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PART TWO Chapter SEVENTEEN


Instant agony and burning. My flesh bubbled, then boiled away. I tried to scream but my lips and tongue had already come undone. My eyes and ears melted. No sensation except pain.

The liquid stripped my flesh from my bones, then set to work on the marrow within the bones. Next it burnt through to my inner organs, then ate me up from the inside out. Inside my head my brain sizzled like a knob of butter in a heated frying pan, and melted down just as quickly. My left arm ¨C just bone now ¨C tore loose from my body and floated away. It was soon followed by my lower right leg. Then I came apart completely, limbs, charred organs, tiny strips of flesh, bare pieces of bone. All that stayed constant was the pain, which hadn't lessened in the slightest.

In the midst of my suffering came a moment of spiritual calm. With whatever remained of my brain, I became aware of a separation. There was another presence in the pool with me. At first I was confused, but then I realized it was the flicker of Sam Grest's soul which I'd carried within me since drinking his blood at the time of his death. Sam had passed on to Paradise many years ago, and now this final shard of his spirit was departing this world too. In my mind's eye a face formed in the liquid, young and carefree, smiling in spite of the torment, popping a pickled onion into his mouth. Sam winked at me. A ghostly hand saluted. Then he was gone and I was finally, totally alone.

Eventually the pain ceased. I'd dissolved completely. There were no pain sensors left to transmit feelings, and no brain cells to respond to them. A weird peace descended. I'd become one with the pool. My atoms had mixed with the liquid and the two were now one. I was the green liquid. I could sense the hollow bones from my body drifting to the bottom of the pool, where they settled.

Some time later hands ¨C Mr Tiny's ¨C were dunked in the liquid. He wiggled his fingers and a shiver ran up the memory of my spine. He picked up the bones from the floor ¨C being careful to scrape up every single piece ¨C and dumped them on the ground of the cave. The bones were covered in molecules of the liquid ¨C molecules of me - and through them I felt Mr Tiny putting the bones together, snapping them into small pieces, melting some down, bending or twisting others, creating a frame entirely different to my previous form.

Mr Tiny worked on the body for hours. When he had all the bones in place, he packed them full with organs ¨C brain, heart, liver, kidneys ¨C then covered them with clammy grey flesh, which he stitched together to hold the organs and bones in place. I'm not sure where the organs and flesh came from. Perhaps he grew them himself, but I think it more likely that he harvested them from other creatures ¨C probably dead humans.

Mr Tiny finished with the eyes. I could feel him connecting the orbs up to my brain, fingers working at lightning-fast speed, with all the precision of the world's greatest surgeon. It was an incredibly artistic undertaking, one which even Dr Frankenstein would have struggled to match.

Once he'd finished with the body, he stuck his fingers back into the liquid of the pool. The fingers were cold this time, and grew colder by the second. The liquid began to condense, becoming thicker. There was no pain. It was just strange, like I was squeezing in upon myself.

Then, when the liquid was a fraction of the size it had been, with the texture of a thick milk shake, Mr Tiny removed his hands and tubes were inserted. There was a brief pause, then suction from the tubes, and I felt myself flowing through them, out of the pool and into... what?... not tubes like those which had been stuck into the pool, but similar...

Of course ¨C veins ! Mr Tiny had told me the liquid would serve as my fuel ¨C my blood. I was leaving the confines of the pool for the fleshy limits of my new body.

I felt myself fill the gaps, forcing my way through the network of veins and arteries, making slow but sure progress.

When the liquid hit the brain and gradually seeped into it, absorbed by the cold grey cells, my bodily senses awoke. I became aware of my heartbeat first, slower and heavier than before. A tingle ran through my hands and feet, then up my newly crafted spine. I twitched my fingers and toes. Moved an arm slightly. Shook a leg softly. The limbs didn't respond as quickly as my old limbs had, but maybe that was just because I wasn't used to them yet.

Sound came next, a harsh roaring noise at first, which gradually died away to allow normal sounds through. But the sounds weren't as sharp as before -like all the Little People, my ears had been stitched within the skin of my head. Hearing was soon followed by a dim sense of vision ¨C but no smell or sense or taste, since ¨C again, in common with all of Mr Tiny's creations ¨C I'd been created without a nose.

My vision improved as more and more blood was transferred to my new brain. The world looked different through these eyes. I had a wider field of view than before, since my eyes were rounder and bigger. I could see more, but through a slightly green haze, as though staring through a filter.

The first sight I fixed on was Mr Tiny, still working on my body, monitoring the tubes, applying a few final stitches, testing my reflexes. He had the look of a loving, devoted parent.

Next I saw Evanna, keeping a close eye on her father, making sure he didn't pull any tricks. She handed him needles and string from time to time, like a nurse. Her expression was a mixture of suspicion and pride. Evanna knew all of Mr Tiny's shortcomings, but she was still his daughter, and I could see now that despite her misgivings she loved him ¨C in a way.

Eventually the transfer was complete. Mr Tiny removed the tubes ¨C they'd been stuck in all over, my arms, legs, torso, head ¨C and sealed the holes, stitching them shut. He gave me a final once-over, fixed a spot where I was leaking, did some fine-tuning at the corners of my eyes, checked my heartbeat. Then he stepped back and grunted. "Another perfect creation, even if I do say so myself."

"Sit up, Darren," Evanna said. "But slowly. Don't rush."

I did as she said. A wave of dizziness swept over me when I raised my head, but it soon passed. I pushed up gradually, pausing every time I felt dizzy or sick. Finally I was sitting upright. I was able to study my body from here, its broad hands and feet, thick limbs, dull grey skin. I noted that, like Harkat, I was neither fully male nor female, but something in between. If I could have blushed, I would have!

"Stand," Mr Tiny said, spitting on his hands and rubbing them together, using his spit to wash himself. "Walk about. Test yourself. It won't take you long to get used to your new shape. I design my Little People to go into immediate action."

With Evanna's help I stood. I weaved unsteadily on my feet, but soon found my balance. I was much stouter and heavier than before. As I'd noticed when lying down, my limbs didn't react as quickly as they once did. I had to focus hard to make my fingers curl or to edge a foot forward.

"Easy," Evanna said as I tried to turn and almost fell back into the now empty pool. She caught and held me until I was steady again. "Slowly, one bit at a time. It won't take long ¨C just five or ten minutes." I tried to ask a question but no sound came out. "You cannot speak," Evanna reminded me. "You do not have a tongue."

I slowly raised a chunky grey arm and pointed a finger at my head. I stared at Evanna with my large green eyes, trying to transmit my question mentally. "You want to know if we can communicate telepathically," Evanna said. I nodded my neck-less head. "No. You have not been designed with that ability."

"You're a basic model," Mr Tiny chipped in. "You won't be around very long, so it would have been pointless to kit you out with a bunch of unnecessary features. You can think and move, which is all you need to do."

I spent the next several minutes getting to know my new body. There were no mirrors nearby, but I spotted a large silver tray in which I could study my reflection. Hobbling over to it, I ran a critical green eye over myself. I was maybe four and a half feet tall and three feet wide. My stitches weren't as neat as Harkat's, and my eyes weren't exactly level, but otherwise we didn't look too different. When I opened my mouth I saw that not only did I lack a tongue, but teeth too. I turned carefully and looked at Evanna, pointing to my gums.

"You will not have to eat," she said.

"You won't be alive long enough to bother with food," Mr Tiny added.

My new stomach clenched when he said that. I'd been tricked! It had been a trap, and I'd fallen for it! If I could have spoken, I'd have cursed myself for being such a fool.

But then, as I looked for a decent weapon to defend myself with, Evanna smiled positively. "Remember why we did this, Darren ¨C to free your soul. We could have given you a new, full life as a Little Person, but that would have complicated matters. It's easier this way. You have to trust us."

I didn't feel very trusting, but the deed was done. And Evanna didn't look like somebody who'd been tricked, or who was gloating from having tricked me. Putting fears of betrayal and thoughts of fighting aside, I decided to stay calm and see what the pair planned next for me.

Evanna picked up the pile of blue robes which had been lying near to the pool and came over with them. "I prepared these for you earlier," she said, "Let me help you put them on." I was going to signal that I could dress myself, but Evanna flashed me a look which made me stop. Her back was to Mr Tiny, who was examining the remains of the pool. While his attention was perted, she slipped the robes on over my head and arms. I realized there were several objects inside the robes, stitched into the lining.

Evanna locked gazes with me and a secret understanding passed between us ¨C she was telling me to act as if the objects weren't there. She was up to something which she didn't want Mr Tiny to know about. I'd no idea what she might have hidden in the robes, but it must be important. Once the robes were on I kept my arms out by my sides and tried not to think about the secret packages I was carrying, in case I accidentally tipped off Mr Tiny.

Evanna gave me a final once-over, then called out, "He is ready, father."

Mr Tiny waddled across. He looked me up and down, sniffed snootily, then thrust a small mask at me. "You'd better put that on," he said. "You probably won't need it, but we might as well be safe as sorry."

As I strapped on the mask, Mr Tiny bent and drew a line in the earth of the cave floor. He stepped back from it and clutched his heart-shaped watch. The timepiece began to glow, and soon his hand and face were glowing too. Moments later a doorway grew out of the line in the ground, sliding upwards to its full height. It was an open doorway. The space between the jambs was a grey sheen. I'd been through a portal like this before, when Mr Tiny had sent Harkat and me into what would have been the future (what still might be, if Evanna's plan failed).

When the doorway was complete, Mr Tiny nodded his head at it. "Time to go."

My eyes flicked to Evanna ¨C was she coming with me? "No," she said in answer to my unasked question. "I will return to the present through a separate door. This one goes further back." She stooped so we were at the same height. "This is goodbye, Darren. I don't imagine I'll ever make the journey to Paradise ¨C I don't think it's intended for the likes of me ¨C so we'll probably never see each other again."

"Maybe he won't go to Paradise either," Mr Tiny sneered. "Perhaps his soul is meant for the great fires beneath."

Evanna smiled. "We don't know all the secrets of the beyond, but we've never seen any evidence of a hell. The Lake of Souls seems to be the only place where the damned end up, and if our plan works, you won't go back there. Don't worry ¨C your soul will fly free."

"Come on," Mr Tiny snapped. "I'm bored with him. Time to kick him out of our lives, once and for all." He pushed Evanna aside, grabbed the shoulder of my robes and hauled me to the doorway. "Don't get any smart ideas back there," he growled. "You can't change the past, so don't go trying. Just do what you have to ¨C tough luck if you can't work out what that is ¨C and let the universe take care of the rest."

I turned my face towards him, not sure what he meant, wanting more answers. But Mr Tiny ignored me, raised a wellington-clad foot, then ¨C without a word of farewell, as though I was a stranger who meant nothing to him ¨C booted me clean through the door and back to a date with history.

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