From their hiding place, the six peacekeepers watched Tanner being manhandled onto the floating stagecoach. The moon was up, and its reflection dazzled on the black waves of the Onyx Sea. There was another figure close by, and the peacekeepers watched her, too. She was a foul-looking witch-like creature, and even from some feet away the peacekeepers covered their noses with their bandanas to block out her vile stench. She smelt of crud and vomit. One of the peacekeepers watched open-mouthed from his hiding place as a flood of bloated, white maggots oozed from the woman’s mouth, ears, and nose.
The woman, if that’s what she was, clambered onto the giant dog she had with her. It yapped angrily. Scooping away some of the maggots that wriggled over her chin, she held them before the dog’s mouth. It produced a long, grey tongue and lapped them from its keeper’s fist.
“There’s a good boy,” the stinking woman cooed. Then digging her bare feet into the creature’s flanks, she said, “C’mon, Max, take me to the Splinter. Take me to my brother.”
The giant dog shook its matted mane, then howling, it bounded off into the night, the woman clinging onto its back.
“Should we follow?” one of the peacekeepers asked another.
“No, Baran,” the peacekeeper whispered. She was younger than the male, but she spoke with the authority of someone who was to be obeyed. “Tanner told us to follow him and him alone, whatever should come to pass.”
“But that witch could lead us to the box, Wavia,” Baran said.
“We stick with Tanner,” Wavia hissed, turning her back on the other peacekeepers huddled behind the rocks. Then spying Anna Black being led onto the boat, she pointed at her and said, “That must be the girl that Tanner spoke of. She must be the sister of the boy, Zachary Black, who went through the doorway.”
“And what about him?” Baran asked, pointing through a gap in the rocks as Fandel was led onto the giant floating stagecoach by two of the Dammed Bandits.
“The uncle, I guess,” Wavia shrugged.
The six of them watched as the boat was cast away from the quay and set out across the Onyx Sea. Then as the giant seahorses, which pulled the boat, threw their giant heads back and raced away over the crashing waves, Baran looked at Wavia from over the top of his black bandana and said, “What now?”
“We follow,” Wavia said, scrambling out from behind the rocks and racing towards her rafter horse. As she went, her crossbows slammed against her thighs where they were tethered in brown leather holsters.
“What, on horseback?” Baran called after her.
“There is only one place they can be heading,” Wavia said, pulling the mane of her horse like a set of reins. The rafter horse reared back on two of its six legs and tossed its head from side to side in the air on its long, serpent-like neck. “We’ll travel across land, and if we have the gods’ blessings, we should get there before them.”
“But...” Baran started.
“Saddle up!” Wavia commanded the other peacekeepers. “We have a boat to catch.”
Without further argument or debate, the remaining five peacekeepers mounted their rafter horses. Yanking on the creatures’ manes, the peacekeepers raced into the night after Wavia, following the dust trail that her rafter horse left in its wake.
Zachary Black and his friends made their way across the desert. The Prison of Eternal Despair was three days behind them now. They travelled only by night, Neanna Cera needing shelter from the blistering sun during the day. The nights were long and cool, and Zach knew that despite his friend’s need for shelter, he would have preferred to travel in the dark, when the moon was high and the wind was fresh. Sometimes he woke during the day and crawled from the cave or hole that they had found to take rest in. Alone, Zach would stare out across the vast, flat plain, wondering if it had any end.
With his hands sheltering his eyes from the grains of sand that whipped up off the hard-panned ground, he would look in all directions, not knowing where he was going or where he was leading his friends. William-the-wolf-Weaver had been quiet and withdrawn as they travelled through the night, often hanging back from the group – lost to his own thoughts. Zach knew that he blamed himself for his grandfather’s death. For if William hadn’t of looked into that box, then his grandfather would still be alive and his father, Warden, wouldn’t be blind. Zach had slowed several times, waiting for his friend to catch up. But with William’s eyes hidden behind that peculiar pair of spectacles, it was hard for Zach to see the pain that his friend masked. Zach would watch William from the corner of his eye, the bright moonlight twinkling off the grains of sand which were caught in his friend’s long, untidy beard and dreadlocks. William’s huge claws swung against his thighs, head cast down, and catapult jutting from his back trouser pocket. Zach had tried several times to engage his friend in conversation, but he was met only with silence. So Zach left William to his own thoughts and grief.
Captain Bom, unlike William, didn’t stop huffing and puffing over the sound of his chainmail armour clinking and clanking with every step that he took. As the Captain moaned and groaned about the distance they were traveling and the lack of food and Tep leaves for his pipe, Zach often wondered how Bom bore the weight of the armour, even in the cool of the night. He was short, barely five foot, but he kept up with the group, often striding ahead and sometimes disappearing from view in the sandstorms that raced across the desert.
Zach knew, too, that it wasn’t only he who would sometimes wake in the day and venture out into the burning heat of the sun. On several occasions, he had woken to find Bom missing from the spot where he had fallen asleep. But Bom always returned before nightfall, his thick hands carrying large, dead, desert rats by their tails. He would set a fire and cook the animals, some as big as cats, and have the food ready for when Neanna and William woke for the night.
They often ate in silence, Neanna staring at Zach through the flames of the campfire. Bom would belch with satisfaction as he swallowed the last of the food, but it wasn’t long before he was moaning again about the lack of Tep leaves as he sat and looked at his empty pipe.
“Do you know where you are leading us?” Neanna had asked Zach, before leaving camp that night.
“Nope,” Zach said back, taking one of his crossbows from its holster and blowing the sand grit from the weapon’s firing mechanism.
“How come?” Neanna asked back, pulling her tattered black cloak about her shoulders.
“I don’t think about it, like I don’t think about how my crossbows never need reloading,” Zach said thoughtfully, looking at the crossbow in his hand. “There is always a stake loaded, waiting to be fired.” Then, as if to prove the point, he aimed high and pressed the trigger. There was a short, sharp bang, followed by a whizzing noise as the stake shot high up into the night and disappeared. “Look!” Zach said, holding the crossbow out in the light from the fire. “There is another stake waiting to be fired. I didn’t reload it.”
“A peacekeeper’s weapon,” Bom grunted, staring at the crossbow from beneath his long white fluffy eyebrows. “Everlasting ammunition, some say. Never would have believed it myself.”
“So, peacekeeper,” Neanna said, not sounding angry, but just tired, “where are you leading us?”
“I don’t know,” Zach said, holstering his crossbow. “You know this world better than I do.”
“You’re heading towards the outer-rim,” William suddenly spoke for the first time in days.
“The outer-rim?” Zach asked, looking over at his friend, pleased that he had decided to speak at last.
“That place doesn’t really exist,” Bom groaned from beneath his overgrown beard. He then stuck the empty pipe into the corner of his mouth and sucked on it like a child would on a soother.
“It does exist,” William said, cuffing away some of the rat meat that clung to the hair which swung from his chin. The flames reflected back in the lenses of his bulbous spectacles and his eyes looked as if they were on fire again. “My father said that some believed it to be the very last place you come to before reaching the Rusty Volcano. No one has ever returned. Some believe that there is a city there which fell into ruin hundreds of years ago, when the volcano last erupted.”
Looking at William through the flames as he dissected another of the desert rats with his claws, Zach said, “If no one has ever returned, how do people know such things about this city and the outer-rim? How do they know it even exists?”
William shrugged his huge shoulders and popped some of the rat meat into his mouth.
“I’ve heard about the city, too,” Neanna said, her long, black hair blowing in the cool wind that snaked across the desert floor. “They say that it snows there, it never stops. But it’s not snow – its ash, falling from the crumbling buildings.”
“Who says?” Bom scoffed, his armour glinting in the moonlight. “Who says such things?”
A silence fell over the small group huddled around the fire. The sound of the dry twigs snapping and hissing as they burnt became almost deafening. After a short time, and unable to bear the silence any longer, Zach stood and brushed the dust and sand from the seat of his jeans.
“The only way to find out if this city you call the outer-rim really exists, is if we carry on walking,” he said, as he pulled his long, dark coat about him.
With a grunt, Bom got to his feet and stamped out the fire. Tendrils of grey smoke wafted up into the night. William discarded the carcass of the last desert rat, and wiping his greasy claws on his thick, woven trousers, he stood. Towering over Neanna, he stuck out a claw and pulled her to her feet.
“Do you think we should keep heading towards...” Neanna started as she looked at William.
“Do we have a choice?” William cut over her. Then, gently curling his claws around the key that hung about his neck, he added, “If we are going to get the box that contains the Heart of Endra, then we have to keep going. My granddad told me once that whatever happens, you must never go backwards. Sideways is okay sometimes, but never back.”