THE TIME had come to fill Debbie in on the truth, but Steve and Harkat weren't keen on the idea. "What if she informs the police?" Steve screeched.

"It's dangerous," Harkat warned. "Humans are unpredictable at... the best of times. You can't know how she'll act or what... she'll do."

Advertisement

"I don't care," I said stubbornly. "The vampaneze aren't toying with us any longer. They know we know about them. They went to kill Debbie. When they couldn't find her, they slaughtered the people living next door. The stakes have risen. We're in deep now. Debbie has to be told how serious this is."

"And if she betrays us to the police?" Steve asked quietly.

"It's a risk we have to take," I sniffed.

"A risk you have to take," Steve said pointedly.

-- Advertisement --

"I thought we were in this together," I sighed. "If I was wrong, leave. I won't stop you."

Steve fidgeted in his chair and traced the cross on his bare left palm with the gloved fingers of his right hand. He did that often, like Mr. Crepsley stroking his scar when he was thinking. "There's no need to snap," Steve said sullenly. "I'm with you to the end, like I vowed. But you're making a decision that affects all of us. That isn't right. We should vote on this."

I shook my head. "No votes. I can't sacrifice Debbie, any more than you could let Hooky kill me in the alley. I know I'm putting Debbie before our mission, but I can't help that."

"You feel that strongly about her?" Steve asked.

"Yes."

"Then I won't argue any more. Tell her the truth."

"Thanks." I looked to Harkat for his approval.

The Little Person dropped his gaze. "This is wrong. I can't stop you, so I won't try, but... I don't approve. The group should always come before the... individual." Pulling his mask - the one he needed to filter out the air, which was poisonous to him - up around his mouth, he turned his back on us and brooded in sullen silence.

Debbie turned up shortly before seven. She'd showered and changed clothes - the police had fetched some of her personal items from her apartment - but still looked terrible. "There's a police officer in the lobby," she said as she entered. "They asked if I wanted a personal guard and I said I did. He thinks I came up here to tutor you. I gave him your name. If you object to that - tough!"

"Nice to see you too," I smiled, holding out my hands to take her coat. She ignored me and walked into the apartment, stopping short when she caught sight of Steve and Harkat (who was facing away from her).

"You didn't say we'd have company," she said stiffly.

"They have to be here," I replied. "They're part of what I have to tell you."

"Who are they?" she asked.

"This is Steve Leopard." Steve took a quick bow. "And that's Harkat Mulds."

For a moment I didn't think Harkat was going to face her. Then he slowly turned around. "Oh, my lord!" Debbie gasped, shocked by his grey, scarred, unnatural features.

"Guess you don't get many like... me in school," Harkat smiled nervously.

"Is..." Debbie licked her lips. "Is he from that institute you told me about? Where you and Evra Von lived?"

"There is no institute. That was a lie."

She eyed me coldly. "What else have you lied about?"

"Everything, more or less," I grinned guiltily. "But the lies stop here. Tonight I'll tell you the truth. By the end you'll either think I'm crazy or wish I'd never told you, but you have to hear me out - your life depends on it."

"Is it a long story?" she asked.

"One of the longest you'll ever hear," Steve answered with a laugh.

"Then I'd better take a pew," she said. She chose a chair, shrugged off her coat, laid it across her lap, and nodded curtly to let me know I could begin.

I started with the Cirque Du Freak and Madam Octa, and took it from there. I quickly covered my years as Mr. Crepsley's assistant and my time in Vampire Mountain. I told her about Harkat and the Lord of the Vampaneze. Then I explained why we'd come here, how fake forms had been submitted to Mahler's, how I'd run into Steve and what role he played in this. I finished with the events of the weekend.

There was a long pause at the end.

"It's insane," Debbie finally said. "You can't be serious."

"He is," Steve chuckled.

"Vampires... ghosts... vampaneze... It's ludicrous."

"It's true," I said softly. "I can prove it." I raised my fingers to show her the scars on my fingertips.

"Scars don't prove anything," she sneered.

I walked to the window. "Go to the door and face me," I said. Debbie didn't respond. I could see the doubt in her eyes. "Go on," I said. "I won't hurt you." Holding her coat in front of her, she went to the door and stood opposite me. "Keep your eyes open," I said. "Don't even blink if you can help it."

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"You'll see - or, rather, you won't."

When she was watching carefully, I tensed the muscles in my legs, then dashed forward, drawing up just in front of her. I moved as quickly as I could, quicker than a human eye could follow. To Debbie it must have seemed that I simply disappeared and reappeared before her. Her eyes shot wide and she leant against the door. Turning, I darted back, again faster than she could follow, stopping by the window.

"Ta-da!" Steve said, clapping dryly.

"How did you do that?" Debbie asked, voice trembling. "You just... you were there... then you were here... then..." "I can move at tremendously fast speeds. I'm strong, too - I could put a fist through any of these walls and not tear the skin on my knuckles. I can leap higher and further than any human. Hold my breath for longer. Live for centuries." I shrugged. "I'm a half-vampire."

"But it isn't possible! Vampires don't..." Debbie took a few steps towards me, then stopped. She was torn between wanting to disbelieve me and knowing in her heart that I was telling the truth.

"I can spend all night proving it to you," I said. "And you can spend all night pretending there's some other logical explanation. The truth's the truth, Debbie. Accept it or don't - it's your call."

"I don't... I can't..." She studied my eyes for a long, searching moment. Then she nodded and sank back into her chair. "I believe you," she moaned. "Yesterday I wouldn't have, but I saw photos of the Andrews and Mr. Hugon after they'd been killed. I don't think anyone human could have done that."

"You see now why I had to tell you?" I asked. "We don't know why the vampaneze lured us here or why they're playing with us, but their plan is surely to kill us. The attack on your neighbours was only the start of the bloodshed. They won't stop with that. You'll be next if they find you."

"But why?" she asked weakly. "If it's you and this Mr. Crepsley they want, why come after me?"

"I don't know. It doesn't make sense. That's what's so frightening."

"What are you doing to stop them?" she asked.

"Tracking them by day. Hopefully we'll find them. If we do, we'll fight. With luck, we'll win."

"You've got to tell the police," she insisted. "And the army. They can-"

"No," I said firmly. "The vampaneze are our concern. We'll deal with them."

"How can you say that when it's humans they're killing?" She was angry now. "The police have struggled to find the killers because they don't know anything about them. If you'd told them what they should be looking for they might have put an end to these creatures months ago.

"It doesn't work that way," I said. "It can't."

"It can!" she snapped. "And it will! I'm going to tell the officer in the lobby about this. We'll see what-"

"How will you convince him?" Steve interrupted.

"I'll..." She drew up short.

"He wouldn't believe you," Steve pressed. "He'd think you were mad. He'd call a doctor and they'd take you away to-" he grinned " - cure you."

"I could take Darren with me," she said unconvincingly. He-"

"- would smile sweetly and ask the kind policeman why his teacher was acting so strangely," Steve chortled.

"You're wrong," Debbie said shakily. "I could convince people."

"Then go ahead," Steve smirked. "You know where the door is. Best of luck. Send us a postcard to let us know how you got on."

"I don't like you," Debbie snarled. "You're cocky and arrogant."

"You don't have to like me," Steve retorted. "This isn't a popularity contest. It's a matter of life and death. I've studied the vampaneze and killed six of them. Darren and Harkat have fought and killed them too. We know what we have to do to put a stop to them. Do you honestly think you have the right to stand there and tell us our business? You hadn't even heard of the vampaneze until a few hours ago!"

Debbie opened her mouth to argue, then closed it. "You're right," she admitted sullenly. "You've risked your lives for the sake of others, and you know more about this than me. I shouldn't be lecturing you. I guess it's the teacher in me." She managed a very feeble smile.

"Then you trust us to deal with it?" I asked. "You'll find a new apartment, maybe move out of the city for a few weeks, until it's over?"

"I trust you," she said, "but if you think I'm running away, you're deluding yourself. I'm staying to fight."

"What are you talking about?" I frowned.

"I'll help you find and kill the vampaneze."

I stared at her, astonished by the simple way she'd put it, as though we were in search of a lost puppy. "Debbie!" I gasped. "Haven't you been listening? These are creatures that can move at super-fast speeds and flick you into the middle of next week with a snap of a finger. What can you - an ordinary human - hope to accomplish?"

"I can explore the tunnels with you," she said, "provide an extra pair of legs, eyes, ears. With me we can split into pairs and cover twice the ground."

"You couldn't keep up." I protested. "We move too fast."

"Through dark tunnels, with the threat of the vampaneze ever present?" She smiled. "I doubt it."

"OK," I agreed, "you could probably match us for pace, but not endurance. We go all day, hour after hour, without pause. You'd tire and fall behind."

"Steve keeps up," she noted.

"Steve's trained himself to track them. Besides," I added, "Steve doesn't have to report to school every day."

"Neither do I," she said. "I'm on compassionate leave. They don't expect me back' until the start of next week at the earliest."

"Debbie... you... it's..." I sputtered, then turned appealingly to Steve. "Tell her she's out of her mind," I pleaded.

"Actually, I think it's a good idea," he said.

"What? I roared.

"We could do with another pair of legs down there. If she has the guts for it, I say we give her a go."

"And if we run into the vampaneze?" I challenged him. "Do you see Debbie going face to face with Hooky or his pals?"

"I do, as a matter of fact," he smiled. "From what I've seen, she's got a spine of steel."

"Thank you," Debbie said.

"Don't mention it," he laughed, then grew serious. "I can kit her out with an arrow gun. In a scrape we might be glad of an extra body. At least she'd give the vampaneze another target to worry about."

"I won't stand for it," I growled. "Harkat - tell them."

The Little Persons green eyes were thoughtful. "Tell them what, Darren?"

"That it's madness! Lunacy! Stupidity!"

"Is it?" he asked quietly. "If Debbie was any other person, would you be so... quick to turn down her offer? The odds are against us. We need allies if we are to triumph."

"But-" I began.

"You got her into this," Harkat interrupted. "I told you not to. You ignored me. You can't control people once... you involve them. She knows the danger and she... accepts it. What excuse have you to reject her offer... other than you're fond of her and... don't want to see her harmed?"

Put like that, there was nothing I could say. "Very well," I sighed. "I don't like this, but if you want to pitch in, I guess we have to let you."

"He's so gallant, isn't he?" Steve observed.

"He certainly knows how to make a girl feel welcome," Debbie grinned, then dropped her coat and leant forward. "Now," she said, "let's quit with the time-wasting and get down to business. I want to know everything there is to know about these monsters. What do they look like? Describe their smell. What sort of tracks do they leave? Where do-"

"Quiet!" I snapped, cutting her short.

She stared at me, offended. "What did I-"

"Hush," I said, quieter this time, laying a finger to my lips. I advanced to the door and pressed my ear against it.

"Trouble?" Harkat asked, stepping up beside me.

"I heard soft footsteps in the hallway a minute ago - but no door has opened."

We retreated, communicating with our eyes. Harkat found his axe, then went to check on the window.

"What's happening?" Debbie asked. I could hear the fast, hard beat of her heart.

"Maybe nothing - maybe an attack."

"Vampaneze?" Steve asked grimly.

"I don't know. It could just be an inquisitive maid. But somebody's out there. Maybe they've been eavesdropping, maybe they haven't. Best not to take chances."

Steve swung his arrow gun around and slid an arrow into it.

"Anyone outside?" I asked Harkat.

"No. I think the way's clear if we have to make a... break for it."

I drew my sword and tested the blade while considering our next move. If we left now, it would be safer - especially for Debbie - but once you start running, it's hard to stop.

"Up for a scrap?" I asked Steve.

He let out an uneven breath. "I've never fought a vampaneze on its feet," he said. "I've always struck by day, while they were sleeping. I don't know how much use I'd be."

"Harkat?" I asked.

"I think you and I should go see... what's going on," he said. "Steve and Debbie can wait by the window. If they hear sounds of fighting, they... should leave."

"How?" I asked. "There's no fire escape and they can't scale walls."

"No problem," Steve said. Reaching inside his jacket, he unwrapped a thin rope from around his waist. "I always come prepared," he winked.

"Will that hold two of you?" Harkat asked.

Steve nodded and tied one end of the rope to a radiator. Going to the window, he swung it open and threw the other end of the rope down. "Over here," he said to Debbie, and she went to him without objecting. He got her to climb on to the window sill and back out over it, holding on to the rope, so she was ready to descend in a hurry. "You two do what you have to," Steve said, covering the door with his arrow gun. "We'll get out if things look bad."

I checked with Harkat, then tiptoed to the door and took hold of the handle. "I'll go first," I said, "and drop low. You come straight after me. If you see anyone who looks like they don't belong - scalp them. We'll stop to ask for their credentials later."

I opened the door and dived into the hall, not bothering with a count. Harkat stepped out after me, arrow gun raised. Nobody to my left. I spun right - no one there either. I paused, ears cocked.

Long, tense moments passed. We didn't move. The silence gnawed at our nerves but we ignored it and concentrated - when you're fighting vampaneze, a second of distraction is all they need.

Then someone coughed overhead.

Dropping to the floor, I twisted on to my back and brought my sword upright, while Harkat swung his arrow gun up.

The figure clinging to the ceiling dropped before Harkat could fire, knocked him across the hallway, then kicked my sword from my hands. I scrambled after it, then stopped at a familiar chuckle. "Game, set and match to me, I think."

Turning, I was greeted with the sight of a chunky man dressed in purple animal skins, with bare feet and dyed green hair. It was my fellow Vampire Prince - Vancha March!

"Vancha!" I gasped, as he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and helped me to my feet. Harkat had risen by himself and was rubbing the back of his head, where Vancha had struck him.

"Darren," Vancha said. "Harkat." He wagged a finger at us. "You should always check the shadows overhead when scanning for danger. If I'd meant to harm you, the two of you would be dead now."

"When did you get back?" I cried excitedly. "Why did you sneak up on us? Where's Mr. Crepsley?"

"Larten's on the roof. We got back about fifteen minutes ago. We heard unfamiliar voices in the room, which is why we moved cautiously. Who's in there with you?"

"Come in and I'll introduce you," I grinned, then led him into the room. I told Steve and Debbie that we were safe, and went to the window to call down a wary, wind-bitten, very welcome Mr. Crepsley.

-- Advertisement --