“I don’t care,” Anna told him. “Besides, anything has got to be better than being with you.”
“Okay, so if you don’t want me around, help me open the doorway,” Fandel tried to bribe her. “Once the doorway is open, I’ll be off this boat and out of your life. What do you say to that?”
“I say rot in Hell,” Anna half-smiled at him. “I’d rather you stayed so I can watch those bandits kill you.”
Knowing that he was never going to convince her to help him, and with his eyes almost bulging out of their sockets, Fandel screamed at her. “Help me open this door or...”
“Or what?” Anna screamed over him. “You can’t do anything to me that you haven’t already tried!”
From above came the sound of running footsteps, as the bandits became aware of the commotion below. A panel set into the wooden planks above them was yanked away, and a rotted-looking face appeared in the hole.
“Shut the squawking or I will come down and slit thee throats open,” the bandit threatened. Even in the dim light, Anna could see the gaping wound in the side of his head, and his brains glistened wetly. She recognised him to the one Van Demon had called Julio. He was the one whose intestines slopped from his guts every time he moved.
Anna looked at where the door had been, and watched as it faded away. Fandel saw this too, and collapsed on his side in despair. Looking back up at the bandit, Anna said, “When are you gonna let us out of here?”
“We will be docking in a day or two, senorita,” Julio smiled. “But if you are...how do you say...getting cramped down below, there is plenty of room in my cabin. What do you say, no?”
“No thanks,” Anna muttered and looked away.
Laughing out loud, the zombie-bandit slid the panel back into place.
“We could have been away from here,” Fandel hissed at her, lying on his side amongst the empty lobster pots and entangled fishing nets.
“I’d rather share a room with the zombie than help you,” Anna groaned, closing her eyes so she didn’t have to look at her uncle anymore.
Above, the giant seahorses raced across the Onyx Sea, pulling the giant floating stagecoach behind them. Their long, black manes flowed in the wind like masses of knotted lengths of seaweed. The stagecoach wheels churned through the water like the giant paddlewheels attached to either side of a mighty steamboat. Van Demon sat alone in his vast cabin, the light from the oil lamps doing little to hide the gaping wound in the side of his face. With maps and compasses stretched out on the table before him, he plotted the ship’s route. There was only one way to the Rusty Volcano and the box. He wanted it. In the box held the power to lift the curse that Throat had lay upon him and his men. But there was only one way to reach it, and that was across the outer-rim and through the Clockwork City, where it was rumoured the deadly mechanical men lived.
Willow Weaver had never walked on all fours before – but since coming through her doorway three days ago, she’d had to get used to it. There was a lot that Willow had to get used to, and fast. Earth, she was discovering, was far different from her home in Endra. They had told her that each was a reflection of the other, and she had heard about the ripples, but things were different – a lot different.
In Endra, although one of the Noxas, Willow had been tall, walked upright, had arms, fingers, feet, and toes. She’d had a face. In Earth, she looked like a giant wolf. Her hair had stayed the same, fair and thick, but now it covered every inch of her, along with a long, bushy tail that swished behind her every time she took a step with her paws.
Willow had come through her doorway to find herself in a deep wooded area. At first she hadn’t realised her change, other than she seemed closer to the ground somehow. Disorientated and feeling sick, Willow had glanced back over her shoulder to see her doorway melt away like a block of ice. There was a thunderclap and she yelped in fear. That was when she noticed the change. The noise that had come from deep within the back of her throat was guttural – like an animal. She had never made a noise like that before. Believing that she was lying down, she tried to stand, but it didn’t feel natural – it took effort. Waving her arms out in front to balance, Willow saw the two giant, white paws wave before her eyes. The yelping noise came again, and she felt a long, thick tongue roll from between her jaws and lick her nose – snout!
“What has happened to me?” she cried, but it came out sounding more like an agonising howl than a voice.
She dropped back onto all fours again and spun around to face her fast-disappearing doorway. It was then that she noticed her tail swishing to and fro behind her.
“A tail!” she woofed with fear.
As fast as she could, Willow bounded back towards her doorway, but even before reaching it, she knew it was hopeless. The doorway, constructed of ice that she had conjured deep within the Snowstorm Mountains, melted away before her, covering the leaf-coated ground with water. She bounded around in the area where her doorway had once stood and licked at the water. It felt cold against her long, pink tongue. She licked her jaws and felt the long whiskers that protruded from her snout.
When she had volunteered to come into Earth to find this Wally Willabee that Wilberforce had spoken of, she had no idea that she would take on the form of a giant wolf. Had her leader, Wilberforce, known this would happen? Did all of the other Noxas know the risk she had taken, and was that why not one of them had volunteered to take on the mission? Warden, her husband, had tried to talk her out of it – he had begged her not to go. But he was blind. How would he have survived here – what changes would he have gone through? She wondered.
“Why?” she barked angrily. But Willow knew why. She had come to help save her home, Endra. But more than that, she had come to save her son, William. If he had courage enough to travel with the boy Zachary Black to the remotest corners of Endra to save their world, then she must be brave, too. That is why she had come.
But where to now? How would she find this Wally Willabee? This Noxas had come into Earth many years ago and was now rumoured to be the head of a secret organisation that called themselves the League of Doorways. Where would she find him and his secret coven? Did he too look like a giant wolf – just like her? Willow couldn’t be sure. In this new world, she couldn’t be sure of anything.
She sniffed the air, and the woodland smelt different from the Howling Forest where she had spent most of her life. The air in Earth didn’t smell as clean as the air in Endra – it smelt dirty somehow, as if poison was carried upon it. Willow shook her mighty flanks as if trying to rid herself of the smell, and then set off through the trees. At first she walked, trying to get used to this new way of walking. Then she started to trot, run, and then bound forward in giant leaps. The Noxas had always been able to run fast, but this was incredible. With her heart racing in her chest, she raced amongst the trees, her paws throwing up a shower of dead, dry leaves in her wake, her sleek body a blur of white fur.
Willow didn’t know how long she had run like that or for how far. The trees gradually began to thin out, and she stopped on the edge of a field just as the sun started to set on the horizon. Unlike the white sun of Endra, this burnt in the sky like an orange moon. The field stretched away before her, sloping down into a deep valley. The grass was green and smelt sweet. She licked at it with her tongue and enjoyed the little moisture she found covering its fine blades. The drops of water wakened her taste buds somehow, and she suddenly felt hungry – ravenous. Willow could never remember feeling so hungry.
A chill wind swept out of the valley and brought with it the smell of other animals. She hadn’t smelt anything quite like it before – but it smelt good, and her stomach somersaulted with delight. As Willow slowly made her way across the open field, she noticed that her senses seemed to be alive somehow – burning inside of her. But as the smell of the other animals got stronger, she realised that it wasn’t just the feeling of hunger which was driving her forward – it was instinct, too. At the foot of the valley, the scent became so strong that it was almost overpowering. A thin, stringy line of dribble swung from her jaw and she flicked it away with her tongue. Her bright red eyes glowed fiercely in the approaching darkness. Willow quickened her pace.
Then she saw them, a herd of creatures like she had never seen before. They were smaller than her, their bodies covered in a white woollen coat, their faces black. They made a bleating noise, and this excited Willow. As her instincts took over, Willow crouched low in the long grass and crept towards the animals. Their smell became intoxicating and the desire to leap from her hiding place and attack was overwhelming. But she held back, making her way towards them, crouched so low that her fur-covered belly almost touched the ground. The creatures continued to bleat as they chewed the grass, unaware Willow was almost upon them.
Then, launching herself forward on her hind legs, Willow sprang into the night, her huge claws and red eyes glinting in the moonlight. The sheep scattered, but there were some who just looked back, startled, wondering what had caused the others to race away. For one of them it was too late, as the giant wolf flew out of the night, sinking its razor-sharp teeth into its throat.
The sheep made a whiny noise as blood, sticky and hot, gushed into Willow’s mouth. Willow’s stomach felt the promise of food, and she sank her jaws around the creature, its spine crushing beneath her hold. She tore the sheep apart in three quick shakes of her colossal head and began to eat. Ravenous, she ate, the taste of the animal’s flesh sedating her hunger. There was a sudden BANG from behind her. Willow lifted her head and looked back, red meat and flesh swinging from her jaws. At first, Willow wondered if it wasn’t the sound of her doorway reappearing. But the bang came again, and this time there was a bright flash of white light. Crouching, and smacking the meat from her jaws with her tongue, she heard another bang and then another flash of light. In that sudden brightness, Willow saw what looked like a man approaching, and it was the weapon he held in his hands that had made the noise and brought the light.