“We’re outnumbered!” Zach shouted at Faraday as he went soaring past William, who was leaning against Bom as he released another inferno berry from his catapult.

Within moments, the night sky was shaking and glowing bright green, as a mass of the spider-ships erupted into flames. Another of the spiders raced towards Faraday’s Butter-Flyer. It released a wave of darts. Faraday banked the Butter-Flyer to the right as the darts roared past.

“Take the reins,” Faraday shouted back at Bom.

“Why, where are you going?” Bom roared, fear brimming in his eyes. “You’re not leaving us, are you?”

“Just take them,” Faraday insisted, shoving the reins into Bom’s hands.

Faraday ran the length of the Butter-Flyer. He moved with such speed that he became almost a blur. As he reached the end of the machine, he ripped the skin from his hands and arms and extended them on either side of his body as he leapt into the air. Faraday’s arms spun like a set of helicopter rotary blades as he twisted through the sky. He slashed at the air in several quick and precise movements, slicing through the legs of the approaching spider-ships.

The spiders spat and hissed in anger as their legs floated harmlessly away. But the loss of the creatures’ legs caused them to fall into an uncontrollable spin. The riders fought to stay on board, but as the spiders spun faster and faster out of control, the dead peacekeepers fell away. One of the descending creatures smashed into an unsuspecting spider-ship, and on contact, the creature exploded like a water bomb – in a shower of pussy, white liquid.

Neanna brought the Butter-Flyer around in a tight arc and Zach frantically searched the sky for Faraday. But he couldn’t see him.

“We’ve lost Faraday!” Zach shouted in Neanna’s ear.

“No we haven’t, he’s down there!” William howled as Bom raced his Butter-Flyer past Zach and Neanna.

Zach looked in the direction William was pointing and he could see Faraday standing astride one of the spider-ships as his arms sliced and whooshed through the air. Zach could only begin to imagine how he had dispatched the spider’s rider.

Faraday swooped around on top of the flying spider as he cut and thrust his way through any of the creatures that dared to fly near him. His arms moved with lightning speed, and as he hacked and jabbed away, Zach and his friends didn’t see the slightest glimmer of emotion on Faraday’s face.

William’s attention was drawn away by the sound of screeching from above. He glanced up to see one of the spider-ships right on top of him and Bom. It was so close, William could see the long black hairs which hung from its legs snagging in the wind. Before William had had the chance to take aim with his catapult, two of the spider’s legs had curled around his waist and snatched him up into the air. William yelped and kicked out wildly with his legs, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t work himself free from the creature’s grasp.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Anna Black sat behind Tanner on the rafter horse. Nail had given up his horse and was now riding with Wavia. Tanner led and the others followed. They had left the camp at sunrise, and what was left over from the remains of the Dammed Bandits was dragged into the sea by the last of the Crabsters.

As the rafter horse galloped across the desert, Anna clung onto Tanner. She had never ridden a horse before, let alone one that had six bony legs and a head that snaked back and forth on the end of a serpent-like neck. Tanner had explained that if her brother, Zach, was to reach the box, he would have to cross a place called the Outer-Rim. So that’s where they were heading. But that wasn’t all that Tanner explained and her head ached with all the information he had given her.

Tanner had explained to Anna about the reflections and the importance of hers. As she had sat before the fire and had tried to get her head around the whole idea of being somehow related to the Queen of the new world she found herself in, Tanner filled her head with more. He told her about the box and how it contained the Heart of Endra. He explained how Endra and Earth were both reflections of each other, and what happened in one, something similar happened in the other. She then understood the importance of saving Endra from the sorcerer, Throat, who Tanner had told her about.

Anna was informed by Wavia how they were the last of the peacekeepers, the others all murdered by Throat and his armies of Demonic Guardians. Baran explained that some of the peacekeepers were rumoured to have been risen from the dead by Throat to patrol the Outer-Rim, and protect the volcano which lay on the other side of it. But with a shrug of his shoulders, Nail passed it off as rumours – scary stories told to prevent anyone venturing too close to the Outer-Rim.

Tanner told her how the box had first been opened by a werewolf who travelled with her brother and this is what had brought Throat and his grotesque sister out of hell, or wherever it was that they had come from. He told Anna about the Slath and how they had been trapped permanently between life and death. They were neither alive nor dead. Zombies, some called them. Only one of their race had survived, and her name was Neanna Cera and she travelled with Anna’s brother.

Anna felt like her head was going to explode as her brain absorbed everything that Tanner and the other peacekeepers had told her. But as she raced across the desert, her arms wrapped around Tanner’s waist, she realised that he hadn’t explained who he was. Where had he come from? Who was the woman Meadda that he called out to in his sleep? And how did he seem to know so much about Anna and her brother?

Anna hoped that if they camped again before reaching the place Tanner called the Outer-Rim, she would be able to ask him some of the questions she had. Tanner made a ‘clucking’ noise in the back of his throat and raced the rafter horse across the desert. It was warm with the sun directly above them, spinning its bright rays outwards and drying up everything they touched. Anna glanced back over her shoulder to take another quick peek at Nail, when she saw a large black shadow racing just above the desert floor. She screwed up her eyes against the glare of the sun, then realised it wasn’t a shadow at all, but a huge black crow. If she had been anywhere else, Anna would have needed to take a second look just to make sure she wasn’t imagining the enormous crow racing towards her and the peacekeepers. Before she could scream or shout to alert the others, the crow swooped forward and snatched one of the peacekeepers from their rafter horse with its twisted black talons. Squawking so loud that Anna threw her hands over her ears, she looked up to see the crow rip the peacekeeper in two.

The crow tossed the upper torso of the peacekeeper into the air. Screaming, Anna watched as a thick, ropey stream of entrails sprayed from what was left of the peacekeeper. Then bobbing its head forward and opening its huge beak, the crow snatched the remains of the peacekeeper out of the air and swallowed him. Anna’s screams were the first indication that any of the remaining peacekeepers had that they were under attack. Tanner pulled back on the rafter horse’s mane and turned it around. With a crossbow in his fist, he raced back towards the others. He fired a volley of stakes up at the crow, who circled just out of reach.

Before the remains of their friend had even spattered into the sand, the remaining peacekeepers had all drawn their crossbows. Corkscrewing out of the sky, the crow attacked again, its hideous squawking sending the rafter horses into a blind panic. Tanner managed to keep control of his horse, Anna holding on so tightly that her fingernails dug into his back. She looked over her shoulder and saw that Baran and another of the peacekeepers and been thrown clear. Nail and Wavia fought to keep their horse under control. Then the crow was racing just feet above the flat desert floor as it chased one of the fallen peacekeepers down. So close to the ground, Tanner saw the two figures astride the giant crow’s back.

“Fandel and his witch!” Tanner roared, and fired off another wave of stakes from his crossbow. They whizzed harmlessly over their heads.

With its wings spread open, and blowing up a sheet of dust in its wake, the crow hovered over the retreating peacekeeper. Then with one peck of his hooked, black beak, it pulled the peacekeeper’s head from its shoulders. The crow threw its head back and swallowed the peacekeeper’s head in one quick gulp. It was so quick, that the peacekeeper’s body continued to run forward across the desert, thick jets of blood squirting from its neck. Anna watched from between her fingers as what was left of the peacekeeper stumbled forward a few more steps, then collapsed headless into the dust.

The crow turned its attention on Baran as he staggered backwards, firing wildly up at its riders. Sweat ran down his face and onto his whiskered chin as he took aim. But the crow was too fast and slick, as it just batted the stakes away with its razor-sharp talons. Throwing his hands up in front of his face and screaming, the crow plucked Baran up into the air. Kicking out with his legs, he knew what was going to happen next. As the crow soared over Anna and Tanner’s heads, Baran stared down at them.

With a look of acceptance on his face, he yelled, “Shoot me, Tanner! Don’t let this bird kill me.”

With his arm shooting outwards with lightning speed, Tanner fired one single shot into the heart of his friend. Moments later, the crow pulled Baran apart in its claw-shaped talons. Blood rained out of the sky and spattered the ground, which readily soaked it up.

Turning to face his friends, Wavia and Nail, Tanner roared at them. “Go! Go! Go! Save yourselves. They don’t want you. They want me and the girl.”

“But...” Wavia started.

Racing towards Wavia and Nail, with Anna holding on for her life, Tanner shouted, “This is a battle we can’t win. There will be another day for us. But you must go now, both of you. I have seen enough of my friends’ blood shed for one day.”

With the crow screeching overhead, Wavia and Nail looked at Tanner one last time, then pulling back on their creature’s reins, they fled across the desert. The crow hovered momentarily as Tanner and Anna raced away in the opposite direction.

“The girl!” the Delf belched in Fandel’s ear. “We need the girl. Forget the others!”

Just as Tanner had hoped, the crow banked in the sky, then came racing after him and Anna. He glanced over his shoulder to see the bird within striking distance. “Keep your head down,” he roared at Anna, who had pressed herself flat against his back.

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