CHAPTER FIVE

ASUNburnt brightly in the clear sky above the wasteland, highlighting the arid earth and bare rocky hills. A coarse red dust covered much of the land, choking the dry soil. When strong winds blew, the dust rose in sheets, making breathing almost impossible. At such times I pulled on one of Harkat's spare masks - it blocked out the worst of the grainy particles - and the two of us sought shelter and waited for calm to descend.

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It had been two weeks - roughly - since Mr Tiny brought us to this desolate land and abandoned us. Two weeks crossing barren valleys and dead hills, where nothing lived except a few hardy lizards and insects, which we caught and ate whenever we could. They tasted disgusting but you can't be choosy if you're stranded in a desert without food or water.

Water was our main concern. Walking in the heat and dust was thirsty work, but water was in scarce supply and we didn't have any canteens to store it in when we found the occasional pool. We'd fashioned primitive containers from the skins of lizards, but they didn't hold much. We had to drink sparingly.

Harkat was angry with me for disobeying his wishes - he ranted at me nonstop for a few days - but his temper gradually abated. Although he hadn't thanked me for choosing to accompany him on his quest, I knew he was secretly grateful.

A fortnight earlier, Mr Tiny followed us through the doorway, which collapsed into dust after him. There'd been a brief moment of disorientation when I stepped through, a grey cloud obscuring my vision. As the cloud cleared, I saw that I was standing in a round, shallow, lifeless valley - and although it had been day when I stepped through the doorway, here it was night, albeit an uncommonly clear night, bright with a full moon and a sky filled with twinkling star clusters.

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"Where are we?" Harkat asked, his large green eyes filled with wonder.

Mr Tiny tapped his nose. "That would be telling. Now, boys," he said, squatting and signalling us to squat beside him. He drew a simple compass in the dust at his feet, and pointed to one of the arrows. "That's west, as you'll see by the position of the sun tomorrow. Go in that direction until you come to the hunting grounds of a black panther. You have to kill the panther to find out where to go next."

Smiling, he stood and turned to leave.

"Wait!" I stopped him. "Is that all you're going to tell us?"

"What more would you like to know?" he asked politely.

"Loads!" I shouted. "Where are we? How did we get here? What happens if we walk east instead of west? How will Harkat find out who he used to be? And what the hell does a panther have to do with any of it?"

Mr Tiny sighed impatiently. "I thought you would have developed an appreciation for the unknown by now," he grumbled. "Don't you realize how exciting it is to set out on an adventure without any idea of what's coming next? I'd give my wellies and glasses to experience the world the way you do, as something strange and challenging."

"Forget the wellies and glasses!" I snapped. "Just give with some answers!"

"You can be very rude sometimes," Mr Tiny complained, but squatted again and paused thoughtfully. "There's much I can't and won't tell you. You'll have to discover for yourselves where we are - although it won't make much difference if you don't. You got here, obviously, through a mechanism either of magic or incredibly evolved technology - I'm not saying which. If you don't follow the trail west, you'll die, probably quite horribly. As for Harkat finding out who he is, and the panther ?"

Mr Tiny considered the question in silence, before answering. "Somewhere on this world lies a lake - more a glorified pond, really - which I like to refer to as the Lake of Souls. In it you can glimpse the faces of many trapped souls, people whose spirits did not leave Earth when they died. The soul of the person Harkat used to be lies within. You must find the Lake, then fish for his soul. If you succeed, and Harkat learns and acknowledges the truth about himself, your quest will be complete and I'll see that you're guided safely home. If not ?" He shrugged.

"How do we find this Lake - of Souls?" Harkat asked.

"By following instructions," Mr Tiny said. "If you locate and kill the panther, you'll learn where to go next. You'll also discover a clue to your previous identity, which I've been gracious enough to toss in for free."

"Couldn't you just cut the crap and tell us?" I groaned.

"No," Mr Tiny said. He stood and looked down at us seriously. "But I'll say this much, boys - the panther's the least of your worries. Step warily, trust in your instincts, and never let your guard down. And don't forget," he added to Harkat, "as well as learning who you were, you must acknowledge it. I can't step in until you've admitted the truth out loud.

"Now," he smiled, "I really must be going. Places to be, things to do, people to torment. If you've further questions, they'll have to wait. Until next time, boys." With a wave, the short, mysterious man turned and left us, walking east until the darkness swallowed him, stranding us in the unnamed, alien land.

We found a small pool of water and drank deeply from it, sinking our heads into the murky liquid, ignoring the many tiny eels and insects. Harkat's grey skin looked like damp cardboard when he pulled up, having drunk his fill, but it swiftly resumed its natural colour as the water evaporated under the unforgiving sun.

"How far do you think we've come?" I groaned, stretching out in the shade of a prickly bush with small purple flowers. This was the first sign of vegetation we'd encountered, but I was too exhausted to display any active interest.

"I've no idea," Harkat said. "How long have we - been travelling?"

"Two weeks - I think."

After the first hot day, we'd tried travelling by night, but the path was rocky and treacherous underfoot - not to mention hard on my bare feet! After stumbling many times, ripping our clothes and cutting ourselves, we elected to brave the blistering sun. I wrapped my jumper around my head to ward off the worst of the rays - the sun didn't affect Harkat's grey skin, though he sweated a lot - but while that prevented sunstroke, it didn't do much against sunburn. My upper body had been roasted all over, even through the material of my shirt. For a few days I'd been sore and irritable, but I'd recovered quickly - thanks to my healing abilities as a half-vampire - and the red had turned to a dark, protective brown. The soles of my feet had also hardened - I barely noticed the absence of shoes now.

"With all the climbing and back tracking we've - had to do, we can't be making more than - a couple of miles an hour," Harkat said. "Allowing for fourteen or fifteen hours of sunlight - per day, we probably cover twenty-five or thirty miles. Over two weeks that's ?" He frowned as he calculated. "Maybe four hundred in total."

I nodded feebly. "Thank the gods we're not human - we wouldn't have lasted a week at this pace, in these conditions."

Harkat sat up and tilted his head left, then right - the Little Person's ears were stitched under the skin of his scalp, so he had to cock his head at a sharp angle to listen intently. Hearing nothing, he focused his green eyes on the land around us. After a brief study of the area, he turned towards me. "Has the smell altered?" he asked. He didn't have a nose, so he relied on mine.

I sniffed the air. "Slightly. It doesn't smell as tangy as it did before."

"That's because there's less - dust," he said, pointing to the hills around us. "We seem to be leaving the - desert behind. There are a few plants and patches - of dry grass."

"About time," I groaned. "Let's hope there are animals too - I'll crack up if I have to eat another lizard or bug."

"What do you think those twelve-legged - insects were that we ate yesterday?" Harkat asked.

"I've no idea, but I won't be touching them again - my stomach was in bits all night!"

Harkat chuckled. "They didn't bother me. Sometimes it helps to have no - taste buds, and a stomach capable of digesting - almost anything."

Harkat pulled his mask up over his mouth and breathed through it in silence, studying the land ahead. Harkat had spent a lot of time testing the air, and didn't think it was poisonous to him - it was slightly different to the air on Earth, more acidic - but he kept his mask on anyway, to be safe. I'd coughed a lot for the first few days, but I was OK now - my hardened lungs had adapted to the bitter air.

"Decided where we are yet?" I asked after a while. That was our favourite topic of conversation. We'd narrowed the possibilities down to four options. Mr Tiny had somehow sent us back into the past. He'd transported us to some far-off world in our own universe. He'd slipped us into an alternate reality. Or this was an illusion, and our bodies were lying in a field in the real world, while Mr Tiny fed this dream scene into our imaginations.

"I believed in the - illusion theory at first," Harkat said, lowering his mask. "But the more I consider it, the less - certain I am. If Mr Tiny was making this world up, I think - he'd make it more exciting and colourful. It's quite drab."

"It's early days," I grunted. "This is probably just to warm us up."

"It certainly warmedyou up," Harkat grinned, nodding at my tan.

I returned his smile, then stared up at the sun. "Another three or four hours till nightfall," I guessed. "It's a shame neither of us knows more about star systems, or we might be able to tell where we were by the stars."

"It's a bigger shame that we - don't have weapons," Harkat noted. He stood and studied the land in front of us again. "How will we defend ourselves against the - panther without weapons?"

"Something will turn up," I reassured him. "Mr Tiny wouldn't throw us in out of our depth, not this early on - it'd spoil his fun if we perished quickly."

"That's not very comforting," Harkat said. "The idea that we're being kept alive - only to die horribly later, for Mr Tiny's benefit - doesn't fill me with joy."

"Me neither," I agreed. "But at least it gives us hope."

On that uncertain note, the conversation drew to a close, and after a short rest we filled our meagre lizard-skin pouches with water and marched on through the wasteland, which grew more lush - but no less alien - the further we progressed.

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