"Ow! It's hot!" I winced.
"Don't be a baby," Debbie smiled, pressing a spoon of steaming hot soup to my lips. "It's good for you."
"Not if it scalds my throat," I grumbled. I blew on the soup to cool it, swallowed, then smiled at Debbie as she dipped the spoon into the bowl again. Harkat stood guard by the door. Outside I could hear Alice Burgess talking with one of their street people. I felt incredibly safe as I lay there, sipping soup, like nothing in the world could harm me.
It had been five days since Declan and Little Kenny rescued me. The first few days passed in a haze. I'd been wracked with pain and a high fever, senses in disarray, subject to nightmares and delusions. I kept thinking Debbie and Alice were imaginary. I'd laugh when they talked to me, convinced my brain was playing tricks.
But as the fever broke and my senses returned, the faces of the women remained constant. When I finally realized it really was Debbie, I threw my arms around her and hugged her so hard, I almost fainted again!
"Would you like some soup?" Debbie asked Harkat.
"No," Harkat replied. "Not hungry."
I asked Debbie to fetch Harkat and Mr Tall even before she'd told me what she and Alice were doing here. When my worried friend arrived - Mr Tall didn't come - I told him about Steve and his gang, and about Steve being Darius's father. Harkat's round green eyes almost doubled in size when he heard that. I wanted him to leave and contact the Vampire Generals, but he refused. He said he had to stay to protect me, and wouldn't go until I was fit again. I argued the point, but it was no good. He hadn't left the room since then, except for the occasional toilet break.
Debbie spooned the last of the soup into my mouth, wiped around my lips with a napkin, and winked. She'd hardly changed in the two years we'd been parted. The same lush dark skin, beautiful brown eyes, full lips, and tightly cropped hair. But she was more physically developed than before. She was leaner, more muscular, and she moved with a fighter's fluid grace. Her eyes were always alert. She was never totally at ease, ready to respond to any threat at an instant's notice.
The last time we'd met, Debbie and Alice had been on their way to Vampire Mountain. They were troubled by the rise of the vampaneze and shaven-headed vampets - they thought they'd turn on humanity nextif they won the War of the Scars. They decided that the vampires should create their own human force to combat the threat of the gun-wielding vampets. They planned to offer their services to the Generals, and hoped to put together a small army to battle the vampets, leaving the vampires free to tackle the vampaneze.
I didn't think the Generals would accept their proposal. Vampires have always distanced themselves from humans, and I thought they'd reject Debbie and Alice automatically. But Debbie told me that Seba Nile - the quartermaster of Vampire Mountain, and an old friend of Mr Crepsley's and mine - had spoken on their behalf. He said times had changed and the Generals needed to change with them. Vampires and vampaneze had sworn an oath never to use missile-firing weapons, but the vampets hadn't. Many vampires were being shot by the shaven-headed curs. Seba said something had to be done about it, and this was their chance to fight the vampets on level terms.
As the oldest living vampire, Seba was greatly respected. Upon his recommendation Debbie and Alice were accepted, albeit with reluctance. For several months they'd trained in the vampire ways, mostly at the hands of my old task master, Vanez Blane. The blind vampire taught them to fight and think as creatures of the night. It wasn't easy - the ever-wintry Vampire Mountain was a hard place to survive if you lacked the hot blood of the vampires - but they'd clung to each other for support and stuck with it, earning the admiration even of those Generals who'd greeted them with suspicion.
Ideally they'd have trained for several years, learning the ways of vampire warfare. But time was precious. The vampets were growing in number, taking part in more and more battles, killing more and more vampires. Once Debbie and Alice had covered the basics, they set out with a small band of Generals to assemble a makeshift army. Debbie told me Seba and Vanez longed to come with them, for one last taste of adventure in the outside world. But they served the clan best in Vampire Mountain, so they stayed, loyal servants to the end.
The door to my room opened and Alice stepped in. Alice Burgess used to be a police chief inspector and she looked even more warrior-like than Debbie. She was taller and broader, with more pronounced muscles. Her white hair was cut ultra-short, and though she was extremely light-skinned, there was nothing soft about her complexion. She looked as pale and deadly as a snowstorm.
"The police are searching the neighbourhood," Alice said. "They'll be here in an hour or less. Darren will have to hide again."
The building was old and had once been used as a church by a shady preacher. He'd created a couple of secret rooms, almost impossible to find. They were stuffy and uncomfortable, but safe. I'd stayed in one of them three times already, to avoid the police searches which had been in full flow since the massacre at the football stadium.
"Any word from Vancha?" I asked, sitting up and pushing the bed covers back.
"Not yet," Alice said.
As the other surviving hunter, Vancha March was the only person apart from me who could freely kill Steve. Debbie and Alice didn't have a direct line to the Prince, but they'd equipped a number of the younger, more forward-thinking Generals with mobile phones. One would get word to Vancha about the situation here - eventually. I just prayed it wouldn't be too late.
Recruiting an army had proved a lot harder than it sounded. No vampire knew for sure how the vampaneze had put the vampets together, but we could imagine their recruiting strategy - find weak-willed, wicked people, then bribe them with promises of power. "Join us and we'll teach you how to fight and kill. We'll blood you when the time is right and make you stronger than any human. As one of us, you'll live for centuries. Anything you wish for can be yours."
Debbie and Alice faced a much harder task. They needed good people who were willing to fight on the side of right, who recognized the threat the vampets and their masters posed, who wished to avert the prospect of living in a world where a band of killers dominated the night. Crooked, grasping, evil-hearted people were easy to find. Honest, concerned, self-sacrificing people were harder to come by.
They found a few, among police and soldiers - Alice had lots of contacts from her time on the force - but nowhere near enough to counter the threat of the vampets. For half a year they made little or no progress.
They were beginning to think it was a waste of time. Then Debbie saw the way forward.
The vampaneze were on the increase. As well as recruiting the vampets, they were blooding more vampaneze assistants than normal, driving up their numbers in a bid to win the War of the Scars by means of force. Since they were more active than usual, they needed to drink more blood, to keep up their energy levels. And when vampaneze drank blood, they killed.
So where were all the bodies?
Vampaneze had survived for six hundred years by feeding cautiously, never killing too many people in any one area, carefully hiding the bodies of their victims. There weren't many of them - never more than three hundred before the War of the Scars - and they were spread across the world. It was relatively easy to keep their presence a secret from humanity.
But now they were on the increase, feeding in groups, killing hundreds of humans every month. There was no way such a drain on humanity could have passed unnoticed by the general public - unless those they fed from weren't officially part of that public.
Tramps. Dossers. Hobos. Vagrants. Mankind had dozens of names for homeless people, those without careers, houses, families or security. Many names - but not a lot of interest. Homeless people were a nuisance, a problem, an eyesore. Whether "ordinary" people felt pity or disgust for them, whether they handed over change when they saw someone begging or walked straight by, one thing united most humans - they knew homeless people existed, but very few took any real notice of them. Who in any town or city could say how many homeless people were living on the streets? Who'd knowif those numbers started to drop? Who'd care?
The answer - almost nobody. Except the homeless people themselves.They'd know something was wrong. The homeless would listen, pitch in and fight. If not for the vampires, then for themselves - they were victims of the War of the Scars, and stood to lose big time if the vampaneze were triumphant.
So Debbie, Alice and their small band of Generals took their recruiting speeches to the corners of the world most humans know nothing about. They went out on the streets, into homeless shelters and mission churches, down alleys lined with rough beds made of cardboard boxes and wads of newspapers. They moved freely among the people of this subworld, facing suspicion and danger, spreading their message, in search of allies.
And they found them. There was a grapevine among the homeless, similar to that of the vampire clan. Though most lacked phones, they kept in touch with one another. It was amazing how fast a rumour could travel, and wherever Alice and Debbie went, they found people who'd heard about the murders and knew they were under attack, even though they had no idea who their attackers were.
Debbie and Alice told the street people about the vampaneze. They encountered scepticism to begin with, but the vampires with them backed them up, demonstrating their powers. In a couple of cities they helped the street folk track down vampaneze and kill them. Word spread rapidly, and over the last several months thousands of street people across the world had pledged themselves to the vampire cause. Most hadn't been trained yet. For now they were serving as eyes and ears, watching for vampaneze, passing on word of their movements.
They'd also chosen a name ?vampirites .
Harkat helped me out of bed and I hobbled from my room, down the corridor and stairs to the ground floor, where the hidden rooms were located. Alice came with us, to ensure all was in order. We passed Declan along the way. He was on the phone to another nearby vampirite stronghold, warning them of the police search.
The Generals with Debbie and Alice left them eventually, to resume the fight against the vampaneze - all hands were needed in the War of the Scars. A couple kept in touch, meeting up with them every month or two, monitoring their progress. But most of the time the ladies of the shadows - as the vampirites referred to them - travelled alone, choosing places where the vampaneze were active, recruiting fervently.
They'd come to my home town a fortnight ago. There'd been many reports of vampaneze here, and a band of vampirites had already formed to combat them. Debbie and Alice came to raise morale, and also to spread awareness among the street folk. That task accomplished, they'd planned to move on soon. Then I'd turned up, beaten and bleeding, and their plans changed.
I rubbed my right shoulder as I shuffled to the secret room. Alice had removed the arrowhead and stitched me up. The wound had healed cleanly, but it still stung like crazy, and I was a long way off full recovery.
Alice and Harkat moved the furniture which helped mask the entrance to the hidden room at the rear of the house. Then Alice pressed a secret panel and a section of wall slid back to reveal a cramped cell. There was a very dim light set in one of the walls.
"They searched the house thoroughly last time," Alice reminded me, checking that the jug beside the mattress on the floor was filled with water. "You could be in for another long stay."
"I'll be fine," I said, lying down.
"Hold on!" I heard Debbie shout, as Alice was about to close the section of wall on me. She came hurrying to the entrance, carrying a small bag. "I've been waiting until you were strong enough to give this to you. It will help pass the time."
"What is it?" I asked, taking the bag.
"You'll see," Debbie replied, blowing me a kiss and stepping back as the cell was closed off. I waited a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, then reached inside the bag and pulled out several notepads bound together by an elastic band. I broke into a smile - my diary! I'd forgotten it entirely. Now that I cast my thoughts back, I recalled handing the notepads to Alice before leaving with Harkat two years earlier.
I slipped the elastic band off the pads, thumbed through the copy on top, then paused, upended the diary, and went back eighteen years to before I sneaked out to the Cirque Du Freak and met Mr Crepsley. Within minutes I was adrift in the past, and the hours flew by as I focused on my scrawled writing, aware of nothing else.