A benefit of the purge was that my wound healed quickly and I got my strength back. A couple of days later, I was almost back to full physical fitness, except for my headaches and growing pains.
I was doing press-ups on the floor of my bedroom, working off some of my excess energy, when I heard Debbie squeal downstairs. I stopped instantly and shared a worried look with Harkat, who was standing guard by the door. I hurried to his side and removed one of the earplugs I was wearing to block out the worst of the street noises.
"Should we go down?" Harkat asked, opening the door a crack. We could hear Debbie babbling excitedly, and as we listened, Alice joined her and also began to talk very quickly.
"I don't think anything's wrong," I said, frowning. "They seem happy, as if an old friend has?" I stopped and slapped my forehead. Harkat laughed, then both of us said at exactly the same time, "Vancha!"
Throwing the door wide open, we barged down the stairs and found Debbie and Alice chatting with a burly, red-skinned, green-haired man, dressed in purple animal hides and no shoes, with belts of sharp throwing stars - shurikens - looped around his torso.
"Vancha!" I shouted happily, clutching his arms and squeezing tight.
"It is good to see you again, Sire," Vancha said with surprising politeness. Then he burst into a grin and hugged me tight. "Darren!" he boomed. "I've missed you!" Turning to Harkat, he laughed. "I missed you too, ugly!"
"Look who's talking!" Harkat grinned.
"It's great to see you both, but of course I'm most pleased to see the ladies," Vancha said, releasing me and winking at Debbie and Alice. "Female beauty's what we hot-blooded men live for, aye?"
"He's a born flatterer," Alice sniffed. "I bet he says that to every woman he meets."
"Naturally," Vancha murmured, "because all women are beautiful, in one way or another. But you're more beautiful than most, my dear - an angel of the night!"
Alice snorted with contempt, but there was a strange little smile playing at the corners of her lips. Vancha looped his arms around Debbie and Alice and guided us into the living room, as though this was his house and we were the guests. Sitting down, making himself comfortable, he told Debbie to go fetch some food. She told him - in no uncertain terms - that he could do his own fetching while he was here, and he laughed with delight.
It was refreshing to see that the War of the Scars hadn't changed Vancha March. He was as loud and lively as ever. He filled us in on his recent movements, the countries he'd explored, the vampaneze and vampets he'd killed, making it sound like a big, exciting adventure, free from all consequences.
"When I heard that Leonard was here, I came as quickly as I could," Vancha concluded. "I flitted without rest. I haven't missed him, have I?"
"We don't know," I said. "We haven't heard from him since the night he almost killed me."
"But what does your heart tell you?" Vancha asked, his large eyes weighing heavy upon me, his small mouth closed in a tight, expectant line.
"He's here," I said softly. "He's waiting for me - forus . I think this is where Mr Tiny's prophecy will be tested. We'll face him on these streets - or beneath - and we'll kill him or he'll kill us. And that will be the end of the War of the Scars. Except?"
"What?" Vancha asked when I didn't continue.
"There was supposed to be one final encounter. Four times our path was due to cross with his. When he had me at his mercy recently, that was the fourth time, but we're both still alive. Maybe Mr Tiny got it wrong. Maybe his prophecy doesn't hold true any longer."
Vancha mulled that one over. "Perhaps you have a point," he said uncertainly. "But as much as I despise Des Tiny, I have to admit he doesn't make many mistakes when it comes to prophecies - in fact none that I've heard of. He told youwe would have four chances to kill Leonard, aye?" I nodded. "Then maybe we both have to be there. Perhaps your solo encounter doesn't count."
"It would have counted if he'd killed me," I grunted.
"But he didn't," Vancha said. "Maybe he couldn't. Perhaps it simply wasn't his destiny."
"If you're right, that means we're going to run into him again," I said.
"Aye," Vancha said. "A fight to the death. Except if he wins, he won't kill both of us. Evanna said one of us would survive if we lost." Evanna was a witch, the daughter of Mr Tiny. I'd almost forgotten that part of the prophecy. If Steve won, he'd leave one of us alive, to witness the downfall of the clan.
There was a long, troubled silence as we thought about the prophecy and the dangers we faced. Vancha broke it by clapping loudly. "Enough of the doom and gloom! What about you two?" He nodded at Harkat and me. "How did your quest go? Do we know who Harkat used to be?"
"Yes," Harkat said. He glanced at Debbie and Alice. "I don't wish to be rude, but could you? leave us alone for a while?"
"Is thismen's talk?" Alice asked mockingly.
"No," Harkat chuckled. "It'sPrince's talk."
"We'll be upstairs," Debbie said. "Call us when you're ready."
Vancha stood and bowed as the ladies were leaving. When he sat again, his expression was curious. "Why the secrecy?" he asked.
"It's about who I was," Harkat said, "and where? we learnt the truth. We don't think we should discuss it? in front of anybody except a Prince."
"Intriguing," Vancha said, leaning forward eagerly.
We gave Vancha a quick rundown of our quest through the wastelands, the creatures we'd battled, meeting Evanna, the mad sailor - Spits Abrams - and the dragons. He said nothing, but listened enthralled. When we told him about pulling Kurda Smahlt out of the Lake of Souls, Vancha's jaw dropped.
"But it can't be!" he protested. "Harkat was alive before Kurda died."
"Mr Tiny can move through time," I said. "He created Harkat from Kurda's remains, then took him into the past, so that he could serve as my protector."
Vancha blinked slowly. Then his features clouded over with rage - and fear. "Damn that Desmond Tiny! I always knew he was powerful, but to be able to meddle with time itself? What manner of diabolical beast is he?"
It was a rhetorical question, so we didn't attempt to answer it. Instead we finished by telling him how Kurda had chosen to sacrifice himself - he and Harkat shared a soul, so only one of them could live at any given time - leaving us free to return to the present.
"Thepresent ?" Vancha snapped. "What do you mean?"
Harkat told him about our theory - that the wasteworld was the future. When he heard that, Vancha trembled as though a cold wind had sliced through him. "I never thought the War of the Scars could be that crucial," he said softly. "I knew our future was at stake, but I never dreamt we could drag humanity down with us." He shook his head and turned away, muttering, "I need to think about this."
Harkat and I said nothing while Vancha deliberated. Minutes passed. A quarter of an hour. Half an hour. Finally he heaved a large sigh and turned to face us. "These are grim tidings," he said. "But perhaps not as grim as they seem. From what you've told me, I believe that Tiny did take you into the future - but I also believe he wouldn't have done so without good reason. He might have been simply mocking you, but it might also have been a warning.
"That damned future must be what we face if we lose the War of the Scars. Steve Leonard is the sort who'd level the world and bring it to ruin. But if we win, we can prevent that. When Tiny came to Vampire Mountain, he told us there were two possible futures, didn't he? One where the vampaneze win the war, and one where the vampires win. I think Tiny gave you a glimpse of the former future to drive home the point that wehave to win this war. It's not just ourselves we're fighting for - it's the entire world. The wasteworld is one future - I'm sure the world where we've won is completely different."
"It makes sense," Harkat agreed. "If both futures currently exist? he might have been able to choose which? to take us to."
"Maybe," I sighed, unconvinced. I was thinking again about the vision I'd had shortly after we'd first met Evanna, when Harkat had been plagued by nightmares. Evanna helped me put a stop to them, by sending me into his dreams. In the dream, I'd faced a being of immense power - the Lord of the Shadows. Evanna told me this master of evil was part of the future, and the road there was paved with dead souls. She'd also told me that could be one of two people - Steve Leopard orme .
The uncertainties came rushing back. I was unable to share Vancha and Harkat's view that one future was bright and cheery where the other was dark and miserable. I felt we were heading for big-scale trouble, whichever way the War of the Scars swung. But I kept my opinions to myself - I didn't want to come across as a prophetof doom. "So!" Vancha laughed, startling me out of my dark thoughts. "We just have to make sure we kill Steve Leonard, aye?"
"Aye," I said, grinning sickly.
"What about me?" Harkat asked. "Does it alter your opinion of me? now that you know I was once a vampire traitor?"
"No," Vancha said. "I never liked you much anyway." He spat into his right palm, ran the spit through his hair, then winked to show he was joking. "Seriously, you were right not to broadcast the news. We'll keep it to ourselves. I always believed that although Kurda acted stupidly, he acted with the best interests of the clan at heart. But there are many who don't share that view. If they knew the truth about you, it might divide them. Internal argument is the last thing we need. That'd be playing straight into the hands of the vampaneze.
"As for who Harkat is now?" Vancha studied the Little Person. "I know you and trust you. I believe you've learnt from Kurda's faults. You won't betray us again, will you, Harkat?"
"No," Harkat said softly. "But I'm still in favour of a treaty? between the two clans. If I can help bring that about through peaceful? means, by talking, I will. This War of the Scars is destroying? both families of the night, and it threatens to destroy? even more."
"But you recognize the need to fight?" Vancha said sharply.
"I recognize the need to kill Steve? Leonard," Harkat said. "After that, I'll push for peace? if I can. But openly - no plotting or intrigue? this time."
Vancha considered that in silence, then shrugged. "So be it. I've nothing personal against the vampaneze. If we kill Leonard and they agree to a truce, I'm all for it. Now," he continued, scratching his chin, "where do you think Leonard's holed up?"
"Probably somewhere deep underground," I said.
"You think he's preparing a grand-scale trap, like before?" Vancha asked.
"No," Harkat said. "Vampaneze have been active here. That's why Debbie and Alice came. But if there were dozens of them, like? the last time, the death count would be higher. I don't think Steve has as many? vampaneze with him as when we faced him? in the Cavern of Retribution."
"I hope you're right," Vancha said. He glanced at me sideways. "How did my brother look?" Vancha and Gannen Harst were estranged brothers.
"Tired," I said. "Strained. Unhappy."
"Not hard to imagine why," Vancha grunted. "I'll never understand why Gannen and the others follow a maniac like Leonard. The vampaneze were content the way they were. They didn't seek to crush the vampires or provoke a war. It makes no sense for them to flock to that demon and pledge themselves to him."
"It's part of Mr Tiny's prophecy," Harkat said. "As Kurda, I spent much time with? the vampaneze, researching their ways. You know about their Coffin of Fire. When a person lies within, it fills? with flames. All normal people die in it. Only the Lord of the Vampaneze? can survive. Mr Tiny told the vampaneze that if they didn't? obey that person and do all that he commanded, they'd? be wiped from the face of the earth. Most of the vampaneze fight to preserve themselves? not to destroy the vampires."
Vancha nodded slowly. "Then they're motivated by fear for their lives, not hatred of us. I understand now. . After all, isn't that why we're fighting too - to save ourselves?"
"Both fighting for the same reason," Harkat chuckled humourlessly. "Both terrified of the? same thing. Of course, if neither side fought? both would be safe. Mr Tiny is playing the creatures of the night? for fools, and we're helping him."
"Aye," Vancha grunted disgustedly. "But there's no use moaning about how we got ourselves into this sorry state. The fact is, we fight because we must."
Vancha stood and stretched. There were dark rims around his eyes. He looked like a man who hadn't slept properly for a very long time. The last two years must have been tough for him. Although he hadn't mentioned Mr Crepsley, I was sure the dead vampire was never far from his thoughts. Vancha, like I, probably felt a certain amount of guilt - the two of us had given Mr Crepsley the go-ahead to face the Vampaneze Lord. If either of us had taken his place, he'd be alive now. It looked to me like Vancha had been pushing himself to his limits in his hunt to find the Lord of the Vampaneze - and was rapidly nearing them.
"You should rest, Sire," I said. "If you flitted all the way here, you must be exhausted."
"I'll rest when Leonard is dead," Vancha grunted. "Or myself," he added softly, under his breath. I don't think he realized he'd spoken aloud. "Now!" Vancha said, raising his voice. "Enough self-pity and misery. We're here and Leonard's here - it doesn't take a genius to see that an old-fashioned scrap to the death's on the agenda. The question is, do we wait for him to come to us, or do we seize the initiative and go looking for him?"
"We wouldn't know where? to look," Harkat said. "He could be anywhere."
"So we look everywhere," Vancha grinned. "But where do we start? Darren?"
"His son," I said immediately. "Darius is an unusual name. There can't be too many of them. We ask around, find out where he lives, track Steve through him."
"Use the son to get to the father," Vancha hummed. "Ignoble, but probably the best way." He paused. "The boy worries me. Leonard's a nasty piece of work, a formidable foe. But if his son has the same evil blood, and has been trained in Leonard's wicked ways since birth, he could be even worse!"
"I agree," I said quietly.
"Can you kill a child, Darren?" Vancha asked.
"I don't know," I said, unable to meet his eyes. "I don't think so. Hopefully it won't come to that."
"It's no good hoping," Harkat objected. "Going after the boy is wrong. Just because Steve has no morals doesn't? mean we should act like savages too. Children should be kept out? of this."
"So what's your suggestion?" Vancha asked.
"We should return to the? Cirque Du Freak," Harkat said. "Hibernius might be able to tell us more? about what we should do. Even if he's unable to help, Steve knows? where the Cirque is camped. He'll find us there. We can wait for him."
"I don't like the idea of being a sitting target," Vancha growled.
"You'd rather chase children?" Harkat countered.
Vancha stiffened, then relaxed. "Perhaps no-ears has a point," he said. "It can certainly do no harm to ask Hibernius for his opinion."
"OK," I said. "But we'll wait for night - my eyes can't take the sun."
"So that's why your ears and nose are stuffed!" Vancha laughed. "The purge?"
"Yes. It struck a couple of days ago."
"Will you be able to pull your weight," Vancha asked directly, "or should we wait for it to pass?"
"I'll do my best," I said. "I can't make any guarantees, but I think I'll be OK."
"Very well." Vancha nodded at the ceiling. "What about the ladies? Do we tell them what we're up to?"
"Not all of it," I said. "We'll take them to the Cirque Du Freak and tell them we're hunting Steve. But let's not mention Darius - Debbie wouldn't think much of our plan to use a child."
Harkat snorted but said nothing. After that we called Debbie and Alice down and spent a peaceful afternoon eating, drinking and talking, swapping tales, laughing, relaxing. I noticed Vancha glancing around during quiet moments, as though looking for somebody. I dismissed it at the time, but I now know who he was looking for ?death. Of us all, only Vancha sensed death in the room that day, its eternal gaze passing from one of us to the other, watching? waiting? choosing.