With his chainmail armor clinking, Bom made after Faraday as he strode away across the desert. The others caught up with him.
“So, how long?” Zach asked, worried about Neanna.
“Until what?” Faraday asked back, never taking his eyes off the dark horizon.
“Until we reach the city?” Zach pushed, feeling frustrated that he was placing his trust and friends’ lives in the hands of an emotionless machine.
“We’ll reach it by daybreak,” Faraday said back.
“Do you even know where we are going to find the house of this man – Der Cribbot?” William woofed.
“No,” Faraday said, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Oh, great,” Bom blustered. Then turning to look at Zach, he added, “I know you are meant to be some kind of leader or something, but I think you are making a big mistake by following this thing, boy.”
Zach knew that Bom was cowardly, but he was starting to think that perhaps he was right – could Faraday be trusted? Did he have the faintest idea where he was heading? How long had he been out in the desert? Zach wondered. Were all of the mechanical man’s cogs and parts, working correctly? Then, before he had a chance to say anything, Faraday had pulled an odd-looking compass from one of the many pockets on his flight suit. He held it out in the palm of his hand and said, “The Outer-Rim, Clockwork City, locate Cribbot residence.’
The lid of the compass flipped open, and a small dragonfly-looking bird sprung out and buzzed about just above Faraday’s open hand. A column of green light then arced out of the compass and formed a map of Endra. The dragonfly-type bird twitched, fluttered, and then zoomed into the holographic image that hovered above them.
“What is that?” Zach asked Faraday in wonder.
“It’s called a Seek-Wasp!”
“What does it do?” William asked, as he watched it rocket over the holographic image of Endra.
“It seeks out any location you request…”
“Like a Sat-Nav?” Zach pondered, aloud.
“Sat-Nav?” Neanna asked, glancing sideways at her friend.
“It doesn’t matter,” Zach whispered, unable to take his eyes off the creature that fluttered and buzzed overhead. Zach couldn’t help but think that to watch the Seek-Wasp was like being on one of those 3-D rides in theme parks. To watch it felt like he was racing just above the rough and craggy terrain of Endra, right behind its fluttering tail. Zach glanced at William who was transfixed by the thing. He was so immersed in its journey across Endra, he swayed from left to right on the spot, his eyes burning fiercely behind his glasses. Zach looked up at the Seek-Wasp and immediately ducked, as it appeared to swoop beneath the arms of trees that sprawled across a giant forest.
The Seek-Wasp’s wings fluttered so quickly, they were just a blur on either side of its black and yellow striped body. It tore through the holographic image of the forest, and it felt to the others like they were following it. It zoomed out of the forest, over mountaintops, and the vast blackness of the Onyx Sea. It reached the desert again, and here it hovered momentarily, before racing through the sky until it came to hover above an old stone building set on the edges of the desert.
“Cribbot…zzzz…residence…zzzz…located…zzzz,” the Seek-Wasp said in a buzzy sounding voice.
Without saying another word, Faraday snapped the compass-looking contraption closed. The green holographic image of the old building disappeared. The Seek-Wasp remained and hovered just inches above Faraday’s head, buzzing excitedly, desperate to guide him to the building.
“Thiz way! Thiz way!” it beckoned.
Zach glanced over at Faraday and said, “Did that wasp just speak?”
“Yes,” he replied flatly, not even drawing a breath.
“I didn’t think insects – or birds – could speak,” Zach breathed.
“It’s a machine,” Faraday said.
Neanna threw her sling of inferno berries over her shoulder, and Zach could sense she was keen to get to shelter before daybreak.
“Let’s get moving,” she said, and the Seek-Wasp fluttered away into the night.
They followed the Seek-Wasp for an hour or more across the flat, dry land. Every so often, the tiny winged creature would swoop above their heads and buzz excitedly.
“Thiz way! Thiz way!” it would buzz. Then it would be gone again, racing away into the distance for them to follow.
It wasn’t until Zach’s legs began to ache and each step became more sluggish, that he looked down and noticed that they had all been walking for some time in what appeared to be about a foot of snow. He glanced back over his shoulder, and could see their footprints fading away into the distance.
“Snow?” Zach whispered aloud, bending down and taking a handful. It felt soft and crunchy like snow, but it wasn’t cold, it was warm.
Warm snow? Zach wondered. But that would be impossible, right?“It’s not snow,” Neanna said, suddenly blinking beside him. “It’s the ash I was telling you about.”
“Ash?” Zach said curiously, letting it sprinkle through his fingers.
“It’s what’s left of Clockwork City,” Faraday said. “The city was burnt down when…”
“The volcano last erupted,” Neanna cut in, wanting to finish the story herself.
“Wrong,” Faraday said. “Throat set the city ablaze, killing everyone in it, and leaving those dead peacekeepers to patrol is borders.”
“But why destroy it?” Zach asked.
“Because of the box that you seek,” Faraday reminded him. “He couldn’t risk it being taken – stolen away. So he destroyed everyone and everything for a hundred miles or more. That box hangs alone, suspended in the searing draughts of air that surge from deep within the volcano.”
“So how are we ever gonna get up there and take it down?” William barked, his fingers reaching inside his shirt and gently touching the key hung about his neck.
Faraday stared back at him.
“We’ll find a way,” Zach said, walking away into the ash. He whispered to himself, “There is always a way.”
Throat skulked across the upper chamber of the Splinter. His cloak of spiderpedes trailed behind him. Zach Black and his friends were getting dangerously close to the Outer-Rim. But dangerous for who? For Zachary Black, he hoped. But to hope wasn’t good enough and he rung his bony hands together. He had spoken to the one who traveled with the boy, and Throat had been assured that he was being led into the trap which had been set for him.
“None of them will return,” the other had said, as Throat watched them in the swirls of black dust he had created.
It circled and swirled before him like a miniature sand storm. Throat stared into it from beneath his decaying hood and said, “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” the other replied. “The boy and the others do not suspect a thing. They trust me.”
“Good. Good,” Throat smiled, and he was comforted by the words that were spoken through the dust. “You will be rewarded well.”
“I’m not looking for rewards,” the other said. “I just want you to set my people free.”
“And I will,” Throat rasped, coughing up a globule of blood. He spat it from the corner of his mouth, where it festered on the cold stone floor at his feet.
“What about the key?” the voice spoke through the swirling dust.
“Just keep it safe,” Throat said. “I have another coming to relieve you of that worry. Just make sure that you lead the boy to Cribbot’s. Then lead them into the Craggy Canyons. They will have a surprise waiting for them there.”
“I will do my best,” the voice said.
“I know you will,” Throat chuckled, as if gargling on a mouthful of nails.
“Are you going to kill Zachary Black?” the other asked.
“That is not your concern,” Throat spluttered.
“You said you just wanted the box…”
“Have you developed feelings of friendship for the boy?” Throat asked.
“I am fond of him, yes,” the voice wavered.
“Well don’t become too attached,” Throat said with a smile. “Grief is such an unpleasant thing, as you well know.”
“But why kill Zach…?” the other started. “That wasn’t part of the deal. I would never have agreed to help you if I’d known…”
“Just make sure they head for the Canyon,” Throat rasped. “I will have my army of dead peacekeepers waiting for them. It won’t be me who kills the boy – it will be the very people he has come into Endra to lead.”
The dust fell out of the air and settled on the floor before him. With one skeletal foot, he brushed the dust away, scattering it to the four corners of the Queen’s chamber.
That had been some hours ago, and he waited for more news. It would come in time. With his cloak being carried behind by the thousands of spiderpedes that thrived over it, Throat went and stood before the Queen.
He stood and watched her sleep like he had so many times before. Then sighing deeply he rasped, “My only mistake was not snapping your neck the moment our mother brought you into this world.”
They walked in silence, the ash growing deeper, and now almost to their knees as it now fell from the sky like giant snowflakes. It settled in their hair and on their shoulders. Bom clawed it from his beard and grumbled. Faraday’s jet-black hair now looked grey where the powdery ash had settled. The wind whipped it up into small flurries as the Seek-Wasp headed through the falling ash, every few minutes calling out, “Thiz way! Thiz way!”
Then, Zachary noticed something sparkling in the distance. The light almost seemed to dazzle and spin like a Catherine Wheel firework. As he drew closer, his heart began to quicken as he realised it was the sun starting to rise over the burnt-out remains of Clockwork City.