MR TALLwas waiting for us when we stepped through the doorway, standing beside a fire much like the one we'd left behind, close to the vans and tents of the Cirque Du Freak, but separated from the campsite by a row of trees. His small mouth was stretched into a smile as he stepped forward to shake our hands. "Hello, Darren. Hello, Harkat. I'm delighted about your safe return."
"Hello, Hibernius," Harkat greeted the Cirque owner - it was the first time he'd ever called him that.
"Ah!" Mr Tall beamed. "Your mission was a success - as Kurda, you always called me Hibernius."
"Good to see you again - old friend," Harkat said. His voice hadn't changed, but he somehow sounded different.
As we sat around the fire, I asked where our other friends were. Mr Tall told us most were sleeping - it was late and everyone was tired after that night's performance.
"I've known for the last week that you were due to return - if you managed to make it back alive - but I wasn't sure of the exact date. I've been making a fire and waiting beside it for several nights. I could wake the others, but it would be better to wait and announce your return in the morning."
We agreed to let our friends slumber. Harkat and I began telling Mr Tall about our adventures in the mysterious world through the glowing doorway (which crumbled to ash shortly after we stepped through). Mr Tall was fascinated and listened in rapt silence, asking virtually no questions. We only meant to tell him the highlights - and save the majority of the tale for when we had more listeners - but once we started, we couldn't stop, and over the nextfew hours we told him all that had happened. The only time he interrupted was when we mentioned Evanna - he stopped us there and asked a lot of questions about her.
There was a long silence at the end, as the three of us stared into the dying embers of the fire and thought about our battles and narrow escapes, the fate of the deranged Spits Abrams, the wondrous dragons, the great revelation and Kurda's unenviable choice.
"Will Mr Tiny really kill Kurda?" I asked after a while.
Mr Tall nodded sadly. "A soul can divide but it cannot share two bodies. But Kurda made the right choice - Harkat will remember most of what Kurda experienced while alive, and in that way Kurda will live on. Had Kurda chosen life, all of Harkat's memories would have been lost to the world. This way they both win."
"A cheery thought to end on," Harkat said, smiling. He yawned and stared up at the moon. "How much time has passed since - we were away?"
"Time has been the same for us as for you," Mr Tall said. "Some three months have slipped by. It is summer now."
"Any news about the War of the Scars?" I asked.
"None," Mr Tall said shortly.
"I hope Debbie and Alice reached Vampire Mountain," I muttered. During my months away, I'd only rarely stopped to wonder what was happening back home. Now I was anxious to catch up on all that I had missed.
"I wouldn't trouble myself if I were you," Mr Tall said, seeing the questions in my eyes. "This is where you and Harkat are meant to be right now. The War of the Scars will find you again when destiny decrees. For the time being, relax and enjoy this calm between the storms."
Mr Tall stood and smiled at us. "I'll leave you now. Get as much sleep as you need - I'll see that you are not disturbed." As he turned to leave, he paused and glanced back at Harkat. "It would be wise to wear your mask again, now that the air is no longer safe."
"Oh!" Harkat gasped. "I forgot!" Digging out a mask, he tied it around his mouth, breathed through it afew times to make sure there weren't any rips, then lowered it so that he could speak clearly. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," the tall man chuckled.
"Mr Tall," I said quietly, as he turned to leave again. "Do you know where we were? Was that world a different planet, the past, an alternate reality?"
The Cirque owner said nothing and didn't look back - just shook his head and hurried on towards the camp.
"He knows," I sighed. "But he won't tell."
Harkat grunted. "Did you bring anything - back with you?" he asked.
"Only my clothes," I said. "And I don't plan on hanging on to these rags - they can go straight in the bin!"
Harkat smiled, then rifled through his robes. "I still have the postcards I took - from the underground kitchen, as well as - the panther's teeth." He spilt the teeth on to the grass and turned them so all the letters were face up. He idly began arranging them to form his name, but as he got to the end of "Harkat", he stopped, quickly scanned all the teeth, and groaned.
"What's wrong?" I asked sharply.
"Remember Mr Tiny saying at the - start that we'd find a clue to who I was - when we killed the panther?" Harkat quickly rearranged the letters on the teeth to form another name ?KURDA SMAHLT !
I stared at the letters, then groaned like Harkat had. "The answer was in front of us all along - your name's an anagram! If we'd spent more time on the letters after we'd killed the panther, we could have solved the puzzle and skipped the rest of the ordeal.'"
"I doubt it would have been - that simple," Harkat laughed. "But at least I now know where - my name came from. I used to wonder - how I'd picked it."
"On the subject of names," I said, "are you sticking with Harkat Mulds or reverting to your original name?"
"Harkat Mulds or Kurda Smahlt," Harkat muttered, and said the names a few more times. "No," he decided. "Kurda's the person I used - to be. Harkat's the person I've become. We are the same in some ways - but different in many others. I want to be known - as Harkat."
"Good," I said. "It would have been very confusing otherwise."
Harkat cleared his throat and looked at me oddly. "Now that you know the truth - about me, does it change anything? As Kurda, I betrayed you and - all the vampires. I killed Gavner Purl. I will understand if you don't - think as highly of me as you - did before."
"Don't be stupid," I grinned. "I don't care who you used to be - it's who youare that matters. You've long made up for any mistakes in your previous life." I frowned. "But does this change howyou feel aboutme !"
"What do you mean?" Harkat asked.
"The reason you stuck by me before was that you needed my help to find out who you were. Now that you know, maybe you'd like to head off and explore the world by yourself. The War of the Scars isn't your battle any longer. If you'd rather go your own way ?" I trailed off into silence.
"You're right," Harkat said after a couple of thoughtful moments. "I'll leave first thing in - the morning." He stared seriously at my glum features, then burst out laughing. "You idiot! Of course I won't go! This is my war as much as - it's yours. Even if I hadn't been a - vampire, I wouldn't leave. We've been through too much - together to split up now. Maybe when the war is over - I'll seek a path of my own. For the time being I still feel - bound to you. I don't think we're meant - to part company yet."
"Thanks," I said simply. It was all that needed to be said.
Harkat gathered up the panther's teeth and put them away. Then he studied the postcards, turned one over and gazed at it moodily. "I don't know if I should - mention this," he sighed. "But if I don't, it will - gnaw away at me."
"Go on," I encouraged him. "Those cards have been bothering you since you found them in the kitchen. What's the big mystery?"
"It has to do with - where we were," Harkat said slowly. "We spent a lot of time wondering where - we'd been taken - the past, another world - or a different dimension."
"So?" I prodded him when he stalled.
"I think I know the answer," he sighed. "It ties it all together, why - the spiders were there - and the Guardians of the Blood, if that's - who the Kulashkas really were. And the kitchen. I don't think Mr Tiny put the kitchen - there - I think it was in place - all along. It was a nuclear fallout shelter, built to - survive when all else fell. I think it was put to the test - and it passed. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm - afraid I'm not."
He passed a postcard to me. On the front was a picture of Big Ben. There was writing on the back, a typical tourist's account of their holiday - "Having a great time, weather good, food fab." The name at the bottom and the name and address on the right-hand side of the postcard meant nothing to me.
"What's the big deal?" I asked.
"Look at the postmark," Harkat whispered.
What I saw confused me. "That date can't be right," I muttered. "That's not for another twelve years."
"They're all like that," Harkat said, passing the rest of the postcards to me. "Twelve years ahead - fifteen - twenty - more."
"I don't get it," I frowned. "What does it mean?"
"I don't think we were in the past or - on a different world," Harkat said, taking the postcards back and tucking them away. He stared at me ominously with his large green eyes, hesitated a moment, then quickly mumbled the words which turned my insides cold. "I think that barren, monster-filled wasteland - wasthe future!"