The man didn’t speak until they came to a small hollow. Tree roots sprouted up out of the ground like long broken fingers clutching at the air. A fine mist filled the hollow, and the man climbed in. The mist rose up and circled his waist.

“Come on down,” he called out to Willow, who stood on all fours at the edge of the hollow and peered down at him. Sensing the giant wolf’s hesitation, he waved at her and said, “You have nothing to fear, Noxas. I am like you.”

It was then that Willow realised that he hadn’t been waving at her at all. The man had been stirring the mist up all around him. He disappeared behind it like a magician performing a cheap trick. Willow tried to stare through the mist, but he had momentarily disappeared from her view. Then the mist settled again, like early morning fog covering a mountain lake. Although the man standing before her looked different without his hat an gloves, Willow knew it was him. He smelt the same, and that smell of home was stronger than before. The man’s hair was loose, and not only did it hang around his shoulders, thick lengths of hair hung from his cheeks and beneath his chin and his hands, which she could now see were claws.

“You are a Noxas,” Willow howled softly at him.

“Yes, I am,” he smiled, revealing a set of sharpened teeth. And his grin looked suddenly wild and crazy, just like the glint in his yellow eyes.

“Who are you?” Willow asked.

“I’m Wally Willabee,” he grinned insanely. “But you can call me Wally.”

“I’ve been sent to find you,” Willow woofed at him.

“Why would anyone want to find me?” he asked, his eyes spinning brightly.

“Because you lead the League of Doorways,” Willow told him.

“The League of Doorways?” Wally mused thoughtfully, that smile never leaving his lips. “And even if such a thing existed, what do you want from the League of Doorways?”

“Help,” Willow howled.

“Help with what?” Wally asked, and Willow noticed his smile falter just slightly.

“The Queen of Endra lay dying, Wally Willabee, and our number is too small to offer a decent resistance,” Willow explained. “Wilberforce has sent me to bring you home...”

“To do what, exactly?” Wally asked, and now his smile had faded.

“To help defeat a sorcerer named Throat who threatens to destroy our world...” but before Willow had a chance to finish, Wally had cut in.

“I don’t live in that world no more,” Wally told her, the mist coiling up all around him.

“But you live in this one,” Willow barked, her tail twitching behind her. “And as you know, both are reflections of each other. What happens in Endra also happens here.”

Wally stood and thought about this for a moment, then said, “Go back into Endra and tell that old crazy Wilberforce there is no League of Doorways. It doesn’t exist.”

“He says it does,” Willow shot back. “If you can’t do it for Wilberforce, then do it for an old friend.”

“What old friend?”

“Warden Weaver.”

“Warden?” Wally mused. “If Warden needs my help, why didn’t he come himself?” Wally asked.

“Because he is blind,” Willow told him.

“How do you know this?” Wally asked her.

“Because he is my husband,” Willow barked. “Warden needs your help. We need the help of the League of Doorways.”

“It can’t help you,” Wally said, looking up out of the hollow at her.

“So it does exist then?” Willow said.

“Yes,” Wally said.

“Then lead me to it.”

“I already have.”

“Where is this group of Noxas who will save us?” Willow said, scanning the immediate area with her fierce, red eyes.

Then, patting his chest with his claws, Wally grinned and said, “I am the League of Doorways. There is no one else. It’s just me.”

Chapter Nine

While the others had slept, Bom had headed out into the dying sunlight and hunted down some more of the bristly-haired desert rats. Zach woke to the smell of the meat cooking over the fire which Bom had built earlier that day. William lay on his side, his giant paws placed under his head like pillows. Neanna was awake, sitting against the far wall of the overhang, cloak pulled about her, knees drawn up beneath her chin.

Where was Faraday? Zachary wondered, sitting up and searching the cave. How would they find their way safely across the outer-rim without him? Then Zach spied him, standing just outside the rocky overhang. The dying sun in the distance was no more than a red ribbon on the horizon, causing a crimson shadow to fall away behind Faraday. He stood as tall as William at about six-foot-four, and his black shoulder-length hair swept back from his odd-looking face in the cool evening breeze.

“Gonna eat?” Bom suddenly asked Zach, taking a cooked desert rat from out of the fire and tearing it to pieces with his thick fingers.

From the shadows, Zach watched the Captain shove lumps of the pink-looking meat into his mouth. The noise he made chewing mouthfuls of the dead rat was disgusting. Greasy streaks of juice ran from Bom’s mouth and into his bushy beard. He armed them away and then belched. The noise rumbled about the overhang like thunder.

William stirred with a start and sat up. “What was that?” he barked, reaching for his catapult. Then, spying Bom sitting cross-legged before the fire and stuffing his mouth full of food, William sighed and said, “Oh it’s just you, you greedy hog!”

“Be quick, or I might just eat the lot,” Bom grumbled. “The rats ain’t so big out here, and I’m starving.”

“When ain’t ya starving,” William said, crossing over to the fire. Using his claws like a set of knives, he hooked one of the dead rats from the fire and dissected it. “Not eating?” William asked as he glanced over at Zach and Neanna.

Without saying anything, Neanna blinked across the overhang, took one of the rats, then blinked back into the shadows again. Using her fingers like tweezers, she plucked meat from the bones of the animal and ate it. Zach didn’t feel hungry – he felt anxious about what lay ahead. He wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing by placing his trust in Faraday – in a machine. But what choice did he have? If the stories were true about the outer-rim – no one had ever survived – not even those peacekeepers the Queen had sent. With his back against the wall, he sat and watched Faraday. The man hadn’t moved, not even an inch, since Zach had woken to find him standing just outside their sleeping place. His long arms hung by his sides, his head turned towards the last rays of sun. It was as if he were a statue.

“Are you okay?” someone suddenly asked, their breath warm against his face. Zach snapped his head round to find that Neanna was now sitting beside him.

“Sure,” Zach lied and smiled at her.

“You look worried, Zachary Black,” Neanna said, placing several thin strips of the rat meat in the palm of his hand. She folded his fingers over it, and then looking into his eyes, she added, “Eat, you’ll need your strength.”

He enjoyed the way her fingers gently brushed over his, and he placed his free hand over hers. With the faintest of smiles, she slowly pulled her hand away.

“Thanks for the food,” Zach smiled, feeling embarrassed that he had tried to hold her hand. Looking away and back at Faraday, he slowly started to eat the meat Neanna had handed to him.

“You don’t trust him, do you?” Neanna whispered, and her breath against his ear made gooseflesh scamper down his back.

“Do you?” he asked, turning to face her. Neanna’s bright blue eyes peered back at him out of the gloom, and he felt his heart quicken.

“I’m not sure yet,” she said, her voice low and soft.

“I guess we can always turn him off,” Zach half-smiled at her.

“I guess,” she said back. “There is something I don’t like, though.”

“I know what you mean,” Zach said thoughtfully and looked back at Faraday standing alone outside their camp.

Just after sunset, Zachary and his friends left the overhang and followed Faraday in the direction of the outer-rim and the Clockwork City that lay before it. They walked in silence, their feet sending up tiny puffs of dust as they passed over the arid desert floor. The moon hung high above them like a giant blue sphere. The sky was black, star-shot, and vast. It seemed to touch the ground in every direction that Zach looked. They hadn’t been walking for long when Faraday led them towards a small outcrop of rock that jutted up out of the cracked ground.

“Get down,” he said, crouching.

They knelt beside him and peered over the rocks.

“What’s that?” William asked, pointing to something a short distance away.

Zach followed William’s stare and his heart leapt. He knew what it was. It looked like a car. But what was a car doing in the middle of the desert – what was it doing in Endra? He wondered. Moonlight glinted off its dark black body. Then before Zach had a chance to tell his friend what it was, Neanna also pointed over the rocks and said, “And what’s that?”

All of them turned their heads to see what looked like a person limping across the desert floor towards the car. The figure was thin, no more than a pile of bones held together by a covering of skin. There was a squeaking noise, and screwing up his eyes and peering through the darkness, Zach could see that the figure was pulling some kind of shopping cart. It was made of wood, and it was the wheels which squeaked on a pair of dusty axels.

“Who is that?” Zach asked Faraday in a low whisper.

“One of the hermits who live out in these parts,” Faraday said in that synthesised voice of his. “I thought they would all be dead by now. They came after the city fell. They are small in number and live on what they can scavenge from the land and what remains in the city.”

From their hiding place, they watched the figure approach the abandoned car. As it drew near, they could see that it was a man. He was naked, except for a piece of filthy cloth that he wore like a short skirt. He was so thin and gaunt, the moonlight reflected back off his cheekbones and ribcage. His eyes were no more than two sunken sockets in the centre of his face. The hermit pulled his cart alongside the car and stopped. He scratched his bald head with a set of painfully thin fingers, then opened the passenger door of the car. It wailed so loud on a set of rusty hinges, that Zach and his friends covered their ears with their hands. Faraday seemed not to be bothered, as he crouched behind the rocks and watched the emaciated man search the inside of the vehicle for anything of value – or anything that he might be able to use. Copyright 2016 - 2024