Stix could only stare at the girl before him. He knew the panic simmered just under the surface, knew she struggled to keep it coiled. Yet, here she stood, looking at him, waiting for him to show her the injured people. He’d watched her run gentle fingers over the three little ones, remembered the shot of heat she’d sent up his arm when she’d examined his hand.
‘Someone is badly hurt,’ she said, breaking the silence. ‘I can feel it.’ Her hand massaged her lower back, as though she could feel it there.
‘Stone.’ He pointed to where Fin sat beside his friend. Bliss didn’t hesitate to walk over to him, her knees hitting the ground hard when she saw his mangled leg. Fists clenched, she closed her eyes, and Stix couldn’t look away.
‘We need to get everyone underground before the sun gets much higher,’ Tattoo said, walking towards him.
‘Then get everyone moving.’ Tattoo crossed her arms over her chest.
As Tattoo gave a huff, Bliss uncurled her fingers, rested one hand on Stone’s thigh, above the wound, her other hand on his shin. Stone’s face scrunched, his eyes closing, head thrown back. Then he opened his eyes, lowered his head, and stared open mouthed as Bliss’ hands crept closer to the gaping flesh just below his knee.
Stix fought the stab of burning ice that lodged low in his gut. Jealousy wasn’t in him, not when it came to girls, he reminded himself. He wanted to be free, not tied down, his future mapped out, and that’s what girls did.
Turning from the sight, wishing he could turn from the ache in his gut, he took a deep breath. ‘We are on our own now,’ he said, his words turning twenty pairs of eyes on him. He swallowed. ‘We have to help each other. Everyone pair up with someone, stay close to your partner. We don’t want to lose any more people.’
A few gazes turned back to the black smoke rising behind them.
‘We need to find shelter so we can rest until dark. Then Cane and Swish will hunt for some food,’ he glanced at the two, glad they nodded, then continued. ‘So partner up, and we will get going.’
While everyone sorted out their pairs, Stix made his feet take him to where Bliss still knelt beside Stone. He didn’t want to see her hands on Stone’s bare flesh, or know just by looking at Stone’s face that he felt the same jolt of heat from her touch.
Face pale, she looked up at him. ‘We need to find water.’
‘We need to find shelter.’ He gritted his teeth, swallowing the bitterness in his voice.
She stood up, facing him, hands on hips. ‘If we don’t find water, you won’t need to find shelter.’ She stepped even closer, tilting her head back to glare up at him. ‘Everyone is exhausted and dehydrated. Those with open wounds will get infections if we don’t clean them. We need water.’
Unclenching his jaw, he tilted his head towards Swish, his gaze still on Bliss. ‘Can you see how far away the river is, and how far shelter might be?’
‘I’ll be as quick as I can.’ She ran into the tall grass.
‘Will she get lost?’ Bliss broke their stare to look where Swish had run.
‘Swish can look after herself.’
‘Swish.’ She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Stone,’ she said, looking at him. Then she looked up at Stix once more.
‘And you’re Stix.’
Sox gave a grunt at being left out, making Stix smile. At least he wasn’t the only one.
‘Sorry.’ She went to the horse and stroked his neck. ‘Sox.’ She ran a finger along a scar on his shoulder, the skin twitching under her touch. ‘How did he get this?’
‘You can ask him after.’ He turned away. Didn’t his body know he had enough to deal with, without complicating things more with bouts of searing jealousy? He’d never had this trouble before. Why now?
His orb, nearly forgotten in his pocket, gave a shudder. ‘But this isn’t what I wanted,’ he said, lifting the orb out, cradling it on his palm. Still cracked and smoky, it looked how he felt, about to explode into a thousand tiny pieces.
‘That’s like the one that grabbed me from my bed.’ Bliss froze, her hand mid stroke along Sox’ neck. ‘Except it was clear.’ She frowned, her hand dropping as she came towards him.
‘Something happened to it during the attack.’ He slipped it back into his pocket. ‘Is everyone paired up?’ He tried to turn away. Bliss grabbed his arm, pulling him back. He could almost see her brain working it out.
‘You did this, you brought me here.’
‘I know, it was a mistake.’ He moved his arm out of her grip. ‘Once we’ve rested and have a plan of what to do next, we will to get you home.’
‘Send me back the way you brought me here.’
‘My orb doesn’t work, I’ve tried. It’s like its sick.’
Bliss held her hand out, her gaze on his hip, where the orb sat in his pocket. Feeling his cheeks heat up, he reached in and got the orb out, dropping it gently onto her palm. As soon as the orb touched her skin, Bliss’ eyes closed, then her legs gave way, sending her to the ground.
Stix grabbed for her, managing to catch her shoulders before they hit the dirt. Everyone crowded around him as he cradled Bliss in his arms for the second time that morning. Sweat ran down his back as he tried to figure out what had happened.
‘Is she still alive?’ Fin knelt on the other side of Bliss, her eyes wide.
‘I think so.’ He watched the pulse jump in her neck, and sighed. ‘Yes.’
‘I don’t know.’ Of its own accord, his head slowly shook side to side as he spoke. ‘She wanted to look at my orb.’
Fin picked Bliss’ hand up, uncurling the fingers from the dark orb, and held it out to Stix. As he took the orb and put it back in his pocket, Bliss moaned, turning her head against his chest. He heard the whispers around him, knew they talked about him and the orange haired girl, but for once, he didn’t care what they said.
What he did know, was his orb had been right. Bliss was the key to his future. He’d never felt the jealousy she stirred in him. Nor had he ever felt so protective of anything, or anyone. If he had to cut off his arm to save her, he would. If she asked him to stop breathing, he would.
He just hoped he could find a way to convince her he was right, that she belonged here, with him.
‘Stix.’ Swish came running through the dragon grass, her face red, clothes askew. ‘Something happened.’ She doubled over, dropping her hands to her knees and sucking in air.
‘What?’ Stix and Swish said together.
‘There’s a group of Rogue just to the north of us. I didn’t worry because they were heading away, then something happened, they all stopped, then turned and are heading this way, now.’
Stix locked gazes with Tattoo. She’d been standing off to the side, arms crossed, lips pursed. ‘I need your help.’
She shook her head. ‘You need more than just my help.’ But she stepped forward, eyeing the people gathered behind him. ‘How long do we have?’ she asked Swish.
‘Ten, maybe fifteen rize.’
‘And how far is the water and shelter?’
‘The river is just through the dragon grass, that way.’ Swish pointed to the south. ‘And there looks like some sort of cave we can stay in just to the east.
Tattoo sighed and dropped her gaze to Stix. ‘Well?’
‘Fin, you guide Sox and any injured people to the cave, go along the river so they can’t track you.’ He turned to face They, standing at the edge of the group, each head looking a different direction. ‘I need you to take Stone, and anyone else you can carry.’
One head turned to look at him, yellow eyes glowing gold in the sunshine. ‘We stay and fight.’
A dozen voices babbled. Bliss stirred in his arms. He heaved a sigh when her eyes opened and fixed on his face. He saw the moment recognition dawned, his heart stilling as her gaze went from dreamy to sharp, cutting. Pushing away from him, she rolled to her hands and knees, breath coming in short gasps.
‘I don’t intend to fight.’ He waited til she looked at him. Though his words were for the others, he wanted her to know where he stood. ‘We’ve lost too many this morning. And I cannot do this on my own.’
To his surprise, she stood up, held her hand out to him, pulled him to his feet, then, dropping his hand, turned to Swish. ‘Did you find water?’
‘Yes.’ Swish glanced at Stix.
‘There’s a band of Rogue heading our way, we need to get everyone to safety.’
‘Are they after us?’ Bliss frowned, chewing her bottom lip as she took in the state of each person around her.
‘We don’t know, but I don’t want to wait and ask them.’
Bliss nodded, turned a slow circle, her gaze skyward. ‘If only we had a bird’s eye view, we could keep an eye on them while we move.’
‘I’ll try, but the higher the sun gets, the harder I find it to fly.’
‘Do your best.’ He rested a hand on her shoulder as she turned to go. ‘Be careful, if it gets to dangerous, find us. Tattoo will have your clothes.’
Swish took a deep breath and nodded. Tattoo shot him a glare as she followed Swish into the long grass.
‘She can fly?’ Bliss’ voice held equal parts of disbelief and wonder.
‘In her shifted form, yes.’ He eyed her, wondering if she’d hit her head at some point.
Stix ran a hand through his hair, deciding she must have. Confusion etched lines around her eyes, clouded them. He held her gaze, trying to find the words that would ease her mind, allow them to move, get to a safe place and rest. ‘I’ll explain later.’
‘You better.’ One orange eyebrow twitched, her mouth setting in a hard line. Turning away from him, she looked up as Swish glided overhead. ‘Where do we go?’
‘Thank you.’ He bowed his head.
She didn’t turn back, didn’t look at him. He didn’t dwell on the cold fingers that closed around his heart, couldn’t. Instead, he turned to the others. ‘Fin, go with Bliss and the others, head to the river, then along to the cave.’
‘What are you going to do?’ Bliss frowned at him.
‘Cane and a few of us will see if we can confuse your tracks. Hopefully whatever made them turn this way will lead them straight past, if not, we will.’ He nodded to Fin, then gently pushed Bliss towards Sox.
‘I’m not hurt.’ Bliss leaned back against his hands, stopping her movement. ‘I’m staying with you.’
‘Me too.’ Tattoo stuffed Swish’s clothes between the three children sitting on Sox, then came to stand beside Bliss, her arms crossed over her chest.
Stix tried to unclench his jaw before he spoke. ‘I don’t need to be worried about you two, as well as everything else.’
As soon as the words were out, he knew he was in trouble.