“Get away from me, you disgusting witch,” he groaned.

“You might not realise it yet,” she said, fixing him with her yellow eyes, “but one day, you will come to appreciate me.”

Fandel looked into her eyes as they gleamed in the darkness. And as he did, there was a small part of him that did want to go to her. A part of him that wanted to take the Delf in his arms, entwine his bony fingers in her filthy, matted hair, and press his lips over her cracked and weeping mouth.

Stop it! He cursed himself, and those thumping pains started to pound in his temples again. He rubbed the side of his head with the tips of his fingers. Everything had gone wrong! He should have brought the girl back with him. Throat – his reflection – wouldn’t be pleased.

“We need to get the girl,” he hissed, the pain inside his head becoming unbearable.

“Throat has everything under control,” the Delf tried to assure him, and then farted.

“Will you stop doing that!” Fandel screeched at her, the tendons on his neck flashing white through his skin. “I’m trying to think, goddamnit!”

“But you don’t need to think,” the Delf soothed, reaching out and stroking his face with her claw-like hands.

Fandel flinched backwards as if her fingers were red hot.

“Throat is well pleased with you,” she lied, reaching for him again.

“Really?” he snivelled, and this time he let the Delf caress his cheek.

“How do you know?” he asked her.

“I’ve spoken with him.”

“You’ve spoken with Throat?” Fandel gasped.

“I’ve seen Throat,” she hushed, running her broken fingernails through the hair that circled his ear. Then, looking into his eyes, she lied again and said, “It was Throat who sent me to save you. He has a very special task for us.”

“For us?” Fandel asked, his eyes wide and heart slamming in his chest. He felt scared but excited, too. He liked that.

“He wants us to travel to the Outer-Rim,” she lied again. “There we will take the key from the Noxas boy.”

“He has the key?” Fandel shuddered under her touch. “I truly have failed Throat.”

“No,” she cooed in his ear, her rancid breath making his skin flush cold. “He is very pleased with you and wants us to work together.” This wasn’t a complete lie, as she knew her brother had said she could have Fandel once he had finished with him.

“Really?” he asked, now finding some pleasure in her touch.

“Really,” she said, her blistered lips hovering over his.

Then suddenly, he pushed her away and said, “Hang on a minute!”

“What’s wrong?” she burped, fearing that he had seen through her deceit.

“How are we traveling to the Outer-Rim?”

“On Max, of course,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the giant dog.

“If you think I’m traveling on that, you’ve got to be out of your tiny mind,” he hissed. “That thing doesn’t like me.”

Max turned his colossal head and looked at Fandel as if it understood every word he had said. It stood as tall as a lion, its matted, black mane blowing in the wind. It prodded at the ground with its three-toed paws and snarled at Fandel.

“See - it hates me,” Fandel spat, taking a step backwards.

“Get a grip,” the Delf said, leaving Fandel and going to her pet. She stroked its long hair and let the abnormal-looking dog lick her face.

“You can travel by dog if you wish,” Fandel spat, but I’ll make my own way to the Outer-Rim.

“And how are you planning on doing that?” she asked, wiping the goo from her face which had been left there by Max’s fleshy tongue.

Ignoring her, Fandel looked up into the star-shot night and started to chant.

Beat thy wings from the depths of torment

From the darkness above make thy decent

Raven black and as cold as snow

I give you flight, Mortality Crow!

Fandel recited the spell over and over, until his lips moved so fast that spittle flew from them and his words became just like undecipherable jumble. Then over the sound of his chanting came a different noise. It sounded like two giant sails flapping in the wind. Fandel’s lips stopped twitching and he opened his eyes. He watched with delight as the Mortality Crow swept out of the night, gliding just feet above the floor of the desert.

“Come to me,” Fandel called out to it, raising his arm into the air as if training a bird of prey. But the crow was far too big to be like any known species of bird. It swooped high up into the night sky, swooped around, then dropped like a stone. Just feet from the ground, it spread its mighty wings, and landed on a set of grey talons. The crow beat its wings, and both the Delf and Fandel shielded their eyes against the spray of sand that was whipped up into the air. The creature squawked and the noise was deafening. Max howled and retreated backwards, its teeth glinting in the dark as it rolled back its lips in a show of anger.

“Come to mummy,” the Delf cried on seeing the giant dog’s distress.

The crow opened its long, black beak and made an ear-splitting screaming noise at the dog. Max yelped, and then emptied his bladder into the dust. Seeing this, Fandel clapped his hands together.

“Very good! Very amusing!” he smiled.

“Get that thing away from Max!” the Delf cried, wrapping her arms around the dog’s neck, as if to comfort it.

“Leave the dog,” Fandel said over his shoulder as he made his way to the crow.

“I can’t just set Max free,” the Delf groaned.

“How very sentimental of you,” Fandel smirked as he mounted the giant crow, which squawked again. Then looking down at the Delf, he added, “I thought Throat wanted us to go to the Outer-Rim?”

“He does,” the Delf said.

“Then stop wasting time with that mutt and come with me,” Fandel said, although part of him would have been happy if she decided to go alone. But Throat had wanted them to travel together and Fandel didn’t want to make another mistake.

The Delf looked at Max and stroked his shaggy mane. “Mummy will come back for you,” she told him.

Max whimpered and rubbed his giant head against hers. Then one last time, the Delf sneezed a fistful of maggots into her hand and let Max lick them away. With black tears streaming down her cheeks, she turned and headed towards the crow where Fandel sat waiting for her. Max howled, but the Delf couldn’t bring herself to look back.

Fandel reached down, took hold of the Delf’s arm, and hoisted her up onto the crow. She sat behind him, her lumpy and misshapen bosoms pressing into his back. Fandel shuddered. The crow leapt into the air, its massive wings unfolding as it carried Fandel and the Delf up into the night and towards the Outer-Rim.

Below, Max howled as he raced around and around in circles as if chasing its own stubby tail.

Chapter Twenty-Two

With the Dammed Bandits all dead, the peacekeepers made camp on the shore of the Onyx Sea. They sat together before the fire and ate what was left of the rations they had brought with them. They kept far enough from the shoreline to be out of reach of the crabs that scuttled sideways out of the water and fed on the corpses of the dead bandits. Anna had never seen such huge crabs, and she moved closer to Tanner. Their claws waved back and forth in the air as they raced out of the water, their crusty shells coated with barnacles and lengths of black seaweed which made them look as if they had hair. The crabs made a screeching sound as they fought over the remains of the bandits lying in the sand. Their giant arms were as long as a man’s leg and their bodies as bloated and as large as an armchair.

They snapped open their claws as they dragged the dead back into the water. Anna covered her ears to block out the sound of the deceased bones crunching and splintering as the crabs pulled them to pieces.

“That’s so disgusting,” Anna groaned, putting aside the strip of dried meat which had been given to her by one of the peacekeepers.

“Crabsters,” Tanner mumbled around a mouthful of meat. “A cross between a crab and a lobster, I guess. You’re quite safe. They never attack humans – unless they are dead.”

“That’s nice to know,” Anna said, drawing her knees up beneath her chin as she watched one of the Crabsters tear the leg from one of the dead bandits and scurry sideways back into the water with it.

“Are you okay?” Wavia asked her.

“No, not really,” Anna said back. “I haven’t a clue as to what’s going on here. Where am I?”

“You’re not in Earth,” Baran said, cleaning sand from his crossbow.

“I kinda guessed that a few days ago,” Anna sighed, looking through the flames at the peacekeeper. He was clean-shaven with dark brown hair. He must have been about twenty-three – but no more. Baran’s eyes were blue and his mouth looked nothing more than a stern slit beneath his nose. Anna thought that he looked kinda moody.

“You’re in a place called Endra,” Tanner said, as the other six peacekeepers drew closer around the fire. Anna studied them. They were all male apart from the female who had introduced herself as Wavia. Anna thought she was really pretty with her long blond hair and light blue eyes. She didn’t look much older than Anna, about twenty years. But she had a way about her that suggested she was older than she looked. Anna thought that she somehow commanded the respect of the other peacekeepers, although she wasn’t the leader of the group; Tanner was. Anna knew that by the way the others listened intently to his every word. She sensed their respect for him. But perhaps Wavia was his deputy, Anna wondered.

“My uncle brought me here through a doorway in his fireplace,” Anna told them, and however bizarre her story sounded, she knew the group she now sat with would believe her. She wondered how they had all come to be in this world too. Perhaps they had been born in Endra? Maybe it was their home? “My uncle was trying to kill me,” she added. “I don’t know why.”

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