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"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Cirque Du Freak, home of the world's most remarkable human beings."

I had no eyelids, so I couldn't blink, but beneath my mask my jaw dropped a hundred miles. I was in the wings of a large theatre, staring out at a stage and the unmistakable figure of the dead Hibernius Tall. Except he wasn't dead. He was very much alive, and in the middle of introducing one of the fabled Cirque Du Freak performances.

"We present acts both frightening and bizarre, acts you can find nowhere else in the world. Those who are easily scared should leave now. I'm sure there are people who..."

Two beautiful women stepped up next to me and prepared to go on. They were tugging at their glittering costumes, making sure they fit right. I recognized the women ¨C Davina and Shirley. They'd been part of the Cirque Du Freak when I first joined, but had left after a few years to get jobs in the ordinary world. The life of a travelling performer wasn't for everyone.

"... is unique. And none are harmless," Mr Tall finished, then walked off. Davina and Shirley moved forward and I saw where they were heading ¨C the Wolf Man's cage, which stood uncovered in the middle of the stage. As they left, a Little Person took his place by my side. His face was hidden beneath the hood of his blue robes, but his head turned in my direction. There was a moment's pause, then he reached up and pulled my hood further over my face, so that my features were hidden too.

Mr Tall appeared by our side with the speed and silence for which he was once renowned. Without a word he handed each of us a needle and lots of orange string. The other Little Person stuck the needle and string inside his robes, so I did the same, not wanting to appear out of place.

Davina and Shirley had released the Wolf Man from his cage and were walking through the audience with him, letting people stroke the hairy man-beast. I studied the theatre more closely while they paraded the Wolf Man around. This was the old abandoned cinema theatre in my home town, where Steve had murdered Shancus, and where ¨C many years earlier ¨C I had first crossed paths with Mr Crepsley.

I was wondering why I'd been sent back here ¨C I had a pretty good hunch ¨C when there was a loud explosion. The Wolf Man went wild, as he often did at the start of an act ¨C what looked like a mad outburst was actually carefully staged. Leaping upon a screaming woman, he bit one of her hands off. In a flash, Mr Tall had left our side and reappeared next to the Wolf Man. He pulled him off the screaming woman, subdued him, then led him back to his cage, while Davina and Shirley did their best to calm down the crowd.

Mr Tall returned to the screaming woman, picked up her severed hand and whistled loudly. That was the signal for my fellow Little Person and me to advance. We ran over to Mr Tall, careful not to reveal our faces. Mr Tall sat the woman up and whispered to her. When she was quiet he sprinkled a sparkly pink powder on to her bleeding wrist and stuck the hand against it. He nodded to my companion and me. We pulled out our needles and string and started to stitch the hand back on to the wrist.

I felt light-headed while I stitched. This was the greatest sense of d¨¦j¨¤ vu I'd ever experienced! I knew what was coming next, every second of it. I'd been sent back into my past, to a night which had been etched unforgettably into my memory. All the times I'd prayed for the chance to come back and change the course of my future. And now, in the most unexpected of circumstances, here it was.

We finished stitching and returned backstage. I wanted to stand in the shadows again and watch the show ¨C if I remembered correctly, Alexander Ribs would come on next, followed by Rhamus Twobellies ¨C but my fellow Little Person was having none of it. He nudged me ahead of him, to the rear of the theatre, where a young Jekkus Flang was waiting. In later years Jekkus would become an accomplished knife-thrower, and even take part in the shows. But in this time he'd only recently joined the circus, and was in charge of preparing the interval gift trays.

Jekkus handed each of us a tray packed with items such as rubber dolls of Alexander Ribs, clippings of the Wolf Man's hair, and chocolate nuts and bolts. He also gave us price tags for each item. He didn't speak to us ¨C this was back in the time before Harkat Mulds, when everyone thought Little People were mute, mindless robots.

When Rhamus Twobellies stomped offstage, Jekkus sent us out into the audience to sell the gifts. We moved among the crowd, letting people study our wares and buy if they wished. My fellow Little Person took charge of the rear areas of the theatre, leaving me to handle the front rows. And so, a few minutes later, as I'd come to suspect I would, I came face to face with two young boys, the only children in the entire theatre. One was a wild child, the sort of kid who stole money from his mother and collected horror comics, who dreamt of being a vampire when he grew up. The other was a quiet, but in his own way equally mischievous boy, the kind who wouldn't think twice about stealing a vampire's spider.

"How much is the glass statue?" the impossibly young and innocent Steve Leopard asked, pointing to a statue on my tray which you could eat. Shakily, fighting to keep my hand steady, I showed him the price tag. "I can't read," Steve said. "Will you tell me how much it costs?"

I noted the look of surprise on Darren's ¨C Charna's guts! ¨C on my face. Steve had guessed straightaway that there was something strange about the Little People, but I hadn't been so sharp. The young me had no idea why Steve was lying.

I shook my head quickly and moved on, leaving Steve to explain to my younger self why he'd pretended he couldn't read. If I'd been feeling light-headed earlier, I felt positively empty-headed now. It's a remarkable, earth-shattering thing to look into the eyes of a youthful you, to see yourself as you once were, young, foolish, gullible. I don't think anyone ever remembers what they were really like as kids. Adults think they do, but they don't. Photos and videos don't capture the real you, or bring back to life the person you used to be. You have to return to the past to do that.

We finished selling our wares and headed backstage to collect fresh trays full of new items, based on the next set of performers ¨C Truska, Hans Hands, and then, appearing like a phantom out of the shadows of the night, Mr Crepsley and his performing tarantula, Madam Octa.

I couldn't miss Mr Crepsley's act. When Jekkus wasn't looking I crept forward and watched from the wings. My heart leapt into my mouth when my old friend and mentor walked on to the stage, startling in his red cloak with his white skin, orange crop of hair and trademark scar. Seeing him again, I wanted to rush out and throw my arms around him, tell him how much I missed him and how much he'd meant to me. I wanted to say that I loved him, that he'd been a second father to me. I wanted to joke with him about his stiff manner, his stunted sense of humour, his overly precious pride. I wanted to tell him how Steve had tricked him, and gently wind him up for being taken in by the pretence and dying for no reason. I was sure he'd see the funny side of it once he stopped steaming!

But there could be no communication between us. Even if I'd had a tongue, Mr Crepsley wouldn't have known who I was. On this night he hadn't yet met the boy named Darren Shan. I was nobody to him.

So I stood where I was and watched. One final turn from at the vampire who'd altered my life in so many ways. One last performance to savour, as he put Madam Octa through her paces and thrilled the crowd. I shivered when he first spoke ¨C Id forgotten how deep his voice was ¨C then hung on his every word. The minutes passed slowly, but not slowly enough for me ¨C I wanted it to last an age.

A Little Person led a goat on stage for Madam Octa to kill. It wasn't the Little Person who'd been with me in the audience ¨C there were more than two of us here. Madam Octa killed the goat, then performed a series of tricks with Mr Crepsley, crawled over his body and face, pulsed in and out of his mouth, played with tiny cups and saucers. In the crowd, the young Darren Shan was falling in love with the spider ¨C he thought she was amazing. In the wings, the older Darren regarded her sadly. I used to hate Madam Octa ¨C I could trace all my troubles back to the eight-legged beast ¨C but not any longer. None of it was her fault. It was destiny. All along, from the first moment of my being, it had been Des Tiny.

Mr Crepsley concluded his act and left the stage. He had to pass me to get off. As he approached, I thought again about trying to communicate with him. I wasn't able to speak, but I could write. If I grabbed him and took him aside, scribbled a message, warned him to leave immediately, to get out now...

He passed.

I did nothing.

This wasn't the way. Mr Crepsley had no reason to trust me, and explaining the situation would have taken too much time ¨C he was illiterate, so I'd have had to get somebody to read the note for him. It might also have been dangerous. If I'd told him about the Vampaneze Lord and all the rest, he might have tried to change the course of the future, to prevent the War of the Scars. Evanna had said it was impossible to change the past, but if Mr Crepsley ¨C prompted by my warning ¨C somehow managed to do so, he might free those terrible monsters which even Mr Tiny was afraid of. I couldn't take that risk.

"What are you doing here?" someone snapped behind me. It was Jekkus Flang. He poked me hard with a finger and pointed to my tray. "Get out there quick!" he growled.

I did as Jekkus ordered. I wanted to follow the same route as before, so that I could study myself and Steve again, but this time the other Little Person got there before me, so I had to trudge to the rear of the theatre and do the rounds there.

At the end of the interval Gertha Teeth took to the stage, to be followed by Sive and Seersa (the Twisting Twins) and finally Evra and his snake. I retreated to the rear of the theatre, not keen on the idea of seeing Evra again. Although the snake-boy was one of my best friends, I couldn't forget the pain I'd put him through. It would have hurt too much to watch him perform, thinking about the agony and loss he was to later endure.

While the final trio of acts brought the show to a close, I turned my attention to the objects stitched into the lining of my robes. Time to find out what Evanna had sent me back with. Reaching underneath the heavy blue cloth, I found the first of the rectangular items and ripped it loose. When I saw what it was, I broke out into a wide toothless smile.

The sly old witch! I recalled what she'd told me on the way from the Lake of Souls to Mr Tiny's cave ¨C although the past couldn't be changed, the people involved in major events could be replaced. Sending me back to this period in time was enough to free my soul, but Evanna had gone one step further, and made sure I was able to free my old self too. Mr Tiny knew about that. He didn't like it, but he'd accepted it.

However, working on the sly, unknown to her father, Evanna had presented me with something even more precious than personal freedom ¨C something that would drive Des Tiny absolutely cuckoo when he found out how he'd been swindled!

I pulled all the other objects out, set them in order, then checked the most recent addition. I didn't find what I expected, but as I scanned through it, I saw what Evanna had done. I was tempted to flick to the rear and read the last few words, but then decided I'd be better off not knowing.

I heard screams from within the theatre ¨C Evra's snake must have made its first appearance of the night. I didn't have much time left. I slipped away before Jekkus Flang sought me out and burdened me with another tray. Exiting by the back door, I sneaked around and re-entered the cinema at the front. I walked down the long corridor to where an open door led to a staircase ¨C the way up to the balcony.

I climbed a few steps, then set Evanna's gift down and waited. I thought about what to do with the objects ¨C the weapons . Give them to the boy directly? No. If I did, he might use them to try to change the future. That wasn't allowed. But there must be a way to get them to him later, so that he could use them at the right time. Evanna wouldn't have given them to me if there wasn't.

It didn't take me long to figure it out. I was happier when I knew what to do with the gift, because it also meant I knew exactly what to do with young Darren.

The show ended and the audience members poured out of the theatre, eagerly discussing the show and marvelling aloud. Since the boys had been sitting near the front, they were two of the last to leave. I waited in silence, safe in the knowledge of what was to come.

Finally, a frightened young Darren opened the door to the stairway, slipped through, closed it behind him, and stood in the darkness, breathing heavily, heart pounding, waiting for everyone to file out of the theatre. I could see him in spite of the gloom ¨C my large green eyes were almost as strong as a half-vampire's ¨C but he had no idea I was there.

When the last sounds had faded, the boy came sloping up the stairs. He was heading for the balcony, to keep an eye on his friend Steve and see that he came to no harm. If he made it up there, his fate would be sealed and he'd have to live the tormented life of a half-vampire. I had the power to change that. This, in addition to freedom from the Lake of Souls, was Evanna's gift to me ¨C and the last part of the gift as far as Mr Tiny was aware.

As young Darren drew close, I launched myself at him, picked him up before he knew what was happening, and ran with him down the stairs. I burst through the door into the light of the corridor, then dumped him roughly on the floor. His face was a mask of terror.

"D-d-d-don't kill me!" he squealed, scrabbling backwards.

In answer I tore my hood back, then ripped off my mask, revealing my round, grey, stitched together face and huge gaping maw of a mouth. I thrust my head forward, leered and spread my arms. Darren screamed, lurched to his feet and stumbled for the exit. I pounded after him, making lots of noise, scraping the wall with my fingers. He flew out of the theatre when he got to the door, rolled down the steps, then picked himself up and ran for his life.

I stood on the front door step, watching my younger self flee for safety. I was smiling softly. I'd stand guard here to be certain, but I was sure he wouldn't return. He'd run straight home, leap beneath the bed covers and shiver himself to sleep. In the morning, not having seen what Steve got up to, he'd phone to find out if his friend was OK. Not knowing who Mr Crepsley was, he'd have no reason to fear Steve, and Steve would have no reason to be suspicious of Darren. Their friendship would resume its natural course and, although I was sure they'd talk often about their trip to the Cirque Du Freak, Darren wouldn't go back to steal the spider, and Steve would never reveal the truth about Mr Crepsley.

I retreated from the entrance and climbed the steps up to the balcony. There, I watched as Steve had his showdown with Mr Crepsley. He asked to be the vampire's assistant. Mr Crepsley tested his blood, then rejected him on the grounds that he was evil. Steve left in a rage, swearing revenge on the vampire.

Would Steve still seek out that revenge now that his main nemesis ¨C me ¨C had been removed from the equation? When he grew up, would his path still take him away from normal life and towards the vampaneze? Was he destined to live his life as he had the first time round, only with a different enemy instead of Darren Shan? Or would the universe replace Steve, like me, with somebody else?

I had no way of knowing. Only time would tell, and I wouldn't be around long enough to see the story through to its end. I'd had my innings, and they were just about over. It was time for me to step back, draw a line under my life, and make my final farewell.

But first ¨C one last cunning attempt to wreck the plans of Desmond Tiny!

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