Mr Tall's midriff erupted in a fountain of dark red blood and white chips of bone. For a moment he stood, gripping R.V.'s hooks, as though nothing had happened. Then he collapsed, blood pumping out of the hole, his stomach torn to shreds.

R.V. and Darius stared numbly at Mr Tall as he fell. Then Morgan James screamed at them to run. In a ragged unit they fled, R.V. clutching Shancus, James firing wildly at us over his shoulder.

Advertisement

Nobody followed. Our eyes were all on Mr Tall. He was blinking rapidly, hands exploring the hole in his middle, lips torn back over his small black teeth. I don't think anybody knew how old Mr Tall was, or where he'd come from. But he was older than any vampire, a being of immense magic and power. It was mind-boggling to think that he could have been brought low in so simple and violent a manner.

Debbie snapped to her senses first and rushed towards Mr Tall, dropping her pistol, meaning to go to his aid. The rest of us took a step after her?

?and stopped instantly when somebody spoke from the shadows of a nearby van. "Your concern is commendable, but utterly worthless. Keep back, please."

A small man waddled forward, smiling glibly. He was dressed in a sharp yellow suit and green Wellington boots. He had white hair, thick glasses, and a heart-shaped watch which he was twirling in his left hand.Desmond Tiny ! Behind him came his daughter, the witch, Evanna - short, muscular, hairy, clad in ropes instead of clothes. She had a small nose, pointed ears, a thin beard, and mismatched eyes, one brown, one green.

-- Advertisement --

We gawped at the strange pair as they stopped beside the gasping Mr Tall and gazed down at him. Evanna's face was strained. Mr Tiny looked only curious. With his right foot, he nudged Mr Tall where he'd been shot. Mr Tall hissed with pain.

"Leave him alone!" Debbie shouted.

"Shut up, please, or I'll kill you," Mr Tiny replied. Though he said it sweetly, I've no doubt he would have struck Debbie down dead if she'd said another word. Fortunately, she realized that too, and she held her tongue, trembling.

"So, Hibernius," Mr Tiny said. "Your time here comes to an end."

"You knew it would," Mr Tall replied, and his voice was remarkably firm.

"Yes," Mr Tiny nodded. "But didyou know?"

"I guessed."

"You could have turned aside from it. Your fate was never directly linked to these mortals."

"For me, it was," Mr Tall said. He was shivering badly, a dark pool of blood spreading out around him. Evanna took a step aside to avoid the blood, but Mr Tiny let it flow around his boots, staining the soles.

"Tiny!" Vancha snapped. "Can you save him?"

"No," Mr Tiny replied simply. Then he bent over Mr Tall and spread the fingers of his right hand. He placed his middle finger in the centre of Mr Tall's forehead, the adjoining fingers over his eyes, and held the thumb and little finger out at the sides. "Even in death, may you be triumphant," he said with surprising softness then removed his fingers.

"Thank you, Father," Mr Tall said. He glanced up at Evanna. "Goodbye, Sister."

"I will remember you," the witch answered as the rest of us looked on, stunned by the revelation. I'd known about Evanna's twin brother, born, as she was, of a union between Mr Tiny and a wolf. I'd just never guessed it was Mr Tall. Evanna bent and kissed her brother's forehead. Mr Tall smiled, then his body shook, his eyes went wide, his neck stiffened - and he died.

Mr Tiny stood and turned. There was one round tear of blood in the corner of each eye. "My son is dead," he said, in the same tone he'd have used to comment on the weather.

"We didn't know!" Vancha gasped.

"He never cared to speak of his parentage." Mr Tiny chuckled and kicked the dead Mr Tall's head aside with the heel of his left foot. "I don't know why."

I growled when he kicked Mr Tall, and started towards him angrily. Harkat and Vancha did the same.

"Gentlemen," Evanna said quietly. "If you waste time picking a fight with my father, the killers will escape with the young Von boy."

We stopped short. I'd momentarily forgotten about Shancus and the danger he was in. The others had too. Now that we'd been reminded, we shook our heads and snapped out of our daze.

"We have to chase them," Vancha said.

"But what about Mr Tall?" Debbie cried.

"He's dead," Vancha sniffed. "Let hisfamily care for him."

Mr Tiny laughed at that, but we couldn't afford to pay him any further heed. Grouping together without discussing it, the five of us set off. "Wait!" Evra shouted. I looked back and saw him exchange a wordless look with Merla. She half-nodded and he ran after us. "I'm coming too," he said.

Nobody argued. Accepting Evra into our ranks, we raced away from Merla, Urcha, Mr Tiny, Evanna and the dead Mr Tall, and hurried through the campsite in pursuit of Shancus and his kidnappers.

As soon as we cleared the tunnel leading out of the stadium, we saw that our quarry had split. To our right,

R.V. was running away with Shancus, headed into the heart of town. To our left, Morgan James and Darius fled down the hill towards a river which flowed close by the stadium.

Vancha took charge and made a swift decision. "Alice and Evra - with me. We'll go after R.V. and Shancus. Darren, Harkat and Debbie - take Morgan James and the boy."

I'd rather have gone to Shancus's rescue, but Vancha was more experienced than me. Nodding obediently, I swung left with Harkat and Debbie and we set off after the killer and his apprentice. My headache had flared up savagely and I was half-blind as I flailed down the hill. Also, the sounds of my feet on the pavement as I ran were torture on my ears. Still, as a half-vampire I could run faster than Harkat or Debbie, and I'd soon pulled ahead and was rapidly closing the gap on Morgan James and Darius.

James and Darius stopped when they heard me coming and spun to face my charge. I should have waited for Harkat and Debbie, rather than face them on my own, armed only with a knife. But rage had taken hold of me. I forged on heedlessly as they fired, James with his rifle, Darius with his arrow-gun. By the luck of the vampires, their bullets and arrows missed, and seconds later I was upon them, wild with fury, intent on revenge.

James swung at me with the butt of his rifle. It struck my right shoulder, where I'd been shot by Darius. I roared with pain but didn't falter. I stabbed at James with my knife, aiming for his half-mangled face. He ducked, and Darius punched me in the ribs as I slid past. I swatted the boy aside and stabbed at James again. He laughed and grabbed me tight, wrestling me to the ground.

My face was pressed up close to the left side of Morgan James's head. The skin was wrinkled and red, his teeth exposed behind the thin flesh of his lips, his eye a horrible glob in the middle of a ruined, scarred mess.

"Lyhk iht?" James gurgled.

"Lovely!" I sneered, rolling on top of him, poking for his eyes with my thumbs.

"Uh'm gonna duh the shahm tuh yuh!" James vowed, breaking my grip and driving his knee up into my stomach.

"We'll see!" I grunted, falling away slightly, then coming back at him. I managed to stick my knife in, but only into his arm. I was aware of the boy battering me with his arrow-gun, trying to beat me off. I ignored him and focused on Morgan James. I was stronger than the vampet, but he was larger and a seasoned fighter. He wriggled beneath me, digging his knees and elbows into the flesh of my stomach and groin, spitting into my eyes. There was a painful white light building inside my head. I felt like screaming and clapping my hands over my ears. But instead I bit into the flesh of James's upper left arm and ripped a chunk away.

James screeched like a cat and shoved me off, lent strength by his pain. As I fell aside, Darius kicked me hard in the head and I lost my bearings for a second or two. When I recovered, James was on top of me. He pushed my head back with his left hand and brought up my own knife - which I'd dropped in the fight - with his right, meaning to slitmy throat.

I grabbed for the knife. Missed. Grabbed again. Knocked it aside. Grabbed a third time - then stopped, tensed my muscles and shut my eyes. James gave a little shiver of delight. He thought I'd given up. What he didn't realize was that I'd caught sight of Harkat behind him, swinging his axe.

There was a whishing sound - Darius started to shout a warning - then a heavy thud. My eyes opened. I caught a glimpse of Morgan James's head rolling away into darkness, severed from its body by one powerful blow of Harkat's axe. Then blood gushed from the stump of James's neck. I shut my eyes again as I was drenched in a burst of hot red liquid. James fell over lifelessly. I pushed myself up, opened my eyes, wiped blood from my face, and slid out from beneath the beheaded body of Morgan James.

Darius was standing next to me, staring numbly at his felled companion. Blood had hit the boy also, drenching his trousers. I stood. My legs were trembling. My head was filled with white noise. Blood congealed in my hair and dripped from my face. I wanted to be sick. But I knew what I must do. Hatred motivated me.

Snatching my knife back from Morgan James's lifeless hand, I pressed the blade to the flesh of Darius's throat and grabbed his hair with my free hand. I was snarling as I pressed down hard on the knife, neither human nor vampire. I'd become a savage animal set on taking a young boy's life.

-- Advertisement --