Debbie stopped me. "No!" she screamed, racing up behind me. There was such terror in her voice, that even in the midst of my bloodlust, I paused. She pulled up beside me, panting hard, eyes wide with horror. "No!" she wheezed, shaking her head desperately.

"Why not?" I snarled.

"He's a child!" she cried.

Advertisement

"No - he's Steve Leopard's son," I contradicted her. "A killer, like his father."

"He hasn't killed anyone," Debbie objected. "Morgan James killed Mr Tall. Now he's dead, you're even. You don't have to kill the boy too."

"I'll kill them all!" I screamed madly. It was like I'd become a different person, a bloodthirsty reaper. "Every vampaneze must die! Every vampet! Everyone who aids them!"

"Even the children?" Debbie asked sickly.

"Yes!" I roared. My headache was the worst it had ever been. It was like red-hot pins were being pushed through my skull from the inside out. Part of me knew this was wrong, but a larger part had seized on the hatred and urge to kill. That merciless part was screaming for revenge.

"Harkat," Debbie appealed to the Little Person. "Make him see sense!"

-- Advertisement --

Harkat shook his neckless head. "I don't think I can stop him," he said, staring at me as if he didn't know me.

"You have to try!" Debbie shrieked.

"I don't know if I? have the right," Harkat muttered.

Debbie turned to me again. She was crying. "You mustn't do this," she wept.

"It's my duty," I said stiffly.

She spat at my feet. "That's what I think of yourduty ! You'll become a monster if you kill that boy. You'll be no better than Steve."

I stopped. Her words had sparked a memory deep within me. I found myself thinking about Mr Crepsley and his last words to me before he died. He warned me not to devote my life to hatred. Kill Steve Leopard if the chance presented itself - but don't give myself over to some insane revenge quest.

What would he have done in my place? Kill the boy? Yes, if necessary. Butwas it? Did I want to kill Darius because I feared him and felt he had to be eliminated for the good of us all - or because I wanted to hurt Steve?

I gazed into the boy's eyes. They were fearful, but behind the fear there was? sorrow. In Steve's eyes, evil lurked deep down. Not in Darius. He was more human than his father.

My knife was still pressed to his throat. It had sliced thinly into his flesh. Little rivulets of blood trickled down his neck.

"You'll destroy yourself," Debbie whispered hoarsely. "You'll be worse than Steve.He can't tell the difference between right and wrong.You can. He can live with his wickedness because he doesn't know any better, but it will eat you away. Don't do it, Darren. We don't wage war on children."

I stared at her, tears in my eyes. I knew she was right. I wanted to take the knife away. I couldn't believe I'd even tried to kill the boy. But still there was part of me that wanted to take his life. Something had awoken within me, a Darren Shan I'd never known existed, and he wasn't going to lie down without a fight. My fingers shook as they held the knife, but the furious angel of revenge inside me wouldn't let me lower them.

"Go ahead and kill me," Darius snarled suddenly. "It's what your kind does. You're murderers. I know all about you, so stop pretending you give a damn."

"What are you talking about?" I said. He only smiled sickly in reply.

"He's Steve's son," Debbie said softly. "He's been raised on lies. That's not his fault."

"My father doesn't lie!" Darius shouted.

Debbie moved around behind Darius so she could look me straight in the eye. "He doesn't know the truth. He's innocent, in spite of anything he's been tricked into doing. Don't kill an innocent, Darren. Don't become that which you despise."

I groaned deeply. More than ever I wanted to take the knife away, but still I wavered, fighting an inner battle which I didn't completely understand. "I don't know what to do!" I moaned.

"Then think of this," Harkat said. "We might need the boy to swap? for Shancus. It makes sense not to kill him."

The fire within me died away. I lowered the knife, feeling a great weight lift from my heart. I smiled crookedly. "Thanks, Harkat."

"You shouldn't have needed that," Debbie said as I spun Darius around and tied his hands behind him with a strip of cloth which Harkat had ripped from his robes. "You should have spared him because it was the right thing to do - not because you might need him."

"Maybe," I agreed, ashamed of my reaction but not wanting to admit it. "But it doesn't matter. We can debate it later. First, let's find out what's happening with Shancus. Where's your phone?"

A minute later she was deep in conversation with Alice Burgess. They were still in pursuit of R.V. and Shancus. Vancha asked to speak to me. "We've a choice to make," he said. "I have R.V. in my sights. I can cut him down with a shuriken and rescue Shancus."

"Then why don't you?" I frowned.

"I think he's leading us to Steve Leonard," Vancha said.

I groaned softly and gripped the phone tightly. "What does Evra say?" I asked.

"This is our call, not his," Vancha responded with a whisper. "He's thinking only of his son. We have other concerns to consider."

"I'm not prepared to sacrifice Shancus to get to Steve," I said.

"I am," Vancha said quietly. "But I doubt it will come to that. I think we can retrieve the boyand get a shot at Leonard. But it's a risk. If you want me to play it safe and kill R.V. now, I will. But I believe we should chance it, let him lead us to Leonard, and take it from there."

"You're the senior Prince," I said. "You decide."

"No," Vancha retorted. "We're equals. Shancus means more to you than he does to me. I'll follow your lead in this one."

"Thanks," I said bitterly.

"Sorry," Vancha said, and even over the phone I could tell his regret was genuine. "I'd take responsibility if I could, but on this occasion I can't. Do I kill R.V. or follow?"

My eyes flicked to Darius. If I'd killed him, I'd have told Vancha to bring R.V. down and save Shancus - otherwise Steve would surely slaughter the snake-boy in revenge. But if I turned up with Darius captive, Steve would have to trade. Once we had Shancus back, we'd be free to pursue Steve later.

"OK," I said. "Let him run. Tell me where you are and we'll catch up."

A few minutes later we were on the move again, cutting across town, Debbie on the phone to Alice, taking directions. I could feel her eyes burning into my back - she didn't approve of the risk we were taking - but I didn't look around. As I ran, I kept reminding myself, "I'm a Prince. I have a duty to my people. The Lord of the Vampaneze takes priority over all." But it was a slim comfort, and I knew my sense of guilt and shame would be overwhelming if the gamble backfired.

-- Advertisement --