“They’re called ‘The Identical Peaks,’” she whispered dreamily.
“Like twins,” Zach mused. “That sounds nice.”
Even though Zach had seen and experienced so much since coming through his doorway into Endra, the sight of the landscape on the other side of the window was breathtaking. Zach tried to absorb every detail, every shard of light that glinted through those mountains, and every rock that glowed like embers on the surface of this incredible wasteland.
“It’s beautiful, don’t you think?” Neanna asked, her voice soft as she snuggled closer up to Zach.
“Incredible,” he whispered, as the jagged scenery slipped past. “Is it as beautiful as your home – the Sleepy Caves?”
“Nothing is as beautiful as my home,” she murmured as if on the edge of sleep. “The caves are not like any other caves. They are a metropolis of wonder beneath the ground – deep hollows that reach for miles.”
“It sounds amazing,” Zach said.
“It is,” she sighed, her voice sounding miles away, as if lost in her own memories. “When I was a child, all I knew was the Slath – the other vampires as you call them. But all I wanted to do was venture above ground. To see what it was like. To see if the people were as incredible as the Slath.”
“And were they?” Zach asked.
Peering at Zach through a pair of half-closed eyes, Neanna whispered, “Some of them are.”
But before Zach had a chance to ask who she was talking about, Neanna had fallen into a deep and peaceful sleep.
Willow and Wally stepped through the doorway and back into Endra. Wally had told Willow to step through frontways, and both now stood on the vast empty plains of Endra as their true selves – Noxas. Willow was glad to have her long braids of hair back, and they now swung from her face in the wind. She looked at her hands and was relieved to see that they were claws again, each of her long fingers capped with ivory-looking nails. The bright red nail polish had gone and so had the jeans, boots, and blouse. She stood and watched her long blue robes flap about her.
The door thundered shut, but didn’t disappear. Wally took a key from his pocket, and twisted it in the lock.
“What are you doing?” Willow asked him.
Wally turned to look at her with his bright yellow eyes and said, “My doorway is trapped, remember? It doesn’t disappear or move away. I have to lock it or anyone might go through. I don’t want my cavern to be burgled.” Then smiling at Willow and placing the key safely back into the pocket of his dungarees, he added, “You can’t trust anyone these days.”
With his long, dark dreadlocks flowing beneath his chin and his claws swinging loosely by his sides, he set off across the desert.
“Where are we going?” Willow called out.
“To the station,” he grinned back over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, it’s not far.”
Willow hurried after him. “How long it will it take to get there?”
“Not long at all, if we run,” he said.
Willow looked down at her robes and said, “I’m not really dressed for it.”
“Oh, go on, Willow,” Wally said, trying to contain his excitement. “I haven’t had a good run for ages. It’s not often that you can do it on the other side.”
Looking at his crazy grin, Willow smiled back and said, “It’s not too far you say?”
“No, I promise,” Wally said.
“Okay then,” she said, dropping onto all fours and hitching up her robes.
“Excellent!” Wally beamed, hunkering down.
“How far is ‘not far’?” Willow asked glancing at him.
“About a hundred miles or so,” he laughed. Then he was gone, bounding away on all fours across the desert floor in a rush of flying dreadlocks and a shower of dust.
“Wally!” Willowed howled as she set off after him. And even though a small part of her was angry at being tricked by him, there was a bigger part that was happy. She had never had so much fun since meeting him.
Willow drew alongside Wally, and they bounded across the desert like two giant wolves. She had never felt so alive and free. She had spent her whole life living beneath the shadows of the Howling Forest like all female Noxas had. It was the men who went off and had adventures. But now she was free at last to have her own adventure, and she was intent on enjoying every moment of it.With his long, pink tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth, Willow glanced at Wally as he raced along beside her. Warden, her husband, had often spoken of his friend; the one who he believed had killed himself while playing with inferno berries as a pup. Warden had always described his friend as having a dangerous streak which eventually got him killed. But Willow now wondered if Warden had not been right about his friend. She didn’t think Wally was dangerous – she thought he just craved excitement. He saw adventure in the ordinary and enjoyed every second of it. She had heard a lot about reflections and she wondered if she truly understood what that meant. Willow knew that deep down she was like Wally, she had always craved excitement and adventure, too. But unlike him, she hadn’t, until now, found the courage to go looking for it. So they were the same, weren’t they – just reflections of each other.
Willow looked front again and bounded across the desert next to her newfound friend – her partner in this adventure that was fast unfolding before them.
Throat was pleased. He looked up at the black particles of dust as it made a funnel shape above his head. Things were working out better than even he could have planned for. The Delf had managed to recapture the girl, Anna Black, and the meddling peacekeeper. But more than that, she had sucked the truth from Tanner and what secrets he had been hiding. The true cunning of the peacekeeper had finally been revealed. He would be punished for keeping such secrets. But they did reveal one thing; the peacekeeper’s secrets explained why the boy, Zachary Black, had become such a thorn in Throat’s side. The boy was a peacekeeper – Fandel had been right about that if nothing else. The boy would have to die now, despite his promise he had made to the other.
And it was the other’s voice that he could hear now, coming through the funnel of black dust which hovered over him.
“We are traveling through the Craggy Canyon,” the voice informed him.
“Good, good,” Throat cackled, rubbing his skeletal hands together with a feverish excitement. “There will be a reception party waiting for you at the other end of the canyon.”
“Who?” the voice asked. “You didn’t mention this.”
“There are many things that you do not need to know,” Throat rasped. “But you will be rewarded well.”
“My people?” the voice asked.
“Yes, yes,” Throat snapped, growing tired with the same old questions.
“And what about my friends?” the voice asked.
“Do you really think they will want to be your friend once they discover your betrayal?” Throat laughed, the sound of it echoing like thunder off the walls and along the winding passageways of the Splinter.
“They will be set free, won’t they?” the voice asked. “You promised.”
“Yes, yes,” Throat groaned.
“And Zachary Black?”
With a smile tugging at the corners of his misshapen mouth, Throat tried to hide his delight as he said, “It has come to my attention who and what the boy really is. He is a danger to me and my plans. So no – he will not leave the canyon with you and the others.”
“But that wasn’t part of the deal!” the voice barked angrily.
“Would you like to renegotiate?” Throat teased. “Perhaps I let the boy live and keep your people imprisoned. Perhaps I should send my Demonic Guardians to slaughter them all?”
There was an eerie silence from the other end of the funnel, which swished in the room at the top of the Splinter. The light from the candles flickered restlessly. “What will it be?” Throat teased, enjoying every moment.
“The boy,” the voice whispered through the funnel of dust.
“I’m sorry,” Throat grinned beneath his hood, “I couldn’t quite hear you.”
“The boy,” the voice came again, this time louder but still full of remorse and dread.
“You choose wisely,” Throat gagged, and with a flick of his hand, the dust dropped from the air and covered the floor like black grains of sand. With the spiderpedes scuttling all around him, Throat collapsed into his throne and shut his eyes. Rest, he thought, before he brought hell to Endra and the world on the other side of the doorways.
But with his eyes shut, Throat failed to see the Queen open hers on the other side of the chamber.
Zach woke with a start as the Scorpion Steam juddered to a halt and let out an ear-piercing scream. He sat bolt upright to find Faraday standing beside him.
“How long have I been asleep?’” he asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“The whole day,” Faraday informed him.
Zach looked out of the window and could see that it was dusk again, the moon rising high between the tips of the Identical Peaks.
“Why have we stopped?” Zach asked. Neanna and William were no longer in their seats.
“This is as far as we go by train,” Tamrus said, as he strode into the carriage. Zach could see that he had a large pack on his back and was carrying his staff tightly in his hand. “Let’s get going. We have a long walk to make.” Tamrus glanced at both Zach and Faraday, and then made his way down the carriage to the exit.
Zach got up from his seat and was about to go after Tamrus, when Faraday grabbed him by the arm. He glanced quickly about and then whispered, “Take this.”
Zach looked down and could see Faraday had handed him the little black book of notes, designs, and numbers, which he had taken from Cribbot’s farmhouse.
Confused, Zach asked, “What are you giving this to me for?”