WE LEFT the vampets lying where we'd killed them (Vancha said they weren't worthy of burial) and set off at dusk. As we marched, Mr. Crepsley told the Prince of Mr. Tiny's visit to Vampire Mountain, and what he'd predicted. Vancha said little while Mr. Crepsley was talking, and brooded upon his words in silence for a long time after he finished.

"I don't think it takes a genius to surmise that I'm the third hunter," he said in the end.

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"I would be most surprised if you were not," Mr. Crepsley agreed.

Vancha had been picking between his teeth with the tip of a sharp twig. Now he tossed it aside and spat into the dust of the trail. Vancha was a master spitter - his spit was thick, globular and green, and he could hit an ant at twenty paces. "I don't trust that evil meddler, Tiny," he snapped. "I've run into him a couple of times, and I've made a habit of doing the opposite of anything he says."

Mr. Crepsley nodded. "Generally speaking, I would agree with you. But these are dangerous times, Sire, and-"

"Larten!" the Prince interrupted. "Its 'Vancha', 'March' or 'Hey, ugly! while we're on the trail. I won't have you kowtowing to me."

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"Very well-" Mr. Crepsley grinned " - ugly." He grew serious again. "These are dangerous times, Vancha. The future of our race is at stake. Dare we ignore Mr. Tiny's prophecy? If there is hope, we must seize it."

Vancha let out a long, unhappy sigh. "For hundreds of years, Tiny's let us think we were doomed to lose the war when the Vampaneze Lord arose. Why does he tell us now, after all this time, that it isn't cut and dried, but we can only prevent it if we follow his instructions?" The Prince scratched the back of his neck and spat into the bush to our left. "It sounds like a load of guano to me!"

"Maybe Evanna can shed light on the subject," Mr. Crepsley said. "She shares some of Mr. Tiny's powers and can sense the paths of the future. She might be able to confirm or dismiss his predictions."

"If so, I'll believe her," Vancha said. "Evanna guards her tongue closely, but when she speaks, she speaks the truth. If she says our destiny lies on the road, I'll gladly pitch in with you. If not..." He shrugged and let the matter rest.

Vancha March was weird - and that was putting it mildly! I'd never met anyone like him. He had a code all of his own.

As I already knew, he wouldn't eat cooked meat or drink anything but fresh water, milk and blood, and he made his clothes from the hides of animals he hunted. But I learnt much more about him during the six nights it took us to reach Lady Evanna's.

He followed the old ways of the vampires. Long ago, vampires believed that we were descended from wolves. If we lived good lives and stayed true to our beliefs, we'd become wolves again when we died and roam the wilds of Paradise as spirit creatures of the eternal night. To that end, they lived more like wolves than humans, avoiding civilization except when they had to drink blood, making their own clothes, following the laws of the wild.

Vancha wouldn't sleep in a coffin - he said they were too comfortable! He thought a vampire should sleep on open ground, covering himself with no more than his cloak. He respected vampires who used coffins but had a very low opinion of those who slept in beds. I didn't dare tell him about my preference for hammocks!

He had a great interest in dreams, and often ate wild mushrooms which led to vibrant dreams and visions. He believed the future was mapped out in our dreams, and if we learnt to decipher them, we could control our destinies. He was fascinated by Harkat's nightmares and spent many long hours discussing them with the Little Person.

The only weapons he used were his shurikens (the throwing stars), which he carved himself from various metals and stones. He thought hand to hand combat should be exactly that - fought with one's hands. He'd no time for swords, spears or axes and refused to touch them.

"But how can you fight someone who has a sword?" I asked one evening as we were getting ready to break camp. "Do you run?"

"I run from nothing!" he replied sharply. "Here - let me show you." Rubbing his hands together, he stood opposite me and told me to draw my sword. When I hesitated, he slapped my left shoulder and jeered. "Afraid?"

"Of course not," I snapped. "I just don't want to hurt you."

He laughed out loud. "There's not much fear of that, is there, Larten?"

"I would not be so sure," Mr. Crepsley demurred. "Darren is only a half-vampire but he is sharp. He could test you, Vancha."

"Good," the Prince said. "I relish worthy opponents."

I looked pleadingly at Mr. Crepsley. "I don't want to draw on an unarmed man."

"Unarmed?" Vancha shouted. "I have two arms!" He waved them at me.

"Go ahead," Mr. Crepsley said. "Vancha knows what he is doing."

Pulling out my sword, I faced Vancha and made a halfhearted lunge. He didn't move. Simply watched as I pulled the tip of my sword up short.

"Pathetic," he sniffed.

"This is stupid," I told him. "I'm not-"

Before I could say anything else, he darted forward, seized me by the throat and made a small, painful cut across my neck with his nails.

"Ow!" I yelled, stumbling away from him.

"Next time I'll cut your nose off," he said pleasantly.

"No you won't!" I growled and swung at him with my sword, properly this time.

Vancha ducked clear of the arc of the blade. "Good," he grinned. "That's more like it."

He circled me, eyes on mine, fingers flexing slowly. I kept the tip of my sword low, until he came to a halt, then moved towards him and jabbed. I expected him to shift aside, but instead he brought the palm of his right hand up and swiped the blade away, as he would a flat stick. As I struggled to bring it back around, he stepped in, caught hold of my hand above the wrist, gave a sharp twist which caused me to release the sword - and I was weaponless.

"See?" he smiled, stepping back and raising his hands to show the fight was at an end. "If this was for real, your ass would be grass." Vancha had a foul mouth - that was one of his tamest insults!

"Big deal," I sulked, rubbing my sore wrist. "You beat a half-vampire. You couldn't win against a full-vampire or a vampaneze."

"I can and have," he insisted. "Weapons are tools of fear, used by those who are afraid. One who learns to fight with his hands always has the advantage over those who rely on swords and knives. Know why?"

"Why?"

"Because they expect to win," he beamed. "Weapons are false - they're not of nature - and inspire false confidence. When I fight, I expect to die. Even now, when I sparred with you, I anticipated death and resigned myself to it. Death is the worst this world can throw at you, Darren - if you accept it, it has no power over you."

Picking up my sword, he handed it to me and watched to see what I'd do. I had the feeling he wanted me to cast it aside - and I was tempted to, to earn his respect. But I'd have felt naked without it, so I slid it back into its sheath and glanced down at the ground, slightly ashamed.

Vancha clasped the back of my neck and squeezed amiably. "Don't let it bother you," he said. "You're young. You have loads of time to learn." His eyes creased as he thought about Mr. Tiny and the Lord of the Vampaneze, and he added gloomily, "I hope."

I asked Vancha to teach me how to fight bare-handed. I'd studied unarmed combat in Vampire Mountain, but that had been against opponents who were also unarmed. Apart from a few lessons regarding what to do if I lost my weapon during battle, I'd never been taught how to take on a fully armed foe using only my hands. Vancha said it would take years to master, and I could expect lots of nicks and bruises while learning. I waved away such concerns - I loved the thought of being able to best an armed vampaneze with my bare hands.

Training couldn't start on the trail, but Vancha talked me through a few basic blocking tactics when we rested by day, and promised to give me a real work out when we got to Evanna's.

The Prince would tell me no more about the witch than Mr. Crepsley had, though he did say she was both the fairest and least attractive of women - which made no sense at all!

I thought Vancha would be strongly anti-vampaneze - the vampires who despised vampaneze the most were normally those steeped in the old ways - but to my surprise he had nothing against them. "Vampaneze are noble and true," he said a couple of nights before we reached Evanna's. "I don't agree with their feeding habits - there's no need to kill when we drink - but otherwise I admire them."

"Vancha nominated Kurda Smahlt to become a Prince," Mr. Crepsley remarked.

"I admired Kurda," Vancha said. "He was known for his brains, but he also had guts. He was a remarkable vampire."

"Don't you..." I coughed and trailed off into silence.

"Say what's on your mind," Vancha told me.

"Don't you feel bad for nominating him, after what he did, leading the vampaneze against us?"

"No," Vancha said bluntly. "I don't approve of his actions, and if I'd been at Council, I wouldn't have spoken up on his behalf. But he was following his heart. He acted for the good of the clan. Misguided as he was, I don't think Kurda was a real traitor. He acted poorly, but his motives were pure."

"I agree," Harkat said, joining the conversation. "I think Kurda's been poorly treated. It was right that he was killed when he... was captured, but it's wrong to say he was a villain, and not mention his name... in the Hall of Princes."

I didn't respond to that. I'd liked Kurda immensely, and knew he'd done his best to spare the vampires the wrath of the Vampaneze Lord. But he'd killed one of my other friends - Gavner Purl - and brought about the death of more, including Arra Sails, a female vampire who'd once been Mr. Crepsley's mate.

I learnt the identity of Vancha's real enemy the day before we came to the end of the first leg of our journey. I'd been sleeping, but my face was itchy - an after-effect of the purge - and I awoke before midday. I sat up, scratching under my chin, and spotted Vancha at the edge of camp, his clothes tossed aside - except for a strip of bear hide tied around his waist - rubbing spit into his skin.

"Vancha?" I asked quietly. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going walking," he said, and continued rubbing spit into the flesh of his shoulders and arms.

I stared up at the sky. It was a bright day and hardly any clouds were around to block out the sun. "Vancha, it's daytime" I said.

"Really?" he replied sarcastically. "I'd never have guessed."

"Vampires burn in sunlight," I said, wondering if he'd bumped his head and forgotten what he was.

"Not immediately," he said, then looked at me sharply.

"Have you ever wondered why vampires burn in the sun?"

"Well, no, not exactly..."

"There's no logical reason," Vancha said. "According to the stories humans tell, it's because we're evil, and evil beings can't face the sun. But that's nonsense - we're not evil, and even if we were, we should still be able to move about during the day.

"Look at wolves," he continued. "We're supposed to be descended from them, but they can endure the sunlight. Even true nocturnal creatures like bats and owls can survive by day. Sunlight might confuse them, but it doesn't kill them. So why does it kill vampires?"

I shook my head uncertainly. "I don't know. Why?"

Vancha barked a laugh. "Damned if I know! Nobody does. Some claim we were cursed by a witch or sorcerer, but I doubt that - the world's full of servants of the dark arts, but none with the power to make such a lethal curse. My hunch is Desmond Tiny."

"What's Mr. Tiny got to do with it?" I asked.

"According to ancient legends - forgotten by most - Tiny created the first vampires. They say he experimented on wolves and mixed their blood with that of humans, resulting in..." He tapped his chest.

"That's ridiculous," I snorted.

"Perhaps. But if those legends are true, our sun-related weakness is also Tiny's work. They say he was afraid we'd grow too powerful and take over the world, so he tainted our blood and made us slaves of the night." He stopped rubbing spit in and gazed upwards, eyes scrunched up against the disorientating rays of sunlight. "Nothing's as awful as slavery," he said quietly. "If the stories are true, and we're night slaves because of Tiny's meddling, there's only one way to win back our freedom - fight! We have to take on the enemy, look it full in the face and spit in its eye."

"You mean fight Mr. Tiny?"

"Not directly. He's too slippery a customer to pin down."

"Then who?"

"We have to fight his manservant," he said. When I looked blank, he elaborated: "The sun."

"The sun?" I laughed, then stopped when I saw he was serious. "How can you fight the sun?"

"Simple," Vancha said. "You face it, take its blows, and keep coming back for more. For years I've been subjecting myself to the rays of the sun. Every few weeks I walk about for an hour by day, letting the sun burn me, toughening my skin and eyes to it, testing it, seeing how long I can survive."

"You're crazy!" I chortled. "Do you really think you can get the better of the sun?"

"I don't see why not," he said. "A foe's a foe. If it can be engaged, it can be defeated."

"Have you made any progress?" I asked.

"Not really," he sighed. "It's much the same as when I began. The light half-blinds me - it takes almost a full day for my vision to return to normal and the headaches to fade. The rays cause a reddening within ten or fifteen minutes, and it gets painful soon after. I've managed to endure it for close to eighty minutes a couple of times, but I'm badly burnt by the end, and it takes five or six nights of total rest to recover."

"When did this war of yours begin?"

"Let's see," he mused. "I was about two hundred when I started-" Most vampires weren't sure of their exact age; when you lived as long as they did, birthdays ceased to mean very much "-and I'm more than three hundred now, so I guess it's been the best part of a century."

"A hundred years!" I gasped. "Have you ever heard the phrase, 'banging your head against a brick wall'?"

"Of course," he smirked, "but you forget, Darren - vampires can break walls with their heads!"

With that, he winked and walked off into the sunlight, whistling loudly, to engage in his crazy battle with a huge ball of burning gas hanging millions and millions of kilometres away in the sky.

    

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