He’d detoured to what was left of the dining hall, even though he knew no one went there, checked all the stairwells, the halls and everywhere else on his way to the kitchen in his orb. At the hallway to the kitchen, his orb came to a sudden stop, jolting him off his feet.
Darkness surrounded him, thick fingers of it pressing against the orb, coiling around it, squeezing, until a crack appeared.
Frozen, Stix stared at the crack, his mouth falling open as the orb vibrated against the pressure. It stilled for a second, then dropped him. Landing on his back, a cloud of dust splashing up around him, his eyes watered as he watched his orb heave and grow, more cracks appearing as it fought to break the hold the shadows had on it.
It grew until it filled the whole space, its sides bashing the shadows against the walls. Lightening filled the orb. Fierce flashes of red and blue against the darkness. The shadows began to growl in their deep grating voices. Stix could feel the vibrations of it in his lungs, his ears.
Before he could squeeze his palms over his ears, or close his eyes, the orb exploded, booming outwards through rock, air, him. When it sucked back in, pulling all the shadow, air and sound with it, Stix could only lay numb on the ground.
He turned his head to the side, his orb just out of reach of his outstretched hand. Rubble fell all around him. He waited for the sounds. None came. He cleared his throat. Grunted as he sat up. Clapped the dust from his chest.
Pushing the panic deep down, he pushed to his feet. Body as numb as his ears were deaf, he scooped up his orb, noticing the spider web of cracks that covered it. Blackness swirled within it, shot with lightening that seemed to anger it, sending it swirling faster.
Holding it up in one hand, Stix clicked his fingers. The orb stayed in his hand, tiny shudders rippling across its surface.
Stix did the only thing he could. He slipped the orb into his pocket, and turned to look for a way out. He didn’t hear if the whoosh of air from his lungs came out in a scream. The look on the kitchen maids face as she stood before him, told him it probably had. She recovered, her mouth moving, hands gesturing.
‘I can’t…’ He shook his head and pointed to his ears. Talking and not hearing what he said was just not right.
The kitchen maid nodded, took his hand, and began leading him towards the kitchen. He wondered if she took him to the tunnel in the pantry. He wanted to tell her that he knew it was there.
Then he saw the body. Well, what he could see of it poking out from under the fallen boulder. Visions of Stone squashed like that, his torso swallowed by rock, his legs splayed like a spider. As much as he wanted to look away, he couldn’t. Even though he knew they were dead, he couldn’t help wanting to stop and help.
The kitchen maid tugged at his hand, pointing towards the kitchen. He nodded, following her, his head swivelling to keep the body in view until they walked through the kitchen door.
Huddled in a corner were two small girls and three small boys. Their dirty faces streaked with tears, their limbs tangled up in fierce hugs. The kitchen maid went to them, holding her hands out. A girl and boy, twins he guessed, climbed into her arms. The other three untangled themselves and ran to him, re-tangling themselves around his legs.
He looked at the kitchen maid. She pointed to the door, and slowly mouthed ‘we need to go’, so he could understand.
He nodded, but pointed towards the pantry. She frowned, then picked an apple up off the floor and tossed it to him.
He shook his head, pocketed the apple, then knelt down and patted his hand on his back.
The little girl scrambled onto his back to sit perched on his shoulders, her little legs gripped tightly at his neck, her arms his forehead. Taking the boys by a hand each, he walked to the pantry. He didn’t know if the kitchen maid protested. One of the boys kept looking back, so he guessed she must have been.
He kept walking to the back of the pantry and into the tunnel. At least no shadows lurked in the cracks this time.
Even so, his skin crawled. Repressing the shiver, and the urge to run, he swallowed past the little hands choking him, and kept walking.
They all squinted as they stepped out into the sunlight. The two boys covered their eyes with their spare hand, the little girl buried her face in his hair. Stix just stared at the scene before him. Gone were the trees, grass and pond from so short a time ago.
In that moment, he understood the term war zone. He’d always imagined it as the death, the blood, and though that was part of it, the total devastation was what resonated through his chest.
His legs nearly gave out.
They were at war.
The two boys looked up at him, making him suck the panic in and swallow it. He had to get them to safety. His orb no longer worked, so it was up to him. More panic bubbled up. Squeezing the hands he held, he started forward, heading for the little cover the non-exploded trees afforded.
To get to the dragon grass meadow, they had to skirt the enemy. He just hoped the enemy was too preoccupied with storming the school to worry about the seven of them sneaking through.