Zach’s command rippled down the tunnel and before his voice had even reached his ears, William had let go of the sling and sent the inferno berry flying towards the Guardians. Before the berry had even hit the ground, William was up and bounding on all fours towards his friends.
The inferno berry fizzed and spat at the feet of the Demonic Guardians, then exploded. Within the confines of the tunnel the blast from the berry got sucked in on itself causing a vacuum. For a moment nothing happened, and as Zach reached the mouth of the tunnel, he looked back fearing that the inferno berry had failed. Then the air inside began to boil, and a rush of heat thundered towards them firing Zach and his friends out of the tunnel as if they had been blasted from a launch pad.
Glancing back over his shoulder, William could see the luminous-green shockwave seething at his heels. Howling in panic, he leapt forward as the tunnel erupted into a blazing inferno.
Zach landed face first in the sand. Marshal Goth flew over his head and splashed into the black waves that licked at the shoreline. Neanna blinked just in time not to be caught in the blast, throwing herself into the sand. Henry floated beside her as giant lumps of rock belched from the tunnel entrance and crashed into the sea behind them. The beach shook as the inferno berry ripped through the tunnel.
Staggering like a drunk, Zach watched with Goth as the entrance to the tunnel collapsed in on itself, sealing the Demonic Guardians inside. Seeing this, Neanna pulled her catapult from beneath her cloak, loading the sling with inferno berries. She fired them up and over the walls of the prison that loomed high above them.
The cliffs surrounding the prison almost seemed to wobble in the ground as the berries unleashed their power within the prison walls. The night sky glowed green like a radar as the berries sent wave after wave of blistering energy throughout the prison, destroying the remaining Demonic Guardians and Radan still inside.
Zach and his friends stood and watched as the walls of the prison tumbled inwards like a child’s building blocks, entombing everything within it. Huge plumes of dust bellowed up in dirty-clouds from the collapsing building. Turning to congratulate his friend, Zach then realised William wasn’t amongst them.
‘William!’ he shouted, making his throat sore. ‘William!’
Neanna blinked to his side. ‘Where is he?’
‘I don’t know!’
‘He did make it out of that tunnel? Didn’t he?’ she asked.
Looking at the smouldering pile of ash and rock stacked in front of the tunnel entrance, Zach raced towards it.
Neanna was there before him, snatching hold of rocks and brick and throwing it over her shoulder.
‘William!’ she cried.
Reaching her, Zach began rolling away large boulders. Marshal Goth and Captain Bom joined the rescue party, digging with their bare hands.
‘I should have called it earlier!’ Zach cursed himself. ‘Should have called it earlier!’
‘Wait!’ Neanna cried. ‘I’ve found something!’
Rushing to her side, the others began to grab at rocks and toss them to one side.
‘I can see him!’ Zach shouted. ‘Help me! Somebody help me!’
Between the gaps in the rubble they could see William’s face. It was covered in dirt and dust and his beard was smeared with blood, but it was his glasses – there wasn’t the usual orange glow behind them. Not even a spark.
Heaving, they pulled William’s body from beneath the rocks and carried him to the beach.
‘William! Wake-up!’ Neanna sobbed, stroking the hair that hung from his face. ‘Please!’
Shaking William’s shoulders, Zach shouted, ‘you can’t leave us! We need you William!’
Marshal Goth, Captain Bom and Henry watched in silence as Zach and Neanna cried over their friend.
‘Please!’ Neanna sobbed into William’s chest.
‘Mind the key. You might break it,’ William whispered into Neanna’s ear.
Neanna lifted her head off William’s chest and held his face in her slender hands.
‘You’re alive?’ she said, choking back her tears.
‘Of course I’m alive,’ William grumbled, trying to sit up. ‘It’d take more than a few rocks to bring an end to William-the-wolf-Weaver. Besides, I’ve got a promise to keep.’ He pulled the key from beneath his shirt and stared at it through his glasses.
‘Take it easy,’ Zach soothed, helping his friend up.Hiding the key back beneath his shirt, William growled at his friend, ‘take it easy? You say take it easy? I nearly got fried in there thanks to you!’
‘Ah, c’mon! I gave you plenty of time to get out!’ Zach protested.
‘And look at this!’ William snarled, tugging at the end of his beard. ‘It’s singed thanks to you!’
As William and Zach stood and bickered, Neanna noticed a small boy come running along the beach.
What a beautiful looking kid, she thought to herself.
‘Hey, is this little boy with you?’ she said, turning to the Norsori women who stood cradling their children close to them.
The feline looking woman with the baby strapped to her back, shook her head and said, ‘he’s not one of us.’
Neanna turned around and the little boy was sobbing. Concealing her catapult beneath her cloak, Neanna opened her arms as she ran towards him.
‘Where’s your mummy?’ Neanna asked, kneeling to cradle the boy.
The angelic-looking boy gazed at her and smiled. Then began to change.
Stretching and warping out of shape, the boy took on his true, gruesome, demonic form. Its head was elongated with a mouthful of vicious looking teeth. Its arms were long and bony like the branches of a dying tree. The flesh on the boy’s legs rippled and split. In their place appeared two powerful limbs that were as thick as tree trunks. Attached to these were long sinuous talons, similar to those found on a bird of prey. The demon towered over Neanna, and then attacked.
Neanna blinked just in time to avoid the Hollow Child’s sabre-like claws. Hearing the demon’s screams, Zach spun round, and even before he’d stopped turning, his crossbows were in his hands and sending a stream of stakes thundering into the demons body.
The Hollow Child twitched and shuddered. Opening its enormous mouth, it recoiled and then spewed a throat full of acid down at the young peacekeeper. It shot through the air like a shower of vomit. Holding his shield aloft, Henry swooped in front of Zach. The acid spattered off the shield and fizzed in the sand beneath their feet.
‘Stand back!’ Marshal Goth bellowed, releasing several arrows into the Hollow Child’s head. The demon clawed them from his face, snapping them into splinters.
Grinning, the Hollow Child roared in its booming voice, ‘I’m invincible!’
Bounding forward, his eyes burning, William snarled, ‘that’s what you think!’ Then, in an act of desperation and complete disregard for the danger of using them at close quarters, William catapulted an inferno berry into the Hollow Child’s mouth.
Faltering, the Hollow Child choked and then swallowed as the berry hit the back of its throat. For a moment, Zach was convinced he saw just the faintest spark of panic in its eyes. Then, the inferno berry erupted from inside the Hollow Child’s stomach, rupturing its internal organs and exposing its heart. The green shockwave sliced through the night as Zach and his companions flattened themselves against the sand. The shockwave would have proved lethal to them at such close range, but much of its power had been absorbed by the demon’s dense tissue.
Even though the demon was wounded, it continued to lash out at them. Blinking away from the others, Neanna appeared behind the Hollow Child. Clutching her catapult in her fist, she knelt and took aim. Before she had a chance to release the inferno berry, the demon had spun around. Shrieking in triumph, it raced towards her. Snatching at Neanna with its wizened claws, it staggered backwards and screamed in agony.
Grabbing at the sword that now protruded from its heart, the demon writhed, twisted and began to fold in on itself. Disintegrating into a cloud of black ash, it was snatched away on a gust of wind. All that was left to show that the Hollow Child had ever existed was the sword that had stuck from its heart, and which now fell to the ground and skewered itself into the sand.
Looking to see who it was that had saved Neanna, all of them stood amazed as Captain Bom made his way over to his sword and pulled it from the ground. Placing it over his shoulder, he looked at the others who were staring at him agog.
‘You?’ Neanna said. ‘You saved my life!’
‘Don’t look so surprised young lady,’ he said. ‘I’ve had your back covered the whole time!’ Then, like any battle-hardened Captain, he marched down to the shoreline and looked out across the sea.
From the highest tip of the Splinter, Throat stared out across the Wastelands. He had felt the pain of the Hollow Child, and he knew this could mean only one thing; his army had been defeated.
Stepping from the balcony and back into the Queen’s chamber, he stood at the foot of her bed. The spiderpedes scuttled all around him, weaving their fine dark silk.
Like his cloak, he knew that his plans were being unravelled, but how to mend them? How was he to weave the threads back together again?
The boy, he thought to himself. Everything was going so well before he stepped into Endra.
Bile began to bubble in the back of his mouth and eat away at his broken teeth.
‘Why won’t you just die, Zach Black?’ he gagged, turning away from the frail Queen and shuffling back to the window.
Looking out across the desert, he knew that if he wanted the boy dead, he would have to do it himself and he didn’t have a problem with that. In fact, he relished the thought.
‘Zach Black!’ he hissed, drops of black bile spraying from his lips and blistering the floor beneath him. ‘I’m coming to get you!’
‘What happens now?’ Marshal Goth asked, dragging his hands in the sand.
‘What do you mean?’ Zach said.