‘The Splinter?’ Zach asked.
‘The Queens Tower and the axis of Endra. Our world spins around it, as does yours,’ Warden began to explain. But before he could finish, Neanna had started to talk again.
‘But when my father Nardith refused to join him, Throat smiled and told them to leave the Splinter in peace. But Throat was keeping a secret. He had cursed them with one of his many demonic spells. As my people were unwilling to use their abilities to blink to help him overthrow the Queen and her army of peacekeepers, he took their gift to blink away.’
Taking the slab of meat from the skewer, Neanna ripped it into tiny chunks. She blew on one of the pieces to cool it, and then popped it into her mouth. As she chewed the meat she continued.
‘It wasn’t until my people stepped from the Splinter into the burning glare of the desert to find that their stagecoaches had been taken that they realised they had been deceived. Their skin began to itch in the heat of the sun and they knew they had to get back to the safety of the Sleeping Caves, which used to be our home. The caves were four nights travel away and, as they could blink just short distances at a time, my people knew they would never reach the safety of the caves without being burnt alive.’ Neanna placed another piece of meat into her mouth and chewed.
Wiping the lunar bear’s blood from his lips with the back of his hand, William said, ‘the Slath’s only chance of survival was to blink across the desert to these forests. The trees would have shielded them from the searing heat of the desert sun. But as they tried to blink they realised they couldn’t. Their gift had been taken away from them.’
‘So my father, with his skin peeling then blistering,’ Neanna recalled, ‘led his people across the desert and to the Howling Forests. For two days and nights they crawled on their hands and knees, their bodies smoldering and burning in the heat until they reached the safety and shelter of the forest.’
‘How comes they didn’t die?’ Zach asked, pulling his slab of meat from above the fire.
‘Throat won’t let them. Beneath the curse he placed upon them they will spend the rest of eternity somewhere between life and death. They will forever protect these forests and the Noxas who live within them. They remain like…what is it you call them?’ she looked across the fire at Zach. ‘Ah yes…I remember now…zombies!’
Feeling embarrassed, Zach broke her gaze and looked down at the meat. It was overcooked and burnt in places, but even so his stomach somersaulted at the thought of food. He couldn’t remember how long ago it had been since he had last eaten. He guessed that it must have been the toast he’d had at his uncle’s on the day he had found the doorway. How long ago was that now? Was it minutes? Hours? Maybe days? He couldn’t be sure.
Then a thought came to him and he said, ‘Neanna, how comes you didn’t end up like the rest of your people?’ Waiting for her answer, he placed a piece of the lunar bear meat into his mouth. It tasted salty and dry but his stomach welcomed it.
‘The day my father led my people to the meeting at the Splinter, I had come down with a fever. My father had been reluctant to take me but my mother hadn’t wanted to leave me in the caves unwell on my own. So they made a compromise. I would travel as far as the Howling Forests with them, where I would be left in the charge of Warden and his family until their return.’
Zach placed another chunk of meat into his mouth. The saltiness of it made his mouth feel as dry and arid as the desert floor.
‘Where is the rest of your family?’ Zach asked Warden and William.
They looked at each other, then back at Zach.
‘They left two days ago and are heading for the snowstorm mountains. They’ll be waiting for us there,’ William said.
‘Why didn’t you go with them?’
‘We were waiting for you,’ Warden answered in his booming voice. ‘It was unsafe for them to stay. Throat’s magic is eating away our world, turning it into a wasteland. That desert beyond this forest was once half the size it is now, but day by day it grows. It stretches, reaching out and taking more of our home. Soon there will be nothing left of the Howling Forests. If we stayed, the desert would take us with it.’
‘But isn’t there anyway of stopping it?’ Zach asked, throwing the leftovers of his supper onto the ground. Seeing this, Wasp sprang from Warden’s lap, pounced on the food and began to lick it with his forked tongue.
‘If we are to save our world, we have to save the Queen and her reflection. Your sister!’ Warden said.
Hearing this, Zach jumped up, placing his hands on the hilts of his crossbows. ‘Well? What we waiting for? Let’s get going!’
Sniggering, William and Neanna looked at each other.
‘What’s so funny?’ Zach snapped, not liking the idea of being the butt of some joke.
‘It’s not as easy as that,’ Warden said in his deep voice. ‘The Queen can only be saved by opening the box that contains her heart.’
‘Where is the box?’ Zach asked.
‘Far away from here,’ William said.
‘Let’s go and get it then.’
‘We need to get the key first if we are to open the box,’ Neanna added.
‘So where is this key?’ Zach asked, hopping from foot to foot in his eagerness to save his sister. Again, William gave his father a knowing look.
‘The prisoner has it,’ Warden said.
‘Where’s this prisoner?’ Zach asked.
‘He’s being held in the prison of Eternal Despair on the other side of the Onyx Sea,’ William said. His voice sounded hollow and full of dread.
‘I guess from the sound of your voice that this is somewhere we really don’t want to be going,’ Zach said, fingers dancing over his crossbows.
Fixing him with his magnified eyes, William said, ‘The Onyx Sea is patrolled by the Dammed Bandits. A murderess race rumoured to be the half-eaten remains of dead outlaws. These outlaws were once fed to sharks, and they returned from the depths of the sea to kill and plunder – they’re the zombies!’
‘And even if we were to make it safely across the Onyx Sea,’ Neanna began, ‘The Prison of Eternal Despair is a maze of tunnels that stretch for miles, each one filled with the most terrible and evil of killers.’
‘You’re not selling this to me,’ Zach said, slumping to the ground, fearing that the rescue of his sister and the Queen of Endra was doomed before it had even started. ‘It sounds impossible,’ he said looking amongst them.
‘And it well might be,’ Warden said, ‘but you leave tonight. The dawn is drawing close. Today you shall rest as I fear you will need every ounce of cunning and energy to survive the journey you are about to make.’
‘What’s this “you” business?’ Zach asked. ‘Aren’t you coming with us?’
‘I’m sorry, but my blindness will hamper your mission. I will take a separate path from you, head to the Snowstorm Mountains and protect my family the best that I can.’
Looking across the dying fire at William, Zach said, ‘but what about William? He’s your son. Isn’t he family?’
Bowing his head and speaking in a voice so low Zach struggled to hear him, Warden said, ‘this is my son’s punishment. He has to go with you to make peace with the rest of his family and Endra.’
Zach looked across at William, who also had his head bowed as if in shame.
‘What could your son have done that was so bad, to earn your forgiveness he has to go on such a dangerous journey?’ Zach asked, starring at Warden in disbelief.
‘He will tell you if he chooses to. Now it is time for you to rest.’ And without another word the giant rose to his feet, yanked on Wasp’s tether and disappeared into the forest.
Zach, William and Neanna sat in silence and it became unbearable.
‘So why are you putting yourself forward to come on this journey,’ Zach asked Neanna, the silence becoming deafening.
Fluttering like shadows in candlelight, Neanna blinked and reappeared curled on her side by the burning embers of the fire. She lay and looked at Zach with her pale-blue eyes.
‘To avenge Throat for what he did to my people,’ she said. Then closing her eyes, Neanna pulled her cloak over herself, disappearing beneath it.
Rolling on to his back, Zach laced his fingers behind his head and crossed his feet at the ankles. He looked across at William who continued to sit by the fire, his head hung so low that his chin touched his chest.
What could he have done that were so bad, he would be sent to his almost certain death by his own father? Zach wondered.
And with this thought see-sawing through his mind, he slipped into unconsciousness and fell asleep.
Stepping through the doorway from Endra, Fandel teetered on the edge of the cliff. He pin-wheeled his arms like a tightrope-walker to stop himself falling into the crashing waves below.
‘Dammit!’ he hissed under his breath.
The doorway slammed shut behind him, folded in on itself and disappeared. Turning, Fandel saw his cottage in the distance beneath a sky that looked the colour of bruised and battered skin. Morning was minutes away and by the look of the clouds racing in from the west, he could sense that they were bringing snow with them. Fandel could smell it and it made his nose itch.
Regaining his composure, he set off across the fields to his home and his niece who lay in the upstairs bedroom. She would soon need her morning dose of medicine, and he grinned to himself, that feeling of excitement making his heart quicken. But what he didn’t find so funny or exciting was how the door had opened just inches from the cliff-edge. A fraction further in the wrong direction and he would have fallen to his death.
Fandel could remember a time when the doorways stayed still. You were certain of returning to Earth at the very same point that you had left it. But not now. Something seemed to be changing – shifting. The doorways no longer stayed still and this worried him. What if he stepped through the doorway onto a busy motorway, a railway track with a high-speed passenger train bearing down on him? He knew he would be dead. Fandel didn’t intend to find out, and the thought caused gooseflesh to crawl up his back.