“I’m a target and could be captured, especially if what Tamrus says is true about me. I think that book might contain the information we need to turn off the machines if we need to. These creatures that Tamrus talks of might not be as good as he boasts. There’s a chance I have the information in that book buried in my memory somewhere, but if I don’t ever remember, best we keep the book and me apart.”

“What makes you think you are going to be captured?” Zach asked him.

“I’m not sure…I just get a feeling that everything isn’t quite right.”

“I thought you didn’t have feelings?” Zach said.

But before Faraday had a chance to answer, Tamrus had come back into the carriage.

“Are you ready?” he asked in his gravelly voice.

“We’re coming,” Faraday said back, then whispered to Zach, “Keep your wits about you.” He winked at Zach, then began to head for the exit.

Zach climbed from the Scorpion Steam. The vast mountains stretched high above him, their peaks lost amongst a haze of pink cloud that reflected the fading sunlight. It was cold, so Zach pulled the collar of his long, black coat up about his neck. Neanna and William were already off the train and were standing a few yards from the Scorpion Steam. Bom was standing off to one side and reminiscing with one of Tamrus’s guards about some ancient battle.

“Welcome to the Craggy Canyon,” Tamrus croaked.

“You really live here?” Neanna asked breathlessly, surveying the arid and rocky surroundings.

“Indeed we do,” Tamrus grinned as he turned and started to walk away amid the canyon which ran between the two mountains.

Zach and his friends headed after him, followed by six of the guards they had first encountered in the cavern. The gradient of the canyon was steep, like they were climbing a hill. Tamrus and his guards thrust their staffs into the fractured ground and used these to propel themselves forward.

As they walked, the last of the daylight began to fade as night drew in all around them. With it came a chill wind that whipped up a blanket of rusty coloured dust. They walked for what seemed like hours, and Zach’s stomach began to rumble with hunger. He couldn’t actually remember when he had last eaten anything, and he looked over his shoulder at Bom.

Zach wondered if he might have some rations on him, but seeing that glum look on his face once again, Zach thought better of asking. Perhaps they would find some Tep leaves for Bom to smoke – that would cheer him up, Zach thought. But looking at the rocky, red horizon, he doubted anything grew in such a place.

Like Zach, William and Neanna looked at the barren landscape and wondered how anyone or anything could survive in such a place. For as far as they could see, the land was awash with vast swathes of red rock. This was interspersed with huge craters and other vast canyons that stretched way off into the distance.

As Tamrus stopped and rested against his staff, he took the pack from his back and handed out clay bottles of water. Zach and the others, apart from Faraday, drunk greedily from the bottles. The water washed into their mouths and over their tongues and ran off their chins. William howled with delight as he armed away the water that dripped from the hair swinging beneath his chin.

Then taking the bottle from her lips, Neanna looked at Tamrus and said, “Do you not have any cities out here?”

“We live beneath the ground and the rocks mostly,” Tamrus told her. “Even though we are made of rock, we still like the cool of the shade. Like you Slath, we are more comfortable in the night.”

“How have you managed to stay undiscovered for so long?” Neanna asked, eyeing him. “All of our homes have either been cursed or overridden by Throat’s Demonic Guardians and dead peacekeepers.”

“Not all of the canyon has remained undiscovered,” Tamrus said.

“Aren’t you worried that Throat will destroy your home like he has ours?” Neanna pushed.

Tamrus caught her with his yellow stare and said thoughtfully, “I think I have discovered a way of keeping our home safe from Throat.”

Before Neanna had the chance to question him further, Tamrus had set off again.

For several more hours they walked in silence, their legs becoming heavier and heavier with each step that they made. Once Faraday tripped on the uneven surface and sprawled forward onto the ground. His mechanical arms automatically whizzed into life, forming a series of hooks and spikes that clawed into the earth to prevent him from falling flat on his face. Tamrus glanced back, looked at his arms, and said nothing.

Just before sunrise, the group reached the brow of a rocky knoll. Zach looked back and was surprised at how high they had actually climbed. The first shots of sunlight were radiating behind them, and even though he wasn’t a Slath like Neanna, Zach didn’t like the thought of continuing in the blistering heat that he knew the sun would bring with it. Wondering where they might take shelter for the day and get some much needed rest, Zach noticed that Tamrus had brought them to a halt at a path which had been carved into the side of the rock that they now stood on. It wound itself around the inside of a giant hole. Without saying a word, Tamrus led the group down the winding path and into the hole. He seemed eager to avoid the sun just as much as Neanna did. They followed the light from Tamrus’s staff which glowed fiercely in his fist. The smell of the air inside reminded Zach of bonfires. The hole smelt as if at some time it had been volcanic. They continued to spiral downwards into the dark.

At the bottom there was a door, but unlike the rough stone walls of the giant well they were standing in, it was made of metal. On the ground near to the door was a rock. Tamrus lifted it to reveal what looked like a wooden cog. He turned it three times to the right and four to the left. There was a hissing sound and the door slid open.

Tamrus looked at the others and said, “What lies on the other side of this doorway should get you across the Outer-Rim.”

Chapter Thirty-Five

All of them drew a deep breath, even Bom, as they stepped through the metal doorway. They stood in what could only be described as a giant underground aircraft hangar, which stretched into the distance for as far as the eye could see. Down the centre of it ran a wide runway, which was lit up along its outer edges with two rows of flashing orange lights. Parked in long lines along each side of the runway were hundreds of planes. They were like no planes Zach had ever seen before. Even Neanna and William, who had flown before in Earth, were amazed by what stood before them.

“These are Der Cribbot’s Peregrine Fighters,” Tamrus said, staring at Faraday. “And you loved them.”

Zach looked again at the aircraft, and although they were made from shiny black and blue metal, they looked like gigantic peregrine falcons. They were beautifully sleek in their design, wings folded back against their bodies, and cockpits similar in shape to that of a bird of prey. Even the nose cones were rounded like a huge beak. As Zach stood and studied the glorious machines, he noticed that they didn’t stand on wheels like other planes, but on gleaming metal talons.

“These will get you safely across the Outer-Rim,” Tamrus said.

“Not more flying!” William howled.

“Aw, c’mon,” Zach said, a sense of relief that they finally had a way across the Outer-Rim to the volcano where they would find the box. “We are so close now, William. Just one more time, and I promise you will never have to fly again.”

William looked at him through his bulbous lenses, his eyes bright. “Can’t I wait here for you?”

Moving across the hangar towards his friend, Zach smiled and said, “Our journey is almost over, William. We have come so far together and we are within touching distance now of finding the box which will save my sister and your world.” Then placing his hand over William’s chest so he could feel the key beneath his shirt, he looked into his friend’s burning eyes and added, “You have the key that opens the box. Your grandpa’s key. He would have wanted you to open it.”

“You’re right,” William said, thinking of the journey he had made with his friend; how far they had come together with his grandpa’s key.

“You’ll come then?” Zach asked.

“Yes,” William said.

Then from the corner of his eye, Zach saw a bright light. He turned and saw the headlights of the tiger-bikes first as they came bounding out of the darkness beneath the Peregrine Fighters. The machines roared as the dead peacekeepers turned the throttle on their bikes. They flicked their long orange-and-black-striped tails to and fro as they were brought to a shuddering halt by their riders.

Sensing that they had somehow walked straight into a trap, William and Neanna drew their catapults and took aim. Faraday tore the skin from his arms, and they whizzed and glinted in the light from the bikes. With his crossbows clenched in his fists, Zach watched the look of sheer horror fall over Bom’s face as he wheeled around and headed back towards the hangar door which was now shut.

Two of Tamrus’s guards pushed him back with their staffs. Zach could see the fear in his eyes and felt sorry for the reluctant hero. He watched Bom glance anxiously at the tiger-bikes, which leapt from beneath the giant birds, the sound of the dead peacekeepers’ respirators, making that rasping – dying sound. Zach looked back and could see that he and his friends were now totally surrounded.

Then, out of the shadows stepped Anna. At first, Zach thought he was hallucinating, or the bright lights from the tiger-bikes’ headlamps were playing tricks on him.

“Anna?” Zach breathed, taking a step forward. “Is that really you?”

Anna looked back at him, a faint smile on her face. Zach could see that she looked tired. Her clothes were filthy and bedraggled. He wanted to go to her and hold her tight. He took another step towards her, his mind scrambling – trying to figure out what she was doing in Endra, hiding behind the metal talons of a mechanical bird in a giant underground hangar.

Anna held up her hands as if to warn him off, and it was then Zach noticed the thick, heavy-looking chains binding her wrists together. He could see that the flesh beneath them was cut open and looked raw. Her wrists dripped blood onto the shiny floor of the hangar. Zach stopped as if teetering on the edge of a cliff. From the darkness stumbled another person he recognised. It was the police officer from the hospital in Earth. What’s going on? Zach wanted to ask, but he was still too shocked to form any words.

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