to find the right reference for what he saw. When he mentally ripped out the right page and turned it around so it made sense, he had to snap his mouth shut against the rise of half-digested food.
‘Where’s everyone else?’ he said, dropping to his knees beside Stone’s stone leg. A pulse still beat in the boy’s neck, his chest still doing its job or making him breathe.
‘What? Why?’ Tattoo stared at him, then shook her head. ‘Do something.’
‘I’m going to need help.’ He looked up at her, then down the hallway as more figures emerged from the dust and smoke. Tattoo grabbed at his arm as he stood up beside her. He held his breath, then bent to pick up a good-sized rock from the floor. Holding it at the ready, he remembered to breathe again.
Stix and Tattoo looked at each other.
‘Cane?’ Stix took a step forward.
Cane and three others emerged from the dusty smoke, their faces smudged with red and black, uniforms torn. He looked at each one in turn, assessing them without thinking.
Cane’s fox ears and tail looked singed, a cut on his cheek weeping blood, but he seemed otherwise unhurt. Beside him, shadowing everyone by his bulk, Sox stood looking much the same, singed but unhurt. The two girls, Fin and Swish looked stunned, the smaller girls red eyes wide, her fangs pressing against lips held firmly closed.
‘Are there others?’ Fin slipped an arm around Sox, the horse shifter looking down at her with a worried frown.
‘I don’t know, but we need to help Stone.’ Stix pointed to his roommate.
‘How do we get him out of here?’ Swish went to kneel beside Stone.
‘I need your help.’ Stix nodded to Cane and Sox. ‘We need something to put under it so when we pull it, it doesn’t crush him worse. But we need to be quick, quiet, and strong.’ He said the last to Sox, hoping he didn’t have to come out and ask him to shift into his horse self.
‘Got it.’ Sox nodded. Glancing at Cane, he tipped his head towards the corner Stix had just come around. The two boys left without a word. Stix gave a small sigh. He’d never had much to do with shifters. He knew the basics; they ended up naked afterwards, which was, he figured, why they had gone around the corner to shift, so they could save what was left of their clothes.
‘What can we do?’ Swish said, still kneeling beside Stone’s unconscious body.
‘We need to know if there are others, and to get them to head across the river to the dragon grass meadow.’ Then he looked at Fin. ‘I need you to take him there, and look after him, and someone else.’
All three girls looked at each other, then at him.
‘Someone else?’ Tattoo voiced their thoughts. ‘You’ve already taken someone there?’
‘I don’t know who she is, and in my orb. That’s how you’ll get there.’ He turned to Fin as he pulled his orb out of his pocket. ‘When it drops you, just click your fingers and it’ll come back to me.’
Fin nodded, her gaze on the orb, still the size of a marble, in Stix’s hand.
‘It gets bigger,’ he said.
‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’ Tattoo crossed her arms over her chest. ‘Even ones you don’t know.’
‘This isn’t the time to get jealous, Tat.’ Stix sighed, then cocked his head to the side. ‘Listen.’
‘What?’ Swish mirrored him.
‘Nothing.’ He stared up through the hole in the ceiling at the morning blue sky. They should all be getting ready for bed, not trying to free Stone so they could get out of here alive.
‘What do you mean nothing?’ Tattoo glared at him.
‘The bombs have stopped.’
They all stood and listened.
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’ Fin moved closer to him.
‘I don’t know, but I don’t think so.’ He frowned. ‘Swish, go now, fly, find whoever is still alive, get them to the river.’
She hesitated, looking at Tattoo.
‘Now Swish.’ He pulled her to her feet. ‘Now.’ He pushed her to the corner. ‘Tattoo will get your clothes.’
Swish didn’t look back as she ran for the corner. A moment later, a large black bat flew over their heads and up through the hole in the ceiling. Stix didn’t have time to stare as Sox came trotting around the corner, pulling two logs with a makeshift harness strapped to his now hulking horse body.
Stix ignored the pang of jealousy that curled up his spine. He didn’t need the added complication of shifting, even if it would be chill to be able to shift into something as big and strong as the beast standing staring at him.
‘Good.’ Stix nodded and went to unhook the logs from Sox. ‘We need to get him out from under the boulder before his blood becomes toxic.’ He snapped his mouth shut and stopped.
‘Where did that come from?’ Fin said, watching him wide eyed.
‘I don’t know.’ He pushed his feet to move again, making them take him to Stone’s side where he knelt beside Fin.
‘When this moves, you need to pull him out, okay?’
She nodded as her gaze went back to Stone, his pale cheek still resting against the rock.
Stix got to his feet, his heart beating an erratic rhythm in against his ribs. If this didn’t work, if the boulder slipped and crushed more of Stone’s leg, or worse, crushed more of him, or Fin, or if the ropes snapped, or if the army of rogues reached the school before they got out…
‘Stix?’ Fin’s voice stopped his thoughts from running further down the dark tunnel.
‘Get ready to pull him out,’ he said, moving the logs so they wedged under the boulder holding Stone’s leg in a death grip, and between other boulders, so they wouldn’t move when he got Sox to pull.
Threading the rope as low on the boulder as he could, he just hoped it lifted without dragging.
‘Ready?’ he glanced at Fin.
His gaze went to Sox. The shifter tossed his head and gave a grunt.
‘Okay.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Pull.’
Sox leant into the harness, moving one hind foot forward, his muscles shaking. The boulder lifted slightly, but not enough. Stix jumped over Stone and Fin, putting his shoulder to the rock, he pushed until lights danced in his eyes.
‘He’s out,’ Fin yelled, dragging Stone well away from the boulder.
Stix blew out a breath, leaning against the boulder to catch his breath. Sox stopped pulling and stepped back, letting the boulder drop. Stix yelped and jumped out of the way, just missing being pinned to the wall.
He didn’t have the energy to say anything to Sox. He barely had the energy to stand. Though his body protested, he went and knelt down beside Stone’s crushed leg. Blood seeped from a gash just below his knee, making Stix gag.
‘Here.’ Sox held out his clothes.
Stix glanced up, not sure what would greet his already sore eyes. From the belly button up, Sox had changed back to his normal self. Below that, he’d kept his horse form. Stix couldn’t help being impressed by the chocolate colouring with knee high white socks and silver tail.
‘Thanks,’ he said, taking the clothes and tearing them into long strips. ‘Where’s Cane?’ He began to bind Stone’s leg.
‘He caught the scent of some more survivors. He said he knows some secret tunnels and will lead them out that way.’
‘Good.’ Stix tied the makeshift bandage off, then eyed his handy work.
Just as Stone opened his eyes and began looking around, the orb popped into existence beside Stix.
‘What happened?’ Stone frowned up at them. ‘Did you kick me?’ he looked at Sox.
‘It’s a bad dream,’ Stix said, then nodded to Fin.
Curling her arms around Stone’s chest, she eyed the orb as it doubled, and doubled, until it could swallow them both.
When it did, Stone’s scream, though silent, cut through Stix’s nerves, making him sweat.
‘He’ll be okay.’ Sox rested a hand on his shoulder.
‘I hope so.’ Stix rubbed a hand over his face. ‘We need to see if there are any others before the Rogue get here.’
‘You know it’s them?
’ Sox fell into step beside him, easily jumping the rubble in their way.
‘Yeah, they had trolls throwing lightening bombs. That’s how they got so much damage done in such a short time.’
Stix could only shake his head. He’d not been able to come up with anything. Not one reason the school should be attacked.
‘Down there.’ Sox stopped and pointed down the stairs.
‘I just came up there, it’s empty.’
‘What about the kitchen maids?’
‘We can’t get down there, the stairs are dust,’ he said, just as his orb popped into the air beside him. ‘For Farts sake.’
He rubbed his head. ‘If I die…’
‘I’ll make sure to write a song in your honour.’ Sox clapped him on the shoulder. ‘There’s more this way.’ He pointed down the hallway. ‘I’ll get them.’
‘Fine.’ Stix gritted his teeth as his orb did its doubling thing.