‘Who is she?’ Zach asked again.
‘She’s one of them,’ William replied, nodding in the direction of the approaching creatures.
‘What do you mean she’s one of them?’ Zach asked, following William deeper into the forest, where the trees huddled together like muggers on street corners.
‘She’s a Slath!’ William shouted back over his shoulder, carrying the girl in his arms.
Zach jogged to keep up, his crossbows bouncing against his thighs. Even though the wolf-type creature was carrying the girl, he moved with such speed and agility that Zach had trouble keeping up with him. Zach was now grateful for all those early morning runs he had taken along the beach.
‘What’s a Slath?’ Zach puffed.
‘They’re the night-folk. They live by night, hiding away from the sun by day – it can kill them!’ William told him.
‘We have creatures like that back home...in my world.’ Zach said, ducking to avoid a low hanging branch. ‘But they’re just in stories....horror movies. We call them vampires.’
‘Are you so sure they’re just stories?’ William asked, glancing at Zach through those huge, magnified lenses.
‘Of course they’re just stories,’ Zach wheezed, fighting to stay level with the boy.
‘I hate to disappoint ya,’ William grinned, lengths of hair billowing from his face and back over his shoulders like tentacles. ‘But vampires are real. They are the Slath that have passed through the doorways from our world and into yours. In our world they are just Slath, but in your world they become vampires.’
They reached a small clearing and William came to a sudden stop. He sniffed the air and was off again, shouting over his shoulder, ‘this way!’
Zach watched as he bounded off again in a whirl of flowing hair.
‘So what does that make you? A werewolf?’ he called after William, half-joking but fearing the answer.
‘Only in your world,’ William howled, ‘here I’m a Noxas and my friends call me William ‘the Wolf’ Weaver!’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ Zach sighed under his breath, and then raced off after William again.
They ran in silence, Zach trying to make sense of this new world and what William had told him. Why was he here? But more important, where was here?
William reached another small clearing and stopped. The area was circular in shape and at its centre there was a small burnt-out fire. Surrounding this were several large rocks that looked as big as armchairs. William carried the girl over to one of these large stone chairs and settled her into it. He then disappeared into the nearby undergrowth and reappeared carrying an armful of branches and twigs. William began to pile these on top of the burnt-out campfire.
Zach looked across at the girl who had curled herself into a ball in the makeshift chair. She shook as if she was freezing cold. From where Zach stood, she looked fragile, like a sculpture cut from glass.
‘What’s her name?’ Zach asked William.
‘Neanna Cera,’ he replied without looking up.
‘Is she ill?’
‘What happened to her?’
William patted his shirt pockets and then rummaged through those that covered his worn looking trousers. They were blue and looked like denim but the material looked coarser - somehow thicker. His shirt was brown and seemed to be made from the same material. Looking him up and down, Zach realised for the first time that William’s feet were shoeless. Just like his fingers, his toes were long and covered in thick brown hair.
‘She was out in the sun for too long,’ William replied, after finding what it was he was looking for. He pulled a small wooden box from his trouser pocket. Flipping it open, William pulled out a match, which he held to the branches and sticks placed on the campfire.
‘If the sun can kill her, what was she doing out in the desert?’ Zach asked, moving to the centre of the clearing and positioning himself on the ground near the fire that William had got going.‘We were looking for you,’ William said, stoking the fire with a long twisted stick like a child prodding at a dead insect. ‘Well, not exactly. We were looking for the doorway that you would come through.’
‘But how did you know that I would come?’
William looked at him confused. Seeing this, Zach reminded him. ‘You said you were looking for me – looking for my doorway. How did you know that I would come?’
Realising that their conversation had returned to the doorways, William combed the hair beneath his chin with his long ivory nails and said, ‘that was the problem you see. We knew you would eventually come across a doorway, but we couldn’t be sure when and exactly where. Every night for the last month Neanna and me have travelled across the desert looking for your doorway to appear. And last night we saw it; shining like a star just above the desert floor. But before we could reach it the sun had crept up on us, and then those Radan spotted us and made chase.’
‘Were they those hooded things?’ Zach asked.
‘Yes, yes! But don’t interrupt. I’ve lost my train of thought now.’ William pondered whilst tugging at the dark brown hair sprouting from his chin. He looked like an ancient shaman meditating before his campfire. At last, he said, ‘ah, yes. I remember now. I needed Neanna to fight them off as I raced towards you. I had to keep the stagecoach on a fine line because if I’d over-steered by just the smallest fraction, I wouldn’t have been able to pull you through. Anyway, Neanna tried to fight off the Radan for far too long. She fought bravely though, and even when the sun became unbearable she stood her ground so we could reach ya.’
Feeling somewhat guilty, Zach glanced over at the girl who continued to shiver in the chair, like a shipwreck survivor dragged from the sea.
‘In the end though,’ William continued, ‘she had to escape into the coach or...she would have…’
As if almost too painful to complete his sentence, William stopped talking and continued to prod at the fire that snapped and hissed in front of them.
‘But that really doesn’t answer my question,’ Zach said after a few quiet moments of contemplation, ‘how did you know I was going to come in the first place?’
‘It was only a matter of time,’ a voice said from behind him.
Turning, Zach could see an enormous figure standing amongst the trees on the other side of the clearing. Peering into the darkness, Zach shielded his eyes against the glare of the fire with his hands.
‘Who’s there?’ Zach called out, and that sense of unease crept over him again.
‘It’s okay,’ William assured him by placing one of his long hands on Zach’s arm, ‘It’s just my dad.’
Recognising his son’s voice, the figure that stood hidden amongst the shadows called out, ‘have they gone?’
‘Yes dad,’ William said, standing to greet his father.
Zach looked in amazement at the figure which appeared from the forest. William’s father was huge; a mountain of a man. He stood at least eight foot tall, with long meaty arms that hung so low his giant hands looked as if they might touch the ground. He was as wide as a barn-door with shoulders so round and muscular they resembled cannon-balls. The man’s head was square-shaped with a broad forehead and a powerful looking jaw-line. Just like his son, his face was covered in hair with just his mouth, nose and eyes revealed. He wore blue dungarees and a red checked shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows.
It was then that Zach noticed this man’s eyes. At first glance they looked as if they were jet-black and set in deep, dark sockets which screwed right back into his skull. But on further inspection, Zach could see that this man didn’t have eyes. The darkness surrounding the empty sockets were in fact scorch marks.
In spite of having no eyes, the giant stepped into the clearing and strode towards Zach and William. He navigated his way around the large rocks where Neanna rested, and stopped just before walking into the fire. Zach wondered if he had managed to do this by an acute sense of hearing and smell, but then noticed that William’s father was being guided by an animal he had tethered to a leash.
Although this creature’s function was the equivalent to a guide dog, that’s where the similarities ended. The creature was similar in length and size to a stoat, but appeared to have the markings of a tiger. It had a long pointed snout with a mass of white whiskers. Its eyes were enormous and glowed yellow.
‘There’s a good boy Wasp,’ William’s father said, stooping to pat his guide with one of his giant hands.
A thin, snake-like tongue slipped from between the creature’s jaws and licked its master’s fingers. Rolling over, Wasp lay on his side next to the giant’s shoeless feet and began to purr. It wasn’t the purring that Zach had heard cats make back home. It was more of a ‘buzzing’ sound – similar to a Bee.
Maybe that’s why they call it Wasp, Zach wondered.
Lowering himself to the ground by the fire, William’s father turned his dead-eyes on Zach.
‘So Zach Black – where shall we start? I know let’s talk about your uncle Fandel,’ he said in a voice that rumbled like thunder.
Fandel stood in the open doorway of his cottage and looked out towards the cliff-edge. He swung his torch from side to side and the beam of light arced into the night like a lighthouse warning sailors in a storm.
‘Zach!’ he hissed into the darkness.
Pulling his watch and chain from his waistcoat pocket, Fandel flipped open the face with a broken fingernail. It was just before midnight and he hadn’t seen his irritating nephew since earlier that morning.
‘Zach!’ he called again into the night. ‘Where is that little-prick?’
That morning, discovering his uncle creeping upstairs to give his sister yet another one of those weird looking tablets, Zach had said, ‘Why do you keep giving her that stuff?’
Stopping halfway up the staircase, Fandel turned to eye his nephew with suspicion.