AS POOR as the odds were, they were about to get even worse. As we stood awaiting the onslaught, the huge door behind Hooky opened and four more vampaneze stepped through to join the others. That made it twenty-eight to six. We hadn't a hope.

"Not so pleased with yourselves now, are you?" Hooky jeered, hobbling forward a few gleeful paces.

Advertisement

"I don't know about that," Vancha sniffed. "This just means more of you for us to kill."

Hooky's smile vanished. "Are you arrogant or ignorant?" he snapped.

"Neither," Vancha said, gazing calmly at our foes. "I'm a vampire."

"You really think you stand a chance against us?" Hooky sneered.

-- Advertisement --

"Yes," Vancha answered softly. "Were we fighting honest, noble vampaneze, I'd think otherwise. But a vampaneze who sends armed humans to fight his battles is a coward, without honour. I have nothing to fear from such pitiable beasts."

"Be careful what you say," the vampaneze to the left of Hooky growled. "We don't take kindly to insults."

"We're the ones who've been insulted," Vancha replied. "There's honour in dying at the hands of a worthy foe. If you'd sent your best warriors against us and killed us, we'd have died with smiles on our lips. But to send these... these..." He spat into the dust of the floor. "There's no word low enough to describe them."

The vampets bristled at that, but the vampaneze looked uneasy, almost ashamed, and I realized they were no fonder of the vampets than we were. Vancha noticed this too and slowly loosened his belts of shurikens. "Drop your arrow guns," he said to Steve, Harkat and Debbie. They stared at him dumbly. "Do it!" he insisted gruffly and they complied. Vancha held up his bare hands. "We've put our long-range weapons aside. Will you order your pets to do the same and engage us honourably - or will you have us shot down in cold blood like the curs I think you are?"

"Shoot them!" Hooky screamed, his voice laced with hatred. "Shoot them all!"

The vampets raised their weapons and took aim.

"No!" the vampaneze to Hooky's left bellowed and the vampets paused. "By all the shadows of the night, I say no!"

Hooky whirled on him. "Are you crazy?"

"Beware," the vampaneze warned him. "If you cross me on this, I'll kill you where you stand."

Hooky stepped back, stunned. The vampaneze faced the vampets. "Drop your guns," he commanded. "We'll fight with our traditional weapons. With honour."

The vampets obeyed the order. Vancha turned and winked at us while they were laying their weapons aside. Then he faced the vampaneze again. "Before we start," he said, "I'd like to know what manner of creature this thing with the hooks is."

"I'm a vampaneze!" Hooky replied indignantly.

"Really?" Vancha smirked. "I've never seen one with mismatched eyes before."

Hooky's eyes twitched exploratively. "Damn!" he shouted. "It must have slipped out when I fell."

"What slipped out?" Vancha asked.

"A contact lens," I answered softly. "He's wearing red contact lenses."

"No I'm not!" Hooky yelled. "That's a lie! Tell them, Bargen. My eyes are as red as yours and my skin's as purple."

The vampaneze to Hooky's left shuffled his feet with embarrassment. "He is a vampaneze," he said, "but he's only been recently blooded. He wanted to look like the rest of us, so he wears contacts and..." Bargen coughed into a fist. "He paints his face and body purple."

"Traitor!" Hooky howled.

Bargen looked up at him, disgusted, then spat into the dust of the floor as Vancha had moments before.

"What has the world come to when the vampaneze blood maniacs like this and recruit humans to fight for them?"

Vancha asked quietly and there was no mockery in his voice - it was a genuine, puzzled query.

"Times change," Bargen answered. "We don't like the changes, but we accept them. Our Lord has said it must be so."

"This is what the great Lord of the Vampaneze has brought to his people?" Vancha barked. "Human thugs and crazy, hook-handed monsters?"

"I'm not crazy!" Hooky shouted. "Except crazy with rage!" He pointed at me and snarled. "And it's all his fault."

Vancha turned and stared at me, as did everybody else in the room.

"Darren?" Mr. Crepsley asked quietly.

"I don't know what he's talking about," I said.

"Liar!" Hooky laughed and started dancing. "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"

"Do you know this creature!" Mr. Crepsley enquired.

"No," I insisted. "The first time I saw him was when he attacked me in the alley. I never-"

"Lies!" Hooky screamed, then stopped dancing and glared at me. "Pretend all you like, man, but you know who I am. And you know what you did to drive me to this." He held up his arms, so the hooks glinted in the light of the candles.

"Honestly," I swore, "I haven't a clue what you're on about."

"No?" he sneered. "It's easy to lie to a mask. Let's see if you can stick to your lie when faced with-" he removed the balaclava with one quick sweep of his left hooks, revealing his face "- this!"

It was a round, heavy, bearded face, smeared with purple paint. For a few seconds I couldn't place it. Then, putting it together with the missing hands, and the familiarity of the voice that I'd previously noted, I nailed him. "Reggie Veggie?" I gasped.

"Don't call me that!" he shrieked. "It's R.V. - and it stands for Righteous Vampaneze!"

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. R.V. was a man I'd run into not long after joining the Cirque Du Freak, an eco-warrior who'd devoted his life to the protection of the countryside. We'd been friends until he found me killing animals to feed the Little People. He set out to free the Wolf Man - he thought we were mistreating him - but the savage beast bit his arms off. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been fleeing into the night, screaming loudly, "My hands! My hands!"

Now he was here. With the vampaneze. And I began to understand why I'd been set up and who was behind it. "You sent those forms to Mahler's!" I accused him.

He grinned slyly, then shook his head. "With hands like these?" He waved the hooks at me. "They're good for chopping and slicing and gutting, but not for writing. I played my part to get you down here, but it was one with a lot more cunning than me who dreamt the plan up."

"I don't understand," Vancha interrupted. "Who is this lunatic?"

"It's a long story," I said. "I'll tell you later."

"Optimistic to the last," Vancha chuckled.

I stepped closer to R.V., ignoring the threat of the vampaneze and vampets, until I was only a metre or so away. I studied his face silently. He fidgeted but didn't back off. "What happened to you?" I asked, appalled. "You loved life. You were gentle and kind. You were a vegetarian!"

"Not any more," R.V. chuckled. "I eat plenty of meat now and I like it bloody!" His smile faded. "You happened to me, you and your band of freaks. You ruined my life, man. I wandered the world, alone, frightened, defenceless, until the vampaneze took me in. They gave me strength. They equipped me with new hands. In turn, I helped give them you."

I shook my head sadly. "You're wrong. They haven't made you strong. They've turned you into an abomination."

His face darkened. "Take that back! Take that back or I'll-"

"Before this goes any further," Vancha interrupted dryly, "could I ask one more question? It's my final one." R.V. stared at him in silence. "If you didn't set us up, who did?" R.V. said nothing. Nor did the other vampaneze. "Come on!" Vancha shouted. "Don't be shy. Who's the clever boy?"

The silence held a few moments more. Then, from behind us, somebody said in a soft, wicked voice, "I am."

I whirled around to see who'd spoken. So did Vancha, Harkat and Mr. Crepsley. But Debbie didn't whirl, because she was standing still, a knife pressed to the soft flesh of her throat. And Steve Leopard didn't whirl either, because he was standing beside her - holding the knife!

We gawped wordlessly at the pair. I blinked twice, slowly, thinking maybe that would restore sanity to the world. But it didn't. Steve was still there, holding his knife on Debbie, grinning darkly.

"Take off your gloves," Mr. Crepsley said, his voice strained. "Take them off and show us your hands."

Steve smiled knowingly, then put the fingertips of his left hand - which was wrapped around Debbie's throat - to his mouth, gripped the ends of the glove with his teeth, and pulled his hand free. The first thing my eyes went to was the cross carved into the flesh of his palm, the cross he'd made the night he vowed to track me down and kill me. Then my eyes slid from his palm to the end of his fingers, and I understood why Mr. Crepsley had asked him to remove the glove.

There were five small scars running along his fingertips - the sign that he was a creature of the night. But Steve hadn't been blooded by a vampire. He'd been blooded by one of the others. He was a half-vampaneze!

-- Advertisement --