AFTER BREAKFAST, Evanna guided us out of the swamp and south across more hard, barren land. It wasn't as lifeless as the desert we'd crossed, but very little grew on the reddish soil, and the animals were tough-skinned and bony.
Over the days and nights that followed, we slyly probed the witch for clues about where we were, who Harkat had been, what the gelatinous globes were for, and what lay ahead. We slid the questions into ordinary conversations, hoping to catch Evanna off guard. But she was sharp as a snake and never let anything slip.
Despite her annoying reluctance to reveal anything of our circumstances, she was a welcome travelling companion. She arranged the sleeping quarters every night - she could set up a camp within seconds - and told us what we could and couldn't eat (many of the animals and plants were poisonous or indigestible). She also spun tales and sung songs to amuse us during the long, harsh hours of walking.
I asked her several times how the War of the Scars was going, and what Vancha March and the other Princes and Generals were up to. She only shook her head at such questions and said this was not the time for her to comment.
We often discussed Mr Crepsley. Evanna had known the vampire long before I did and was able to tell me what he'd been like as a younger man. I felt sad talking about my lost friend, but it was a warm sort of sadness, not like the cold misery I experienced in the early weeks after he'd died. One night, when Harkat was asleep and snoring loudly (Evanna had confirmed what he'd already suspected - he could breathe the air here - so he'd dispensed with his mask), I asked Evanna if it was possible to communicate with Mr Crepsley. "Mr Tiny has the power to speak with the dead," I said. "Can you?"
"Yes," she said, "but we can only speak to those whose spirits remain trapped on Earth after they die. Most peoples souls move on - though nobody knows for sure where they go, not even my father."
"So you can't get in touch with Mr Crepsley?" I asked.
"Thankfully, no," she smiled. "Larten has left the realm of the physical for ever. I like to think he is with Arra Sails and his other loved ones in Paradise, awaiting the rest of his friends."
Arra Sails was a female vampire. She and Mr Crepsley had been "married" once. She died when a vampire traitor - Kurda Smahlt - sneaked a band of vampaneze into Vampire Mountain. Thinking about Arra and Kurda set me to pondering the past, and I asked Evanna if there'd been any way to avoid the bloody War of the Scars. "If Kurda had told us about the Lord of the Vampaneze, would it have made a difference? Or what if he'd become a Prince, taken control of the Stone of Blood and forced the Generals to submit to the vampaneze? Would Mr Crepsley be alive? And Arra? And all the others who've died in the war?"
Evanna sighed deeply. "Time is like a jigsaw puzzle," she said. "Imagine a giant box full of billions of pieces of millions of puzzles - that is the future. Beside it lies a huge board, partially filled with bits of the overall puzzle - that is the past. Those in the present reach blindly into the box of the future every time they have a decision to make, draw a piece of the puzzle out and slot it into place on the board. Once a piece has been added, it influences the final shape and design of the puzzle, and it's useless trying to fathom what the puzzle would have looked like if a different piece had been picked." She paused. "Unless you're Desmond Tiny. He spends most of his time considering the puzzle and contemplating alternative patterns."
I thought about that for a long time before speaking again. "What you're saying is that there's no point worrying about the past, because we can't change it?"
"Basically," she nodded, then leant over, one green eye shining brightly, one brown eye gleaming dully. "A mortal can drive himself mad thinking about the nature of the universal puzzle. Concern yourself only with the problems of the present and you will get along fine."
It was an odd conversation, one I returned to often, not just that night when I was trying to sleep, but during the quieter moments of the testing weeks ahead.
Eleven days after Evanna had rescued me from the jaws of the alligator, we came to the edge of an immense lake. At first I thought it was a sea - I couldn't see to the far side - but when I tested the water, I found it fresh, although very bitter.
"This is where I'll leave you," Evanna said, gazing out over the dark blue water, then up into the cloud-filled sky. The weather had changed during the course of our journey - clouds and rain were now the norm.
"What's the lake called?" Harkat asked, hoping - like me - that this was the Lake of Souls, though we both knew in our hearts that it wasn't.
"It has no name," Evanna said. "It's a relatively new formation, and the sentient beings of this planet have yet to discover it."
"You mean there are people here?" Harkat asked sharply.
"Yes," the witch replied.
"Why haven't we seen any?" I asked.
"This is a large planet," Evanna said, "but people are few. You may run into some before your adventure draws to a close, but don't get sidetracked - you're here to discover the truth about Harkat, not cavort with the natives. Now, would you like a hand making a raft, or would you rather do it yourselves?"
"What will we need a raft for?" I asked.
Evanna pointed to the lake. "Three guesses, genius."
"Can't we track around it?" Harkat enquired.
"You can, but I don't advise it."
We sighed - when Evanna said something like that, we knew we hadn't much of a choice. "What will we build it from?" I asked. "It's been a few days since I spotted any trees."
"We're close to the wreck of a boat," Evanna said, heading off to the left. "We can strip it bare and use the wood."
"I thought you said none of the - people here had found this lake," Harkat said, but if the witch heard the query, she paid it no heed.
About a kilometre up the pebbly lake shore, we found the bleached remains of a small wooden boat. The first planks we pulled off were soggy and rotten, but there were stronger planks underneath. We stacked them in a tidy pile, sorting them by length.
"How are we going to bind them?" I asked when we were ready to begin construction. "There aren't any nails." I wiped rain from my forehead - it had been drizzling steadily for the last hour.
"The builder of the boat used mud to bind the planks," Evanna said. "He had no rope or nails, and no intention of sailing the boat - he merely built it to keep himself busy."
"Mud won't keep a raft together once we - get out on the water," Harkat noted dubiously.
"Indeed," Evanna smirked. "That's why we are going to tie the planks tightly with ropes." The squat witch began unwrapping the ropes she kept knotted around her body.
"Do you want us to look away?" I asked.
"No need," she laughed. "I don't plan to strip myself bare!"
The witch reeled off an incredibly long line of rope, dozens of metres in length, yet the ropes around her body didn't diminish, and she was as discreetly covered when she stopped as she'd been at the outset. "There!" she grunted. "That should suffice."
We spent the rest of the day constructing the raft, Evanna acting as the designer, performing magical shortcuts when our backs were turned, making our job a lot quicker and easier than it should have been. It wasn't a large raft when finished, two and a half metres long by two wide, but we could both fit on it and lie down in comfort. Evanna wouldn't tell us how wide the lake was, but said we'd have to sail due south and sleep on the raft afew nights at least. The raft floated nicely when we tested it and although we had no sails, we fashioned oars out of leftover planks.
"You should be fine now," Evanna said. "You won't be able to light a fire, but fish swim close to the surface of the lake. Catch and eat them raw. And the water is unpleasant but safe to drink."
"Evanna ?" I began, then coughed with embarrassment.
"What is it, Darren?" the witch asked.
"The gelatinous globes," I muttered. "Will you tell us what they're for?"
"No," she said. "And that's not what you wanted to ask. Out with it, please. What's bothering you?"
"Blood," I sighed. "It's been ages since I last drank human blood. I'm feeling the side effects - I've lost a lot of my sharpness and strength. If I carry on like this, I'll die. I was wondering if I could drink fromyou !"
Evanna smiled regretfully. "I would gladly let you drink from me, but I'm not human and my blood's not fit for consumption - you'd feel a lot worse afterwards! But don't worry. If the fates are kind, you'll find a feeding source shortly. If they're not," she added darkly, "you'll have greater problems to worry about.
"Now," the witch said, stepping away from the raft, "I must leave you. The sooner you set off, the sooner you'll arrive at the other side. I've just this to say - I've saved it until now because I had to - and then I'll depart. I can't tell you what the future has in store, but I can offer this advice - to fish in the Lake of Souls, you must borrow a net which has been used to trawl for the dead. And to access the Lake, you'll need the holy liquid from the Temple of the Grotesque."
"Temple of the Grotesque?" Harkat and I immediately asked together.
"Sorry," Evanna grunted. "I can tell you that much, but nothing else." Waving to us, the witch said, "Luck, Darren Shan. Luck, Harkat Mulds." And then, before we could reply, she darted away, moving with magical speed, disappearing out of sight within seconds into the gloom of the coming night.
Harkat and I stared at one another silently, then turned and manoeuvred our meagre stash of possessions on to the raft. We divided the gelatinous globes into three piles: one for Harkat, one for me and one in a scrap of cloth tied to the raft, then set off in the gathering darkness across the cold, still water of the nameless lake.