AS THE initial shock faded, a cold, dark hatred grew in the pit of my stomach. I forgot about the vampaneze and vampets and focused entirely on Steve. My best friend. The boy whose life I'd saved. The man I'd welcomed back with open arms. I'd vouched for him. Trusted him. Included him in our plans.

And all along he'd been plotting against us.

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I would have gone for him there and then, and ripped him to pieces, except he was using Debbie as a shield. Fast as I was, I wouldn't be able to stop him slashing the knife across her throat. If I attacked, Debbie would die.

"I knew we could not trust him," Mr. Crepsley said, looking only slightly less wrathful than I felt. "Blood does not change. I should have killed him years ago."

"Don't be a sore loser," Steve laughed, pulling Debbie even tighter in to him.

"It was all a ploy, wasn't it?" Vancha noted. "The hooked one's attack and your rescue of Darren was staged."

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"Of course," Steve smirked. "I knew where they were all along. I suckered them in, sending R.V. to this city to spread panic among the humans, knowing it would draw Creepy Crepsley back."

"How did you know?" Mr. Crepsley asked, astonished.

"Research," Steve said. "I found out all I could about you. I made you my life's work. It wasn't easy, but I traced you in the end. Found your birth certificate. Connected you to this place. I teamed up with my good friends, the vampaneze, during the course of my travels. They didn't reject me like you did. Through them I learnt that one of their brethren - poor, deranged Murlough - had gone missing here some years ago. Knowing what I did about you and your movements, it wasn't difficult to join the dots.

"What did happen with Murlough?" Steve asked. "Did you kill him or merely scare him off?"

Mr. Crepsley didn't answer. Nor did I.

"No matter," Steve said. "It's not important. But I figured that if you came back to help these people once, you'd do it again."

"Very clever," Mr. Crepsley snarled. His fingers were twitching like spider legs by his sides, and I knew he was itching to wrap them around Steve's throat.

"What I don't understand," Vancha remarked, "is what this lot are doing here." He nodded at Bargen and the other vampaneze and vampets. "Surely they're not here to assist you in your insane quest for revenge."

"Of course not," Steve said. "I'm just a humble half-vampaneze. It's not for me to command my betters. I told them about Murlough, which interested them, but they're here for other reasons, on someone else's say-so."

"Whose?" Vancha asked.

"That would be telling. And we aren't here to tell - we're here to kill!"

Behind us, the vampaneze and vampets advanced. Vancha, Mr. Crepsley and Harkat spun to face their challenge. I didn't. I couldn't tear my eyes away from Steve and Debbie. She was weeping, but holding herself steady, looking appealingly in my direction.

"Why?" I croaked.

"Why what?" Steve replied.

"Why do you hate us? We did nothing to hurt you."

"He said I was evil!" Steve howled, nodding at Mr. Crepsley, who didn't turn to remonstrate with him. "And you chose his side over mine. You set that spider on me and tried to kill me."

"No! I saved you. I gave up everything so that you could live."

"Nonsense," he snorted. "I know what really happened. You plotted with him against me, so you could take my rightful place among the vampires. You were jealous of me."

"No, Steve," I groaned. "That's madness. You don't know what-"

"Save it!" Steve interrupted. "I'm not interested. Besides, here comes the guest of honour - a man I'm sure you're all just dying to meet."

I didn't want to turn away from Steve, but I had to see what he was talking about. Looking over my shoulder, I saw two vague shapes behind the massed vampaneze and vampets. Vancha, Mr. Crepsley and Harkat were ignoring Steve's jibes and the pair at the back, concentrating instead on the foes directly in front of them, warding off their early testing jabs. Then the vampaneze parted slightly and I had a clear view of the two behind them.

"Vancha!" I shouted.

"What?" he snapped.

"At the rear - it's..." I licked my lips. The taller of the pair had spotted me and was gazing at me with a neutral, inquisitive expression. The other was dressed in dark green robes, his face covered by a hood.

"Who?" Vancha shouted, knocking aside a vampets blade with his bare hands.

"It's your brother, Gannen Harst," I said quietly and Vancha stopped fighting. So did Mr. Crepsley and Harkat. And so, puzzled, did the vampaneze.

Vancha stood to his fullest height and stared over the heads of those in front of him. Gannen Harst's eyes left mine and locked on Vancha's. The brothers stared at each other. Then Vancha's gaze switched to the person in the robes and hood - the Lord of the Vampaneze!

"Him! Here? Vancha gasped.

"You've met before, I take it," Steve commented snidely.

Vancha ignored the half-vampaneze. "Here!" he gasped again, eyes pinned on the leader of the vampaneze, the man we'd sworn to kill. Then he did the last thing the vampaneze had been expecting - with a roar of pure adrenaline, he charged!

It was lunacy, one unarmed vampire taking on twenty-eight armed and able opponents, but that lunacy worked in his favour. Before the vampaneze and vampets had time to come to terms with the craziness of Vancha's charge, he'd barrelled through nine or ten of them, knocking them to the ground or into the way of others, and was almost upon Gannen Harst and the Vampaneze Lord before they knew what was happening.

Seizing the moment, Mr. Crepsley reacted quicker than anyone else and darted after Vancha. He dived among the vampaneze and vampets, knives outstretched in his extended hands like a pair of talons at the end of a bat's wings, and three of our foes fell, throats or chests slit open.

As Harkat swung in behind the vampires, burying the head of his axe in the skull of a vampet, the last in the line of vampaneze closed ranks on Vancha and blocked his path to their Lord. The Prince lashed at them with his blade-like hands, but they knew what they were doing now, and although he killed one of them, the others surged forward and forced him to a halt.

I should have gone after my companions - killing the Vampaneze Lord meant more than anything else - but my senses were screaming one name only, and it was a name I reacted to impulsively: "Debbie?" Swivelling away from the battle, praying that Steve had been distracted by the sudden outbreak, I sent a knife flying towards him. It wasn't intended to hit - I couldn't risk striking Debbie - just to make him duck.

It worked. Startled by the swiftness of my move, Steve jerked his head behind Debbie's for protection. His left arm loosened around her throat, and his right hand - holding the knife - dropped a fraction. As I raced forward, I knew the momentary swing of fortune wasn't enough - he'd still have time to recover and kill Debbie before I reached him. But then Debbie, acting like a trained warrior, dug her left elbow sharply back into Steve's ribs, and broke free of his hold, throwing herself to the floor.

Before Steve could dive after her, I was on him. I grabbed him around the waist and propelled him backwards into the wall. He connected harshly and cried out. Stepping away from him, I sent my right fist smashing into the side of his face. The force of the blow knocked him down. It also nearly broke a couple of small bones in my fingers, but that didn't bother me. Falling upon him, I grabbed his ears, pulled his head up, then smashed it down on the hard concrete floor. He grunted and the lights went out in his eyes. He was dazed and defenceless - mine for the taking.

My hand went for the hilt of my sword. Then I saw Steves own knife lying close beside his head, and decided it would be more fitting to kill him with that. Picking it up, I positioned it above his dark, monstrous heart and prodded through the material of his shirt to make sure he wasn't protected by a breastplate or some other such armour. Then I raised the knife high above my head and brought it down slowly, determined to strike the mark and put an end to the life of the man I'd once counted as my dearest friend.

    

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