“He gave me the heebie-jeebies,” Neanna shivered, pulling her cloak about her shoulders. “Besides, the sun is going to be up soon and I need shelter.”

“Then we take him with us,” Zach said, glancing at William as if seeking his approval.

Without saying anything, William bent down, scooped up the man and hoisted him over his shoulder, and set off towards a jagged mountain of rock that jutted from the ground in the distance. Neanna blinked towards it, desperate to be hidden in its shade.

“Are you sure you want to take that thing with us?” Bom grumbled at Zach. “He could be dangerous.”

Zach glanced over his shoulder at William as he strode away, the man hanging over his shoulder. It was then that Zach noticed the skin covering the man’s face had flopped back to reveal a skull made of cogs, pistons, and levers. “If he does prove to be a danger to us, then I guess we can always switch him off,” Zach said thoughtfully and started off after William.

Chapter Two

Throat sat at the end of the long, narrow bed and looked at the Queen. She was small and fragile looking, but she was getting stronger. Throat could sense it – he feared it. At the highest point of the Splinter he had held her prisoner, hoping that the day would soon come when the box with the Heart of Endra in it would finally disintegrate above the Rusty Volcano where he had placed it.

The spiderpedes scuttled about his long, flowing gown, making it appear as if it was alive. They smelt bad, like an infected wound, and the constant shifting was ear-piercing. With each small movement he made, part of his hooded robes disintegrated, falling away in powdery chunks. But the spiderpedes were quick to repair the damage as they wove their silken weave about him. But they couldn’t repair the damage which had been done to his plans by the boy, Zachary Black, and his buffoon of an uncle, Fandel. Maybe he had put too much faith in Fandel and paid too little interest in the boy, he wondered, as he looked at the Queen’s silver hair which lay across her pillow like a fan. But where was Fandel now? Did it really matter?

Throat stood, his skeletal frame clicking as exposed bone rubbed against bone beneath his robes. He crossed to the windows, pushing them open and stepping onto the balcony where he could look out across Endra – his soon-to-be kingdom. Behind him he left a trail of dust, where his robes had fallen away. A thick bank of cloud covered the moon like a dark smudge. He preferred the darkness – it helped him to think. In its blackness he could see things – he could make plans. And he had done so. With or without the assistance of Fandel, he had put someone in place to ensnare the boy, Zachary. Throat had an ally and they were in place. He had made sure of that. And should that plan fail – then he had another. Something that he himself knew would be a last, desperate measure. Too desperate perhaps – but should his ally fail to bring the boy, Zachary to him with the key – then he would do it. He would and damn the consequences. With a thick line of black bile dribbling from the corner of his mouth and over his chin, he looked down and watched the solitary figure race out of the desert and towards the Splinter.

With his dead eyes glaring from beneath his continually shifting hood, Throat watched the figure approach. Whoever it was neared the gates to the Splinter and became surrounded by the Radan who patrolled the perimeter. On their giant skeletal apes, the Radan circled the visitor. The apes rose up on their giant back legs and beat their ribcages with their bony fists. They made a deep, booming noise in the backs of their throats, as their riders tried to tame them. Even from the highest point of the Splinter, their cries of anger sounded like thunder.

Throat could see that the stranger rode its own creature, which barked and woofed like a giant dog. As the creature’s roars and grunts grew louder, Throat stepped back from the edge of the balcony as the darkness below lit up in a series of brilliant flashes. The night shone blue, purple, and red as electrical bursts of light threw the Radan clear of their apes, flinging them backwards into the night. There was only one person he knew of who held such power. The Delf.

Smiling to himself, Throat went back into the chamber, and rubbing his painfully thin hands together, he whispered, “Sister.”

Anna Black opened her eyes. Her arms were bound behind her, making her shoulders throb in pain. She felt as if she had been savagely beaten. Anna’s neck ached where her head had dropped forward as she slept sitting upright. Her throat was sore with thirst, and her lips were cracked and tasted of salt. The guy who had tried to rescue her from the Poisonous Squid lay slumped beside her. His shirt was dried black with blood from the axe wound in his shoulders. His white hair lay matted to his brow, his face lined with sweat as he burned with a fever. For the last three days she had sat and listened to him as he mumbled and shouted out in his sleep. He used a lot of swear words and called out desperately to someone named Meadda. Sometimes he would open his eyes wide and look across the filthy bow of the boat and talk as if he were speaking to someone that only he could see. Anna knew that he was hallucinating, and although he had tried to rescue her from Van Demon and the other Dammed Bandits, she was scared of him. She was scared of the wild look that he had in his eyes as he called out to this imaginary Meadda. Sometimes the man’s words were just a frantic garble, like a child learning to speak – but she made sense of enough to know that he had been in love with the woman he screamed out to in the dark.

If she had been able to free her own hands, Anna would have covered her ears with them to block out his terrifying shrieks of anguish. But more than that, she wanted to block out the sound of the mocking laughter, which came from her Uncle Fandel.

Like Anna, he too had been taken captive by the Dammed Bandits, and lay just feet from her in the bow of the boat. For days she had tried to ignore him, but he teased her with his mocking tone and taunts. Sometimes though, as the boat crashed over mountainous black waves, and the neighing of the giant seahorse which pulled the boat and kept her awake, Anna was sure that she could hear more than just mere mocking in her uncle’s voice. Sometimes she sensed that he was scared, and he would do everything in his power to hold it together. He often babbled on about the thumping pains in his head. Just like the man who the Bandits had called Tanner cried out for his love, her uncle would often roll his beady eyes back into their sockets and scream for the pain to stop. He mumbled on about that vile woman called the Delf.

“Why have you left me?” he would groan. “Did I really mean nothing to you?” Then he would speak of another, but his voice would be full of sorrow. “I’m so sorry, Throat. Please rescue me and I will put everything right.” But these periods of remorse and pain were short-lived, and he would once again be leering over at his niece and jeering as Tanner cried out, tormented by his fever. Then, when he thought that Anna was asleep, he would talk about a doorway and beg for it to appear. He would curse aloud, as it failed to materialise before him.

Then one night, pretending that she was asleep, Anna lay and listened to her uncle.

“Where is my doorway?” he almost seemed to sob. “Why won’t it appear for me?”

Listening to him draw a deep breath, Anna opened her eyes just a fraction and watched her uncle as his lips moved quickly open and closed, like he was saying a silent prayer. His long, pale face looked tired, the nets of wrinkles around his eyes making him look older than he really was. Then she saw it, it was faint at first, like an oblong outline of light in the centre of the bow. Her uncle’s lips moved faster, as if he too was now suffering with a fever. He saw the light also and crawled towards it, his chin dragging across the rough, wooden planks of the bow. The oblong shape took on a more solid form as he stared at it. He mumbled faster and faster. Then they both saw it, a black metal doorway standing in the middle of the bottom of the boat.

“Do you see it, my sweet Anna?” he gasped, a smile forming at the corners of his mouth.

Anna looked at the intricate wrought metal ironwork that made up the door. Around its edges seeped pure white light and it beamed in her uncle’s black eyes. Was this the doorway he had been praying for, Anna wondered, not knowing or understanding how it had suddenly appeared, or what lay on the other side of it.

With spit mixed with blood running from his grazed chin, Fandel tried to pull himself to his feet. The boat seesawed violently as it raced over the Onyx Sea. Anna watched her uncle stumble from side to side, then go crashing to the floor. With his hands tied behind his back, Fandel had no way of bracing his fall, and smashed face-first into the bow of the boat. He screeched in pain, a stream of black blood jetting from his nostrils.

“Jee-sus!” he roared in agony, and Anna did everything she could to stop herself from smiling.

Fandel forced himself into a kneeling position and crawled back towards the door, which now appeared to shimmy in and out of focus. One moment the image of the doorway looked so faint – it was like it wasn’t there at all.

“Don’t go,” Fandel sobbed, blood running from his nose and into his mouth. He spat a dark globule of blood away and pleaded with the metal door. “Don’t you dare disappear on me. Please don’t go!”

Anna watched him shuffle forwards on his knees. Turning on the spot, Fandel tried to reach up for the door handle. But it was too high and out of reach. Cursing, he looked back over his shoulder at Anna.

Desperate for his niece’s help, he looked at her and said, “Please, sweet little Anna, come and help your uncle open the door.”

Anna stared back at him.

“Please,” he said, trying to mask his desperation.

“Why should I help you?” Anna spat. “You tried to poison me.”

“Okay, so we haven’t always seen eye to eye...” he smiled.

“Eye to eye!” Anna hissed. “You tried to sell me to those bandits, you tried to kill my brother, and nearly fed me to that giant dog.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Fandel said. “I never tried to feed you to no dog.”

“Whatever that thing was, I’m not going to help you,” Anna snapped back at him.

“Listen to me, Anna,” Fandel said, keeping his voice calm as he tried to reason with her. “We’re all dead if we don’t get off this boat. Even if I do lead Van Demon and his merry men to the box above the volcano – what do you think happens next, huh? What, you just think they are going to wave us goodbye as we skip merrily away into the sunset?”

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