I DARTED forward impulsively when I saw Vancha disappear amidst the flames, but was quickly forced back by the waves of fire which rolled down towards me. As they broke upon the floor of the cavern, or spat themselves out in the air above our heads, the sound of Steve Leopards laughter filled my ears. Shielding my eyes with my hands, I glanced up at the platform and saw him leaping about, a heavy sword held high above his head, cheering and whooping with wicked glee. "Bye-bye, Vancha!" he hollered. "So long, Mr March! Adios, Princey! Farewell, vam?"
"Don't write my death-notices yet, Leonard!" a voice roared from within the blanket of fire, and as Steve's face dropped, the flames died down slightly, revealing a singed, blackened, but very much alive Vancha March, hanging by one hand from the rope, furiously slapping out flames in his hair and animal hides with the other.
"Vancha!" I yelled, delighted. "You're alive!"
"Of course I am," he replied, grinning painfully as he extinguished the last of the flames.
"You're a tough old badger, aren't you?" Steve remarked sourly, glaring down at the Prince.
"Aye," Vancha growled, a gleam in his eye. "And you haven't seen anything yet - just wait till I get my hands on your scrawny, evil neck!"
"I'msoooo scared," Steve snorted. Then, as Vancha began climbing again, he hurried to the end of the platform where the rope was tied and tapped it with his sword. "No you don't," he chortled. "One more centimetre and I'll send you crashing to your doom."
Vancha stopped and studied Steve and the stretch of rope left to cross, calculating the odds. Steve chuckled dryly. "Come off it, March. Even an oaf like you knows when he's beaten. I don't want to cut this rope - not yet - but if I set my mind to it, there's nothing you can do to stop me."
"We'll see about that," Vancha growled, then ripped a throwing star loose and sent it flying at the half-vampaneze.
Steve didn't flinch as the shuriken buried itself harmlessly in the underbelly of the steel platform. "The angle isn't right," he yawned, unimpressed. "You can't hit me from there, no matter how fine a shot you are. Now, will you slide down and join your friends on the ground, or do I have to get nasty?"
Vancha spat at Steve - his spit falling long short of its target - then tucked his arms and legs around the rope and quickly slid over the heads of the flames, away from the platform, to where we were waiting.
"Wise move," Steve said as Vancha steadied himself on his feet and we checked his back and hair for smouldering embers.
"If I had a gun," Burgess muttered, "I could take that wiseass out."
"You're starting to see things from our point of view," Vancha noted wryly.
"I'm still undecided about you lot," the Chief Inspector replied, "but I know out-and-out evil when I see it."
"Now then," Steve announced loudly, "if we're all good and ready, let's get this show on the road." Sticking two fingers between his lips, he whistled loudly three times. Above us, panels in the ceiling were ripped free, and vampaneze and vampets descended on ropes. Similar panels were removed in the walls of the cavern and more of our enemies stepped through and advanced. I counted twenty - thirty - forty - more. Most were armed with swords, axes and clubs, but a few of the vampets carried rifles, handguns and crossbows.
We backed up to the edge of the pit as the vampaneze and vampets closed on us, so they couldn't attack us from behind. We stared at the ranks of grim-faced soldiers, counting silently, hopes fading as we realized how hopelessly overwhelmed we were.
Vancha cleared his throat. "I make it about ten or twelve for each of us," he commented. "Does anybody have any favourites, or will we divide them up at random?"
"You can take as many as you want," I said, spotting a familiar face in the middle of the crowd to my left, "but leave that guy over there for me."
Chief Inspector Burgess gasped when she saw who I was pointing at. "Morgan James?"
"Evening, ma'am," the sharp-eyed policeman/vampet saluted her mockingly. He'd changed out of his uniform. He was now wearing the brown shirt and black trousers of the vampets, and he'd daubed red circles of blood around his eyes.
"Morgan's one ofthem !" the Chief Inspector asked, shocked.
"Yes," I said. "He helped me escape. He knew that Steve would murder his colleagues - and he let him."
Her face darkened. "Shan," she growled, "if you want him, you'll have to fight me for him - that bastard'smine !"
I turned to argue with her, saw the fierce glow in her eyes, and relented with a nod.
The vampaneze and vampets stopped about three metres short of us and stood, swinging their weapons, eyes alert, awaiting the order to attack. On the platform, Steve grunted happily, then clapped his hands. Out of the corner of my eye I saw somebody appear in the mouth of the tunnel behind us. Glancing over my shoulder, I realized two people had emerged and were crossing the plank to the platform. Both were familiar - Gannen Harst and the Lord of the Vampaneze!
"Look!" I hissed at my companions.
Vancha moaned aloud when he saw the pair, turned quickly, drew three of his shurikens, took aim and fired. The range wasn't a problem, but the angle - as when he was on the rope and firing at Steve - wasn't favourable, and the stars struck and bounced off the underside of the platform.
"Greetings, brother," Gannen Harst said, nodding at Vancha.
"We've got to get up there!" Vancha snapped, looking for a way forward.
"If you can lead, I will gladly follow," Mr Crepsley said.
"The rope ?" Vancha began, but stopped when he saw a group of vampaneze standing between us and the stake where the rope was tied. Even the wild, ever optimistic Prince knew there was no way through so many foes. If the element of surprise had been on our side, we might have battled through them, but after our last encounter they were prepared for mindless, lightning attacks.
"Even if we made the - rope," Harkat said, "those on the platform could cut it before - we got across."
"So what do we do?" Vancha growled, frustrated.
"Die?" Mr Crepsley suggested.
Vancha winced. "I don't fear death," he said, "but I won't rush to embrace it. We aren't finished yet. We wouldn't be standing here talking if we were - they'd have rushed us by now. Cover me." So saying, he turned to address the trio on the platform, who were now standing side by side, close to the plank.
"Gannen!" Vancha shouted. "What's going on? Why haven't your men attacked us yet?"
"You know why," Harst responded. "They're afraid they might kill you in the heat of battle. According to Desmond Tiny, only our Lord is supposed to kill the hunters."
"Does that mean they won't defend themselves if we attack?" Vancha asked.
Steve barked a laugh. "Dream on, you stupid old?"
"Enough!" Gannen Harst shouted, silencing the half-vampaneze. "You will not interrupt when I am speaking with my brother." Steve glowered at the protector of the Vampaneze Lord, then lowered his head and held his tongue.
"Of course they'll defend themselves," Harst said, facing Vancha again, "but we hope to avoid such a scene. Apart from the risk of killing you, we've lost too many good men already and don't wish to sacrifice any more. It might be possible to agree a compromise."
"I'm listening," Vancha said.
Gannen Harst gave Steve a quick look. Steve cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted at the ceiling, "Lower away, R.V. !"
There was a pause, then a panel in the ceiling was thrown back and somebody was lowered through the gap on a rope ?Debbie !
My heart lurched at the sight of her, and I raised my arms, as though I could reach across the great divide and grab her. She didn't appear to have suffered at the hands(hooks) of the insane R.V., though her forehead was gashed, her clothes were ripped, and she looked incredibly weary. Her hands were tied behind her back, but her legs were free, and she kicked out at Steve and the others as she came level with the platform. They only laughed, and R.V. lowered her another metre, so she was too low to aim at them.
"Debbie!" I shouted desperately.
"Darren!" she screamed. "Get out! Don't trust them! They let Steve and R.V. do as they please. They even take orders from them. Flee quick before?"
"If you don't shut up," Steve snarled, "I'll shut you up." He stretched the flat of his sword out and touched it to the thin rope tied around her middle - which was all that lay between Debbie and a deadly drop into the pit.
Debbie saw the peril she was in and bit down on her tongue.
"Good," Gannen Harst said when silence had returned. "Now - our offer. We are interested only in the hunters. Debbie Hemlock, Alice Burgess and the Little Person don't matter. We have you outnumbered, Vancha. Our victory is assured. You cannot win, only injure us, and perhaps foil us by dying at the hands of one who isn't our Lord."
"That'll be good enough for me," Vancha sniffed.
"Perhaps," Harst nodded. "And I'm sure Larten Crepsley and Darren Shan feel the same. But what of the others? Will they give their lives so freely, for the sake of the vampire clan?"
"I will!" Harkat boomed.
Gannen Harst smiled. "I expect you would, grey one. But you don't have to. Nor do the women. If Vancha, Larten and Darren lay down their weapons and surrender, we'll free the rest of you. You can walk away, lives intact."
"No way!" Vancha shouted immediately. "I wouldn't roll over and die at the best of times - I'm certainly not doing it now, when so much is at stake."
"Nor shall I agree to such a deal," Mr Crepsley said.
"What of Darren Shan?" Harst asked. "Will he agree to our deal, or will he condemn his friends to die with the rest of you?"
All eyes fixed on me. I gazed up at Debbie, dangling on the rope, frightened, bloodied, desolate. I had it in my power to set her free. Cut a deal with the vampaneze, face a quick death instead of perhaps a slow, painful one, and save the life of the woman I loved. It would have been inhuman of me to reject such a deal?
?but Iwasn't human. I was a half-vampire. More - a Vampire Prince. And Princes don't cut deals, not when the fate of their people is at stake. "No," I said miserably. "We fight and we die. All for one and one for all."
Gannen Harst nodded understandingly. "I expected that, but one should always open with a weak offer. Very well - let me put another proposal to you. Same basic outline as the first. Drop your weapons, surrender, and we let the humans walk. Only this time, Darren Shan gets to go head to head with our Lord and Steve Leonard."
Vancha's face creased suspiciously. "What are you talking about?"
"If you and Larten turn yourselves over to us without a fight," Harst said, "we will allow Darren to duel with our Lord and Steve Leonard. It will be two on one, but he'll be equipped with weapons. If Darren wins, we free all three of you along with the others. If he loses, we execute you and Larten, but the humans and Harkat Mulds go free.
"Think it over," he urged us. "It's a good, honest deal, more than you could have reasonably hoped for."
Vancha turned away from the platform, troubled, and looked to Mr Crepsley for advice. The vampire, for once, didn't know what to say, and merely shook his head mutely.
"What doyou think?" Vancha asked me.
"There has to be a catch," I muttered. "Why risk their Lord's life if they don't have to?"
"Gannen wouldn't lie," Vancha said. His face hardened. "But he mightn't tell us the whole truth. Gannen!" he roared. "What guarantee do you give that it'll be a fair fight? How do we know that R.V. or the others won't join in?
"I give my word," Gannen Harst said softly. "Only the pair on the platform with me will fight Darren Shan. Nobody else will interfere. I'll kill any who seeks to swing the balance one way or the other."
"That's good enough for me," Vancha said. "I believe him. But is this the way we want to go? We've never seen their Lord fight, so we don't know what he's capable of - but we know Leonard's a sly, dangerous opponent. The two of them together ?" He grimaced.
"If we agree to Gannen's deal," Mr Crepsley said, "and send Darren up to face them, we place all our eggs in one basket. If Darren wins - wonderful. But if he loses...
Mr Crepsley and Vancha gazed long and hard at me.
"Well, Darren?" Mr Crepsley asked. "It is an enormous burden to take upon yourself. Are you prepared to shoulder such a solemn responsibility?"
"I don't know," I sighed. "I still think there's a catch. If the odds were fifty-fifty, I'd jump at it. But I don't think they are. I believe ?" I stopped. "But that doesn't matter. If this is our best chance, we have to grab it. If you two trust me, I'll accept the challenge - and the blame if I fail."
"He said that like a true vampire," Vancha noted warmly.
"He is a true vampire," Mr Crepsley replied, and I felt pride bloom burningly within me.
"Very well," Vancha shouted. "We accept. But first you have to set the humans and Harkat free. After that, Darren fights your Lord and Steve. Only then, if the fight is fair and he loses, will Larten and I lay down our arms."
"That's not the deal," Harst replied stiffly. "You must lay your weapons to one side and surrender before?"
"No," Vancha interrupted. "We do it this way or not at all. You have my word that we'll let your people take us if Darren loses - assuming he loses fairly. If my word's not good enough, we have a problem."
Gannen Harst hesitated, then nodded curtly. "Your word is good," he said, then told R.V. to haul Debbie up and escort her down.
"No!" R.V. howled. "Steve said I could kill her! He said I could cut her up into tiny little pieces and?"
"Now I'm saying different!" Steve roared. "Don't cross me on this. There'll be other nights and humans - plenty of them - but there's only one Darren Shan."
We heard R.V. grumbling, but then he pulled on the rope and Debbie ascended in a series of short, uncomfortable jerks.
While waiting for Debbie to be returned to us, I got ready for my fight with the pair on the platform, wiping my hands clean, checking my weapons, clearing my mind of all thoughts except those of battle.
"How do you feel?" Vancha asked.
"Remember," he said, "all that matters is the result. Fight dirty if you have to. Kick and spit, scratch and pinch, hit below the belt."
"I will," I grinned. Lowering my voice, I asked, "Will you really surrender if I lose?"
"I gave my word, didn't I?" Vancha said, then winked and whispered in a voice even lower than mine. "I promised we'd drop our weapons and let them take us. And so we will. But I said nothing about letting them keep us or not picking our weapons up again!"
The vampaneze ahead of us parted ranks as R.V. marched through, dragging Debbie behind him by her hair.
"Stop that!" I shouted angrily. "You're hurting her!"
R.V. bared his teeth and laughed. He was still wearing one red contact lens and hadn't replaced the one he'd lost the night before. His bushy beard was flecked with bits of moss, twigs, dirt and blood. It would have been easyto feel sorry for him - he'd been a decent man before he lost his hands to the jaws of the Wolf Man at the Cirque Du Freak - but I had no time for sympathy. I reminded myself that he was the enemy and erased all traces of pity from my mind.
R.V. tossed Debbie down in front of me. She cried out in pain, then lunged to her knees and flew into my arms. I clutched her close as she sobbed and tried to speak. "Shhh," I said. "Take it easy. You're safe. Don't say anything."
"I - must," she wept. "So much - to say. I - I love you, Darren."
"Of course you do," I smiled, my eyes filling with tears.
"Such a touching scene," Steve sneered. "Someone pass me a hankie."
I ignored him and held Debbie's face away from me. I kissed her quickly, then smiled. "You look awful," I said.
"Charming!" she half-laughed, then stared at me appealingly. "I don't want to leave," she croaked. "Not until after the fight."
"No," I said quickly. "You have to go. I don't want you to stay and watch."
"In case you are killed?" she asked.
I nodded, and her lips thinned almost to nothing.
"I want to stay too," Harkat said, stepping up beside us, his green eyes filled with determination.
"It's your right to," I agreed. "I won't stop you. But I'd rather you didn't. If you value our friendship, you'll take Debbie and the Chief Inspector, lead them to the surface, and make sure they get away safely. I don't trust these monsters - they might go on a rampage and kill us all if I win."
"Then I should stay to fight - with you," Harkat said.
"No," I said softly. "Not this time. Please, for my sake and Debbie's, will you leave?"
Harkat didn't like it, but he nodded reluctantly.
"Come on then," someone snapped behind us. "Let's get them out if they're going."
I looked up and saw the treacherous police officer called Morgan James striding towards us. He was carrying a slim rifle, the butt of which he poked into his Chief Inspector's ribs.
"Get the hell away from me!" she snapped, turning on him furiously.
"Easy, Chief," he drawled, grinning like a jackal, bringing up the rifle. "I'd hate to have to shoot you."
"When we get back, you're history," she snarled.
"I won't be coming back," he smirked. "I'll guide you lot to the cavern at the end of the tunnel, lock you out to make sure you can't create a disturbance, then take off with the others when the fighting's over."
"You won't escape that easy," Burgess snorted. "I'll track you down and make you pay for this, even if I have to travel halfway round the world."
"Sure you will," Morgan laughed, then nudged her in the ribs again, harder this time.
The Chief Inspector spat at her ex-officer, then pushed him away and crouched next to Vancha to tie her laces. As she was doing that, she whispered to him out of the side of her mouth. "The guy in the hood and cloak - that's the one you have to kill, right?" Vancha nodded wordlessly, guarding his expression. "I don't like the idea of sending the kid up to fight them," Burgess said. "If I can create a bit of space, and provide firing cover, d'you reckon you or Crepsley could get up there?"
"Maybe," Vancha said, lips barely moving.
"Then I'll see what I can do." Burgess finished tying her laces, stood and winked. "Come on," she said aloud to Harkat and Debbie. "The air stinks here. The sooner we're out, the better."
The Chief Inspector started walking, shoving ahead of Morgan, purpose in her stride. The rows of vampaneze ahead of her parted, clearing a path. Only a few now stood between us and the stake the rope was tied to.
Harkat and Debbie looked back at me sorrowfully. Debbie opened her mouth to say something, but words wouldn't come. Crying, she shook her head and turned her back on me, shoulders shaking miserably. Harkat put his arms around her and led her away, following the Chief Inspector.
Burgess was almost at the mouth of the tunnel leading out of the cavern when she paused and glanced over her shoulder. Morgan was close to her, cradling his rifle. Harkat and Debbie were several metres behind, progressing slowly.
"Hurry up!" Burgess snapped at the dawdling pair. "This isn't a funeral procession!"
Morgan smiled and looked back automatically at Harkat and Debbie. As he did, the Chief Inspector swung into action. Throwing herself at him, she grabbed the butt of the rifle and dug it into the soft flesh of his stomach, fast and hard, winding him. Morgan yelled in pain and surprise, then snatched the rifle back as she tried to pull it away. He almost wrenched it from her grasp, but not quite, and the pair rolled over on the ground, wrestling for the gun. Behind them, the vampaneze and vampets moved to intercept them.
Before the advancing troops reached her, Burgess got a finger on the trigger of the rifle and squeezed off a shot. It could have been pointing anywhere - she didn't have time to aim - but as luck had it, it was pointing at the jaw of the vampet she was struggling with - Morgan James!
There was a flash and a roar of gunfire. Then Morgan was falling away from the Chief Inspector, shrieking with agony, the left side of his face a bloody, shredded mess.
As Morgan surged to his feet, hands clutching the remains of his face, Burgess slammed him over the back of his head with the butt of the rifle, knocking him unconscious. Then, as vampaneze and vampets swarmed towards her, she leant a knee on the ex-officer's back, swung her rifle up, took careful aim, and fired off a volley of shots at the platform - at Steve, Gannen Harst - and the Lord of the Vampaneze!