The figure was as tall and as awkward-looking as Fandel himself. Its face was masked by a long, webbed hood.
‘Who are you?’ Fandel asked.
Without answering the figure raised one knotted finger and went ‘Shhh!’ The sound was deep and rasping, like a tramp trying to dislodge a lump of snot from the back of its throat.
Peering over the figures shoulder, Fandel could see that, whatever strange world this doorway led to, it was night there. Far off in the distance, Fandel could see a tower that reached so far into the sky he lost sight of its peak amongst clouds which surrounded it like a sparkling necklace.
‘Who are you?’ he asked the figure again.
This time the figure responded by removing the hood. Fandel wanted to take a step backwards but his lanky legs wouldn’t move. It was like someone had crept up and nailed his shoes to the library floor.
The figure’s hood fell about its shoulders and some of it disintegrated in grey powdery flakes. Several of the ‘spiderpedes’ scuttled from the folds of the webbed material and began to re-spin the parts of the hood that had fallen away. Fandel looked into the face that had been revealed on the other side of the doorway. At first he thought he was looking into some strange and magical mirror, as the person staring back at him looked so much like himself. He looked so similar in appearance to Fandel that he could have been his brother; he could have been his reflection.
The figure held out one twisted hand. Now fascinated rather than scared, Fandel took hold of it and stepped through the doorway.
‘Did you enjoy the books,’ the figure asked in a voice so deep and rasping that it sounded as if he were being strangled.
Fandel smiled to himself, recalling their first meeting all those years ago, and everything he had been shown and taught since.
Reaching the end of the corridor, Fandel turned right. He knew the tower so well by now he felt he could navigate it blindfolded. Little had he known all those years ago, when he had first seen it through the doorway in the library that it would become a sanctuary for him. A place where he could be himself, practice his medicine and someday soon become a king. He felt at peace in the Splinter.
Reaching the end of the corridor, Fandel climbed a set of stone stairs that corkscrewed their way up into darkness. At the top was a door which led into a long, windowless room. It was lit with a series of candles attached to long metal rods that protruded from the floor like spikes. At the far end there was a high backed throne that reached almost to the pointed ceiling. Its legs were twisted like the roots of a tree, and the arms coiled upwards like rotten branches. On the throne sat a shrouded figure who was slumped forward as if asleep.
Fandel could hear the sound of those spiderpedes as they worked and re-worked the figures cloak.
‘You have been careless my friend,’ the figure croaked without moving from his slumped position in the enormous throne.
Fandel’s jet-black eyes darted back and forth in their sockets, racking his brain in search of what the figure could mean.
‘Careless, Throat? I’m not sure…’
‘Where is your nephew?’ Throat asked, his voice sounding torn and dry.
‘Well, he’s…erm…’ Fandel fumbled for the right words.
‘Are you sure?’ Fandel said. ‘But how?’
‘Through a doorway of course.’
‘But how?’ was all Fandel could muster again.
‘The longer it takes for the box to open, the more doorways begin to appear. The more doorways that open, the more people who could hinder our plan come through them.’
‘But Zach is nothing. Insignificant!’ Fandel tried to reassure him.
‘He could complicate matters,’ Throat rasped, continuing to slump in his throne unmoved.
‘He’s nothing and I will deal with him on his return.’
As if being pulled by invisible strings, Throat raised his head. From beneath his shifting robes he stared at Fandel.
‘The Radan said that he was dressed in the uniform of a peacekeeper. They said he was protected by the Slath. Perhaps we have both underestimated his significance in our plan.’
‘Nonsense my dear friend,’ Fandel said. ‘He is nothing and has come to this land by chance. On his return into Earth I will make sure that he causes us no further problems.’
Throat then made a deep gasping sound and Fandel wondered if he was trying to cough or laugh.
‘Fandel, he will never return to your world. I have made sure of that. I have released the Demonic Guardians to recover him.’
Hearing this, Fandel couldn’t help but shudder as he pictured the Demonic Guardians with their swordsticks, their white mercury venom and their devastating solar energies. Throat sensed Fandel’s fear on the other side of the room.
‘You’re not softening are you?’ Throat asked.
‘No of course not my friend, but…the Demonic Guardians…’
Grinning beneath his hood, Throat changed the subject. ‘Enough of your nephew, he will be dealt with as were his parents, but what about his sister?’
‘It will just be a day or two now before she is in a total catatonic state,’ Fandel grinned along with his reflection.
‘Good, good. Excellent,’ Throat whispered. ‘The Queen is near death. It is important that we get this right Fandel. They have to die at the exact same moment.’
‘Why don’t we just kill them now? Both of them together?’ Fandel asked the Throat, and the thought of it excited him.
‘The Queen will only die the moment the last of the light has faded from her heart in the box. At that moment you are to kill your niece.’
‘Let me bring Anna into Endra – to the Splinter. It would be…’ Fandel started.
‘No! No! No!’ Throated gagged. ‘She is not to be brought here. They will grow stronger if they come together. They have to be kept apart!’
‘But…’ Fandel said.
‘No buts Fandel. Now go back into Earth and watch the girl. Leave Zach Black to me,’ Throat said, lowering his head and dismissing Fandel.
Warden and William set about the lunar bear. Using their long fingernails like tools, they cut away its hide and tore off large lumps of meat with their fists. Zach and Neanna sat by the fire. The temperature had dropped now and they warmed their hands before the flames.
Stealing the odd glance, Zach looked at the beautiful girl that sat beside him. Neanna glanced back and Zach looked away. Remembering how William had told him Neanna was related to those zombie-like creatures; Zach had trouble believing that she could be one of them. Stealing another glance, he watched how the flames illuminated her pale face, and gave her dark hair the appearance of molten lava spilling down the side of a volcano.
‘Why do you keep looking at me?’ she asked without looking away from the flames that twisted and jigged before them.
‘I just find it hard to believe that you could be related to…those…’
‘Things?’ she finished for him.
‘Like me, they were once Slath,’ she said her voice full of sadness. ‘But now… I’m the sole survivor.’
‘What happened to the rest of them?’ Zach asked, not knowing how far to push the subject with her.
‘Throat’s armies destroyed them,’ she whispered.
‘Throat knew that we had certain powers. He knew that we could blink and…’
‘What’s blink?’ Zach asked, blowing warm air over his cold fingers.
‘You might have noticed that I don’t stay in the same place for too long. One minute I’m there and the next second I’m gone and can reappear some distance away. Well that’s what we call “blinking” – in the blink of an eye I am gone,’ she explained, blinking away and reappearing on the opposite side of the campfire as if to illustrate the point to him.
‘But why would Throat destroy your people because you can blink?’ Zach asked as William and Warden came back towards the fire, carrying lumps of meat in their claw-like hands.
‘Because he wants to rule Endra,’ Warden answered for Neanna, taking his place by the fire with Wasp. ‘He hoped that he could persuade the Slath to join him in his quest to overthrow the Queen and her army of peacekeepers.’
William placed the bear meat on the ground in thick, red slabs. He passed one to his father, skewered another two pieces onto a pointed stick and then passed one each to Neanna and Zach.
‘You’ll probably prefer yours cooked,’ he said.
Zach looked down at the bloody piece of meat he had been handed. Glancing across at Neanna, he saw she was already holding her slab of bear meat over the campfire. Noticing Zach’s look of revulsion, she said, ‘believe me it tastes better than it looks.’
Trusting her, Zach dangled his slab of meat over the fire with the stick. He glanced across at William and Warden who were both shoving the uncooked meat into their mouths. Blood oozed and dribbled into the hair that swung beneath their chins. William then released a belch that rattled through the air. Grinning at the disgusted look on Zach’s face, William said, ‘excuse me, but it tastes so damn good!’
‘Anyway,’ Warden said, ‘getting back to what I was saying…where was I? Ah yes, Throat. He had hoped that the Slath would join him and he would be able to use their unique blinking abilities to defeat the peacekeepers.’
‘Why did he want you to join him?’ Zach asked Neanna, turning the meat over the fire.
‘What an army we would’ve made,’ she said, her pale blue eyes looking haunted. ‘Imagine an army that could blink across a battlefield, never being in the same place long enough for the peacekeepers to take aim. To be able to change battle formation in the blink of an eye. To surround them in an instance. We would’ve been invincible.’
‘So a meeting was called in the vast banqueting halls of the Splinter by Throat for all of the Slath to attend.,’ Warden said, pulling small pieces of the raw meat apart, rolling them between his thick thumb and forefinger and feeding them to Wasp who lay curled in his lap.