IFELLto the ground, clamping my lips and eyes shut. Clambering to my knees, I tried to crawl out of the ball of fire before I was consumed to the bone?
?then paused when I realized that although I was surrounded by the dragon's flames, there wasn't any heat! I opened my left eyelid a fraction, ready to shut it again quick. What I saw caused both my eyes to snap open and my jaw to drop with astonishment.
The world around me had stopped. The dragon hung frozen over the Lake, a long line of fire extending from its mouth. The fire covered not just me, but Harkat and the naked man ?Kurda Smahlt ! - on the ground. But none of us was burnt. The static flames hadn't harmed us.
"What's going on?" Harkat asked, his words echoing hollowly.
"I haven't a clue," I said, running a hand through the frozen fire around me - it felt like warm fog.
"Over - there!" the man on the ground croaked, pointing to his left.
Harkat and I followed the direction of the finger and saw a short, tubby man striding towards us, beaming broadly, playing with a heart-shaped watch.
"Mr Tiny!" we shouted together, then cut through the harmless flames - Harkat grabbed Kurda under the arms and dragged him out - and hurried to meet the mysterious little man.
"Tight timing, boys!" Mr Tiny boomed as we came within earshot. "I didn't expect it to go that close to the wire. A thrilling finale! Most satisfying."
I stopped and stared at Mr Tiny. "You didn't know how it would turn out?" I asked.
"Of course not," he smirked. "That's what made it so much fun. A few more seconds and you'd have been toast!"
Mr Tiny stepped past me and held out a cloak to Harkat and his naked companion. "Cover the poor soul," Mr Tiny punned.
Harkat took the cloak and draped it around Kurda's shoulders. Kurda said nothing, just stared at the three of us, his blue eyes wide with suspicion and fear, trembling like a newborn baby.
"What's going on?" I snapped at Mr Tiny. "Harkat can't have been Kurda - he was around long before Kurda died!"
"What do you think, Harkat?" Mr Tiny asked the Little Person.
"It's me," Harkat whispered, studying Kurda intensely. "I don't know how - but it is."
"But it can't?" I began, only for Mr Tiny to interrupt curtly.
"We'll discuss it later," he said. "The dragons won't stay like this indefinitely. Let's not be here when they unfreeze. I can control them normally, but they're in quite an agitated state and it would be safer not to press our luck. They couldn't harm me, but it would be a shame to lose all of you to their fury at this late stage."
I was anxious for answers, but the thought of facing the dragons again enabled me to hold my tongue and follow quietly as Mr Tiny led us out of the valley, whistling chirpily, away from the lost remains of Spits Abrams and the other dead spirits held captive in the Lake of Souls.
Night. Sitting by a crackling fire, finishing off a meal which two of Mr Tiny's Little People had prepared. We were no more than a kilometre from the valley, out in the open, but Mr Tiny assured us that we wouldn't be disturbed by dragons. On the far side of the fire stood a tall, arched doorway, like the one we'd entered this world by. I longed to throw myself through it, but there were questions which needed to be answered first.
My eyes returned to Kurda Smahlt, as they had so often since we'd pulled him out of the Lake. He was extremely pale and thin, his hair untidy, his eyes dark with fear and pain. But otherwise he looked exactly as he had the last time I saw him, when I'd foiled his plans to betray the vampires to the vampaneze. He'd been executed shortly afterwards, dropped into a pit of stakes until he was dead, then cut into pieces and cremated.
Kurda felt my eyes upon him and glanced up shamefully. He no longer shook, though he still looked very uncertain. Laying aside his plate, he wiped around his mouth with a scrap of cloth, then asked softly, "How much time has passed since I was put to death?"
"Eight years or so," I answered.
"Is that all?" He frowned. "It seems much longer."
"Do you remember everything that happened?" I asked.
He nodded bleakly. "My memory's as sharp as ever, though I wish it wasn't - that drop into the pit of stakes is something I'd rather never think about again." He sighed. "I'm sorry for what I did, killing Gavner and betraying the clan. But I believed it was for the good of our people - I was trying to prevent a war with the vampaneze."
"I know," I said softly. "We've been at war since you died, and the Vampaneze Lord has revealed himself. He ?" I gulped deeply. "He killed Mr Crepsley. Many others have died as well."
"I'm sorry," Kurda said again. "Perhaps if I'd succeeded, they'd still be alive." He grimaced as soon as he said that, and shook his head. "No. It's too easy to say 'what if' and paint a picture of a perfect world. There would have been death and misery even if you hadn't exposed me. That was unavoidable."
Harkat hadn't said much since we'd sat down - he'd been studying Kurda like a baby watching its mother. Now his eyes roamed to Mr Tiny and he said quietly, "I know I was Kurda. Buthow? I was created years before - Kurda died."
"Time is relative," Mr Tiny chuckled, roasting something that looked suspiciously like a human eyeball on a stick over the fire. "From the present, I can move backwards into the past, or forward into any of the possible futures."
"You can travel through time?" I asked sceptically.
Mr Tiny nodded. "That's my one great thrill in life. By playing with time, I can subtly influence the course of future events, keeping the world on a chaotic keel - it's more interesting that way. I can help or hinder humans, vampires and vampaneze, as I see fit. There are limits to what I can do, but I work broadly and actively within them.
"For reasons of my own, I decided to help young Master Shan," he continued, addressing his words to Harkat. "I've laid many plans around that young man, but I saw, years ago, that he was doomed for an early grave. Without someone to step in at vital moments - for instance, when he fought with the bear on his way to Vampire Mountain, and later with the wild boars during his Trials of Initiation - he would have perished long ago.
"So I created Harkat Mulds," he said, this time speaking to me. He swallowed the eyeball he'd been cooking and belched merrily. "I could have used any of my Little People, but I needed someone who'd cared about you when he was alive, who'd do that little bit extra to protect you. So I went into a possible future, searched among the souls of the tormented dead, and found our old friend Kurda Smahlt."
Mr Tiny slapped Kurda's knee. The one-time General flinched. "Kurda was a soul in agony," Mr Tiny said cheerfully. "He was unable to forgive himself for betraying his people, and was desperate to make amends. By becoming Harkat Mulds and protecting you, he provided the vampires with the possibility of victory in the War of the Scars. Without Harkat, you would have died long ago, and there would have been no hunt for the Lord of the Vampaneze - he would simply have led his forces to victory over the vampires."
"But I didn't know - that I used to be Kurda!" Harkat protested.
"Deep down you did," Mr Tiny disagreed. "Since I had to return your soul to the past, I had to hide the truth of your identity from you - if you'd known who you were, you might have tried to directly interfere with the course of the future. But on a subconscious level, you knew. That's why you fought so bravely beside Darren, risking your life for his on numerous occasions."
I thought about that in silence for a long while, as did Harkat and Kurda. Time travel was a difficult concept to get my head around, but if I overlooked the paradox of being able to send a soul from the future into the past to alter the present - and didn't question how it was achieved - I could see the logic. Kurda had betrayed the vampires. Ashamed, his soul remained bound to Earth. Mr Tiny offered him the chance of redemption - by returning to life as a Little Person, he could make amends for his foul deeds.
"There's something I don't understand," Kurda said, then winced. "Actually, there'sloads I don't understand, but one thing in particular. My plan to betray the vampires would have succeeded if Darren hadn't interfered. But you say Darren would have died without my aid as Harkat Mulds. So, in effect, I helped Darren mastermind my own downfall!"
Mr Tiny shook his head. "You would have perished regardless of the outcome. Your death was never in question - merely the manner of it."
"What puzzlesme the most," Harkat muttered, "is how - the two of us can be here at the same - time. If I'm Kurda and he's - me, how can we exist together?"
"Harkat's wiser than he looks," Mr Tiny noted with a chuckle. "The answer is that youcan't - at least, not for very long. While Kurda remained in the Lake of Souls, Harkat was free to roam the world. Now that Kurda has emerged, one must make way for the other."
"What do you mean?" I asked sharply.
"Kurda and Harkat share the same soul," Mr Tiny explained, "but while a soul can be split, it can only lay claim to one body at any given time. As the original, Kurda has a natural claim to existence. Even now, the strands of Harkat's form are unravelling. Within a day his body will dissolve, releasing his share of their soul. A split soul can never be rejoined - Harkat and Kurda are two different people. Since this is the case, Harkat's half of their soul must depart this world. It's nature's way."
"You mean Harkat's going to die?" I yelled.
"He's dead already," Mr Tiny chuckled.
"Stop splitting hairs!" I growled. "Will Harkat perish if we stay here?"
"He'll perish wherever you are," Mr Tiny replied. "Now that Kurda's soul has been given form, only he has the power to spare Harkat's body."
"If I can save Harkat, I will," Kurda said immediately.
"Even if it costs you your own newly restored life?" Mr Tiny asked slyly.
Kurda stiffened. "What are you talking about?"
Mr Tiny stood and stretched. "There's much I can't tell you," he said. "But I'll explain as best I can. There are two ways in which I can create a Little Person - from a soul's resurrected body - the one which forms when a person is fished from the Lake of Souls - or from their corpse. With Harkat, I used Kurda's original remains."
"But Kurda's body was burnt to ashes," I interrupted.
"No," Mr Tiny said. "When I decided to use Kurda's soul, I returned to the time of his death and convinced the Guardians of the Blood to switch his body with another's. I used Kurda's bones to make Harkat. The deal I then made with him was that in return for his new body, he'd travel with Darren and protect him, and later, if he did as instructed, I'd free his soul - he wouldn't have to return to the Lake.
"Well, Harkat has performed admirably and is most deserving of his reward. If Kurda chooses, he can walk away a free man now. He can live out the rest of his renewed life, however long or short that proves to be. Harkat's body will fall apart, his soul will be freed, and I'll have upheld my end of the bargain."
"To live again!" Kurda whispered, eyes bright.
"Or,"Mr Tiny added with cruel relish, "we can strike a new deal and Kurda can sacrifice himself."
Kurda's eyes narrowed. "Why would I do that?" he snapped.
"You and Harkat share a soul, but it's a soul which I have helped divide into two parts. If you let me destroy your new body, your part of your shared spirit will depart this realm instead of Harkat's. Harkat will become your soul's sole physical vessel. I can't guarantee him immunity from the Lake of Souls in that case, but he may return home with Darren and live out his life. His future will be his own - if he lives a good life and dies well, the Lake will have no claim on him."
"That's a despicable choice to present me with," Kurda growled.
"I don't make the laws," Mr Tiny shrugged. "I just obey them. One of you can live - the other must bid farewell to life. I could make the call and just kill one of you, but wouldn't you rather decide for yourselves?"
"I suppose," Kurda sighed, then looked at Harkat and grinned. "No offence, but if we were to decide on the basis of good looks, I'd win hands down."
"And if we judged it - on loyalty," Harkat responded, "Iwould win, since I have - never betrayed my friends."
Kurda grimaced. "Would you want to live?" he asked Harkat. "The Lake is a hellish place. Mr Tiny's offering you a guaranteed escape. Maybe you want to take it?"
"No," Harkat said. "I don't want to let go - of life. I'd rather go back with Darren and take my chances."
Kurda looked at me. "What do you reckon, Darren?" he asked softly. "Should I grant Harkat life or set his soul free?"
I started to answer but Harkat cut in. "Darren has nothing to do - with this. Much of my memory ?your ... memory - is returning. A lot is clear now. I know you the same way I - know myself. You always went your own way - even to the point of betraying your people - when you thought it was for their best. Be the man in death that - you were in life. Decide for yourself."
"He put that quite well," Mr Tiny murmured.
"Couldn't have said it better myself," Kurda agreed, grinning sickly. Standing, he turned in a complete, slow circle, studying the dark world beyond the light of the fire, thinking deeply. Then he sighed and faced Mr Tiny. "I've had my fill of life. I made my choices and accepted the consequences. This is Harkat's time. I belong to death - let it have me."
Mr Tiny smiled strangely, almost warmly. "Your decision makes no sense to me but I admire you for it. I promise your death will be swift and painless, and your departure for whatever glories or terrors which lie beyond will be instant."
Mr Tiny stepped over to the arched doorway. He held up his heart-shaped watch and it glowed a deep red colour. Within seconds the doorway and the small man's face were glowing too. "Through you go, boys - the home fires are burning and your friends are waiting."
"Not yet!" I shouted. "I want to know where we are and how Evanna got here and why you stocked that kitchen underground and where the dragons came from and why?"
"Your questions must wait," Mr Tiny stopped me. His face was glowing red and he looked more frightening than anything we'd faced during the course of our journey. "Go now, or I'll leave you here to the dragons."
"You wouldn't!" I snorted, but I was in no position to call his bluff. Walking to the doorway, followed by Harkat, I stopped and gazed back at Kurda Smahlt, about to face death for the second time. There was so much I wanted to say to him, so much I wanted to ask him. But there was no time. "Thank you," I whispered simply.
"Yes - thank you," Harkat added.
"What's a life between friends?" Kurda laughed, then grew serious. "Make it count. Lead a good life, so you'll have no regrets when you die. That way your soul will fly free, and you won't be at the beck and call of meddlers like Desmond Tiny."
"If not for we meddlers, who would hold the fabric of the universe together?" Mr Tiny countered. Then, before we could pursue the conversation any further, he barked, "You must go now - or stay for ever!"
"Goodbye, Kurda," Harkat said numbly.
"Farewell,Sire ," I saluted him.
Kurda didn't answer, just waved shortly and turned his head aside. I think he was crying. And then, leaving many questions unanswered, but having successfully achieved what we set out to, Harkat and I turned away from the living corpse, the Lake of Souls, the dragons, the Grotesque and other creatures of this twisted place, and walked through the glowing doorway, back to the world of our own.