NO. THAT'S not how it happened.
I wish it was. With all my heart and soul, I wish he'd been rescued and our foes defeated. In that terrible, impossibly long moment of his fall, I imagined half a dozen fantastic scenarios, where Mika or Arrow or Mr Tall intervened to divert the course of fate, and we all walked away smiling. But it wasn't to be. There was no last-minute cavalry charge. No miraculous rescue. Vancha hadn't flitted to Vampire Mountain. We were alone, as we had to be, as destiny willed it.
Mr Crepsley dropped. He was impaled on the stakes. He died.
And it wasawful .
I can't even say that it was quick and merciful, as it was for the Lord of the Vampaneze, because he didn't die straightaway. The stakes didn't kill him instantly, and though his soul didn't linger long, his cries while he writhed there, bleeding and dying, burning and screaming, will stay with me till I die. Maybe I'll even carry them with me when I go.
Debbie wept bitterly. Vancha howled like a wolf. Green tears trickled from Harkat's round green eyes. Even the Chief Inspector turned away from the scene and sniffed miserably.
Not me. I couldn't. My eyes stayed dry.
Stumbling forward, I stopped at the edge of the pit and stared down at the stakes and the two bodies being quickly stripped bare of their flesh by the flames. I stood as though on guard, not budging or looking away, paying no attention as the vampaneze and vampets filed silently out of the cavern. They could have executed us, but their leader was dead, their dreams had been dashed, and they were no longer interested in battle - not even in revenge.
I was barely aware of Vancha, Debbie, Harkat and Alice Burgess as they came to stand by my side.
"We should go now," Vancha muttered after a while.
"No," I replied dully. "I'm taking him with us, to bury him properly."
"It'll be hours before the fire dies out," Vancha said.
"I'm in no rush. The hunt's over. We've all the time in the world."
Vancha sighed deeply, then nodded. "Very well. We'll wait.
"Not me," Debbie sobbed. "I can't. It's too horrible. I can't stay and ?" She broke down in tears. I wanted to comfort her, but couldn't. There was nothing I could think to say to make her feel better.
"I'll look after her," Burgess said, taking charge. "We'll walk up the tunnel and wait for you in the smaller cavern."
"Thanks, Alice," Vancha said.
Burgess paused before leaving. "I'm still not sure about you guys," she said, "if you're really vampires or not. And I haven't a clue what I'm going to tell my people about this. But I know evil when I see it, and I like to think I know good too. I won't stand in your way when it's time for you to leave. And if you need any help, you only have to call."
"Thanks," Vancha said again, and this time he managed a thin, grateful smile.
The women left, Debbie crying, Burgess supporting her. They pushed through the departing ranks of vampaneze and vampets, who gave way meekly to the pair who'd helped bring about the downfall of their Lord.
Minutes passed. The flames flickered on. Mr Crepsley and the Lord of the Vampaneze burned.
Then a strange-looking pair hobbled up to confront us. One had no hands, although he carried a pair of hook-hands slung around his neck. The other had only half a face and was moaning piteously. R.V. and Morgan James.
"We'll get you swine!" R.V. snarled, pointing threateningly with his left stump. "Gannen gave his word that he'd let you go, so we can't harm you now, but we'll hunt you down later and make you sorry you were born."
"You'd better come well prepared, Hooky," Vancha commented dryly. "You'll find us a realhandful !'
R.V. hissed at the joke and made to attack the Prince. Morgan held him back, mumbling through teeth - half of which had been shattered by Burgess' bullet - "Curhm awahy! Thuy ahn't wurth iht!"
"Hah," Vancha chuckled spitefully. "That's easy for you to say!"
This time R.V. had to push Morgan James back as he struggled to get his hands on Vancha. Cursing and fighting with each other, they backed off, joined the ranks of their numbed colleagues, and drifted away to patch themselves up and plot mean-spirited revenge.
Again we were alone at the pit. The cavern was quieter now. Almost all the vampaneze and vampets had exited. Only a last few stragglers remained. Among them were Gannen Harst and a grinning Steve Leopard, who couldn't resist ambling over for one last mocking laugh.
"What's that cooking on the fire, boys?" he asked, putting up his hands as if to warm them.
"Go away," I said blankly, "or I'll kill you."
Steve's face dropped and he glared at me. "It's your own fault," he pouted. "If you hadn't betrayed me?"
I swung my sword up, meaning to cut him in two.
Vancha swatted it aside with the flat of his hand before I drew blood. "No," he said, stepping between us. "If you kill him, the others will return and kill us. Let it drop. We'll get him later."
"Wise words, brother," Gannen Harst said, stepping up beside Vancha. His face was drawn. "There's been enough killing. We?"
"Get lost!" Vancha snapped.
Harst's expression darkened. "Don't speak to me like?"
"I won't warn you again," Vancha growled.
The ex-protector of the Vampaneze Lord bristled angrily, then raised his hands peacefully and backed away from his brother.
Steve didn't follow.
"I want to tell him," the half-vampaneze said, eyes pinned on me.
"No!" Gannen Harst hissed. "You mustn't! Not now! You?"
"Iwant totell him," Steve said again, more forcefully this time.
Harst cursed beneath his breath, glanced from one of us to the other, then nodded tensely. "Very well. But over to one side, where nobody else can hear."
"What are you up to now?" Vancha asked suspiciously.
"You'll find out," Steve giggled, taking hold of my left elbow.
I shrugged him off. "Keep away from me, monster!" I spat.
"Now, now," he said. "Don't be hasty. I've news I'm bursting to tell you."
"I don't want to hear it."
"Oh, but you do," he insisted. "You'll kick yourself from here to the moon if you don't come and listen."
I wanted to tell him what he could do with his news, but there was something in his wicked eyes which made me pause. I hesitated a moment, then stomped away out of earshot of the others. Steve followed me, Gannen Harst hot on his heels.
"If you hurt him ?" Vancha warned them.
"We won't," Harst promised, then stopped and shielded us with his body from the view of the rest.
"Well?" I asked, as Steve stood smirking at me.
"We've come a long way, haven't we, Darren?" he remarked. "From the classroom at home to this Cavern of Retribution. From humanity to vampirism and vampanizm. From the day to the night."
"Tell me something I don't know," I grunted.
"I used to think it could have been different," he said softly, eyes distant. "But now I think it was always meant to be this way. It was your destiny to betray me and form an alliance with the vampires, your fate to become a Vampire Prince and lead the hunt for the Vampaneze Lord. Just as it was my destiny to find my own path into the night and ?"
He stopped and a sly expression crept over his face. "Hold him," he grunted, and Gannen Harst grabbed my arms and held me rooted to the spot. "Are you ready to send him sleepy-byes?"
"Yes," Harst said. "But hurry, before the others intervene."
"Your wish is my command," Steve smiled, then put his lips close to my right ear and whispered something terrible - something dreadful - something that turned my world on its head and would haunt my every waking and sleeping moment from that instant on.
As he drew away, having tormented me with his devastating secret, I opened my mouth wide to shout the news to Vancha. Before I could utter a syllable, Gannen Harst breathed over me, the knockout gas of the vampires and vampaneze. As the fumes filled my lungs, the world around me faded, and then I was falling, unconscious, into the tortured sleep of the damned.
The last thing I heard before I blacked out was Steve, laughing hysterically - the sound of a victorious demon cackling.