I PACED the streets as though walking fast could rid me of my problems, thinking of things I might have said to Debbie to make her accept me. I was sure she felt the same way about me that I felt about her. But my looks were confusing her. I had to find a way to get her to view me as an adult, not a child. What if I told her the truth? I imagined breaking the news to her:
"Debbie, prepare yourself for a shock - I'm a vampire."
"That's nice, dear."
"You're not upset?"
"Should I be?"
"I drink blood! I creep around in the dead of night, find sleeping humans, and open up their veins!"
"Well... nobody's perfect."
The imaginary conversation brought a fleeting smile to my lips. Actually, I had no idea how Debbie would react. I'd never broken the news to a human before. I didn't know where or how to start, or what a person would say in response. I knew vampires weren't the murderous, emotionless monsters of horror movies and books - but how would I convince others?
"Bloody humans!" I grumbled, kicking a postbox in anger. "Bloody vampires! We should all be turtles or something!"
On that ridiculous thought, I looked around and realized I'd no idea which part of city I was in. I scouted for a familiar street name, so I could chart a course for home. The streets were largely deserted. Now that the mystery killers had stopped or moved on, the soldiers had withdrawn, and although local police still patrolled the streets, the barricades had come down and you could walk unheeded. Even so, the curfew was still in effect, and most people were happy to respect it.
I relished the dark, quiet streets. Walking alone down narrow, twisting alleys, I could have been winding my way through the tunnels of Vampire Mountain. It was comforting to imagine myself back with Seba Nile, Vanez Blane and the others, no love life, school or fate-fuelled quests to trouble me.
Thinking about Vampire Mountain set me thinking about Paris Skyle. I'd been so busy with school and Debbie, I hadn't had time to brood on the death of the Prince. I'd miss the old vampire who'd taught me so much. We'd shared laughter as well. As I stepped over a pile of rubbish strewn across the ground of a particularly dark alley, I recalled the time a few years ago when he leant too close to a candle and set his beard on fire. He'd hopped around the Hall of Princes like a clown, shrieking and slapping at the flames until-
Something struck the back of my head, hard, and I went toppling into the rubbish. I cried out as I fell, my recollections of Paris shattering, then rolled away defensively, clutching my head between my hands. As I rolled, a silver object came crashing down on the ground where my head had been, and sparks flew.
Ignoring my wounded head, I scrambled to my knees and looked for something to defend myself with. The plastic top of a dustbin lay nearby. It wouldn't be much good but it was all I could find. Stooping swiftly, I snatched it up and held it in front of me like a shield, turning to meet the charge of my assailant, who was streaking towards me at a speed no human could have matched.
Something gold flashed and swung down upon my makeshift shield, cutting the dustbin lid in half. Somebody chuckled, and it was the sound of pure, insane evil.
For a dreadful moment I thought it was Murlough's ghost, come to wreak revenge. But that was silly. I believed in ghosts - Harkat used to be one, before Mr. Tiny brought him back from the dead - but this guy was far too solid to be a spirit.
"I'll cut you to pieces!" my attacker boasted, circling me warily. There was something familiar about his voice, but try as I might, I couldn't place it.
I studied his outline as he circled around me. He was wearing dark clothes and his face was masked by a balaclava. The ends of a beard jutted out from underneath it. He was large and chunky - but not as fat as Murlough had been - and I could see two blood-red eyes glinting above his snarling teeth. He had no hands, just two metallic attachments - one gold, the other silver - attached to the ends of his elbows. There were three hooks on each attachment, sharp, curved and deadly.
The vampaneze - the eyes and speed were the giveaway - struck. He was fast, but I avoided the killer hooks, which dug into the wall behind me and gouged out a sizeable crater when he pulled free. It took less than a second for my attacker to free his hand, but I used that time to strike, kicking him in the chest. But he'd been expecting it and brought his other arm down upon my shin, cruelly knocking my leg aside.
I yelped as pain shot up the length of my leg. Hopping madly, I threw the two halves of the useless dustbin lid at the vampaneze. He ducked out of the way, laughing. I tried to run - no good. My injured leg wouldn't support me, and after a couple of strides I collapsed to the floor, helpless.
I whirled over on to my back and stared up at the hook-handed vampaneze as he took his time approaching. He swung his arms back and forth as he got closer, the hooks making horrible screeching noises as they scraped together. "Going to cut you," the vampaneze hissed. "Slow and painful. I'll start on your fingers. Slice them off, one at a time. Then your hands. Then your toes. Then-"
There was a sharp clicking noise, followed by the hiss of parted air. Something shot by the vampaneze's head, only narrowly missing. It struck the wall and embedded itself - a short, thick, steel-tipped arrow. The vampaneze cursed and crouched, hiding in the shadows of the alley.
Moments ticked by like spiders scuttling up my spine. The vampaneze's angry breath and my gasping sobs filled the air. There was no sight or sound of the person who'd fired the arrow. Shuffling backwards, the vampaneze locked gazes with me and bared his teeth. "I'll get you later," he vowed. "You'll die slowly, in great agony. I'll cut you. Fingers first. One at a time." Then he turned and sprinted. A second arrow was fired after him, but he ducked low and again it missed, burying itself in a large bag of rubbish. The vampaneze exploded out of the end of the alley and vanished quickly into the night.
There was a lengthy pause. Then footsteps. A man of medium height appeared out of the gloom. He was dressed in black, with a long scarf looped around his neck, and gloves covering his hands. He had grey hair - though he wasn't old - and there was a stern set to his features. He was holding a gun-shaped weapon, out of the end of which jutted a steel-tipped arrow. Another of the arrow-firing guns was slung over his left shoulder.
I sat up, grunting, and tried to rub some life back into my right leg. "Thanks," I said as the man got closer. He didn't answer, just proceeded to the end of the alley, where he scanned the area beyond for signs of the vampaneze.
Turning, the grey-haired man came back and stopped a couple of metres away. He was holding the arrow gun in his right hand, but it wasn't pointed harmlessly down at the ground - it was pointing at me.
"Mind lowering that?" I asked, forcing a sheepish smile. "You just saved my life. Be a shame if that went off by accident and killed me."
He didn't reply immediately. Nor did he lower the gun. There was no warmth in his expression. "Does it surprise you that I spared your life?" he asked. As with the vampaneze, there was something familiar about this man's voice, but again I couldn't place it.
"I... guess," I said weakly, nervously eyeing the arrow gun.
"Do you know why I saved you?"
I gulped. "Out of the goodness of your heart?"
"Maybe." He took a step closer. The tip of the gun was now aimed directly at my heart. If he fired, he'd create a hole the size of a football in my chest. "Or maybe I was saving you for myself!" he hissed.
"Who are you?" I croaked, desperately pressing back against the wall.
"You don't recognize me?"
I shook my head. I was certain I'd seen his face before, but I couldn't put a name to it.
The man breathed out through his nose. "Strange. I never thought you'd forget. Then again, it's been a long time, and the years haven't been as kind to me as they've been to you. Perhaps you'll remember this." He held out his left hand. The palm of the glove had been cut away, exposing the flesh beneath. It was an ordinary hand in all respects save one - in the centre, a rough cross had been carved into the flesh.
As I stared at the cross, pink and tender-looking, the years evaporated and I was back in a cemetery on my first night as a vampire's assistant, facing a boy whose life I'd saved, a boy who was jealous of me, who thought I'd conspired with Mr. Crepsley and betrayed him.
"Steve!" I gasped, staring from the cross to his cold, hard eyes. "Steve Leopard!"
"Yes," he nodded grimly.
Steve Leopard, my one-time best friend. The angry, mixed-up boy who'd sworn to become a vampire hunter when he grew up, so that he could track me down - and kill me!