We were hurrying through the streets with Darius, taking back alleys to avoid the police patrols, when Harkat slowed, came to a stop and turned. He cocked his head sideways, raising one of the ears stitched beneath his grey skin.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Footsteps? behind us. Can't you hear?"
"My ears are plugged up," I reminded him. "Are you certain?"
"Yes. I think it's just one person, but I? could be wrong."
"We can't fight and hold on to Darius at the same time," Debbie said. "If we're to make a stand, we should either tie him up or let him go."
"I'm not letting him go anywhere," I muttered. "You two proceed. If R.V. leads the others to Steve, you need to be there with Darius, to trade for Shancus. I'll stay and deal with this. If I can, I'll catch you up."
"Don't be stupid," Debbie hissed. "We've got to stick together."
"Do what I say!" I snapped, harsher than necessary. I was very confused - hatred for Steve, fear that I might become the monstrous Lord of the Shadows, the pain of the purge - and in no mood to argue.
"Come on," Harkat said to Debbie. "We can't talk to him when he's? like this. Besides, he's right. It makes more sense this way."
"But the danger?" Debbie began.
"He's a Vampire Prince," Harkat said. "He knows all about danger."
Harkat jerked Darius ahead, limping forward as quickly as he could. Debbie had no choice but to follow, though she looked back imploringly at me before turning a corner out of sight. I felt sorry for the way I'd snapped at her, and hoped I'd have a chance to apologize later.
I removed the cotton buds from my ears and nose and took a firm grip on my knife. By concentrating hard, I could dim the noise within my head and focus on the street sounds and scents. I heard footsteps approaching, soft, steady, coming straight towards me. I crouched low and readied myself for battle. Then a figure came into sight and I relaxed, stood and lowered my knife arm.
"Evanna," I greeted the witch.
"Darren," she replied calmly, stopping close by, studying me with an unreadable expression.
"Why aren't you with your father?" I asked.
"I will join him again presently," she said. "My place is here now, with you and your allies. Let us hurry after them, for fear we miss the confrontation."
"I'm going nowhere," I said, standing my ground. "Not until you give with some answers."
"Indeed?" Evanna purred archly. "I will need to hear some questions first."
"It's about the Lord of the Shadows."
"I don't think this is the time?"
"I don't care what you think!" I interrupted. "You told me years ago that would be either the Vampaneze Lord - Steve - orme . Mr Tall, before he died, said that would rise no matter who won the War of the Scars."
"Did he?" Evanna sounded surprised. "It was not like Hibernius to be so revealing. He was always the more secretive one."
"I want to know what it means," I pressed on, before she got sidetracked talking about her dead brother. "According to Mr Tall, will be a monster, and he'll kill Vancha."
"He told you that too?" Evanna was angry now. "He went too far. He should not have?"
"But he did," I stopped her, then took a step nearer. "He was wrong. He must have been. You too. I'm no monster. I would never harm Vancha, or any vampire."
"Don't be too sure of that," she said softly, then hesitated, choosing her next words carefully. "Usually, there are many paths between the present and future, dozens of options and outcomes. But sometimes there are only afew , or even just two. That is the case here, A Lord of the Shadows will come - this is definite. But he can be one of two people, you or Steve Leonard."
"But?" I began.
"Silence," she said commandingly. "Since we are so close to the time of choosing, I can reveal certain facts which before I could not. I wouldn't have spoken of this, but it seems my brother wished to inform you of your fate, perhaps to give you time to prepare for it. It is only right that I honour his final wishes.
"If you kill Steve Leonard, youwill become a monster, the most despised and twisted the world has ever seen." My eyes bulged and I opened my mouth to protest, but she continued before I uttered a syllable. "Monsters are not born fully developed. They grow, they mature, theybecome .
"You are filling with hatred, Darren, hatred which will consume you. If you kill Steve, it will not be enough. You'll push on, driven by rages you cannot control. Because destiny has marked you out as a bearer of great power, you will create great havoc. You will destroy the vampaneze but that won't be enough. There will always be a new enemy to fight. During your quest, certain vampires will try to stop you. They too will die at your hands. Vancha will be one of them."
"No," I moaned. "I would never?"
"Not only vampires will obstruct you," Evanna went on, ignoring my protests. "Humans will interfere, leading you to turn against them. And, as the vampaneze and vampires fall at your hands, so will humanity. You will reduce this world to rubble and ash. And over the remains you will rule, all-powerful, all-controlling, all-hating, for the rest of your unnaturally long and evil life."
She stopped and smiled at me witheringly. "That is your future, where you taste success. In the other, you die at the hands of the alternate Lord of the Shadows, if not during the hunt for him, then later, when the rest of the clan has fallen. In many ways, that might be for the best. Now, have you any more questions?"
"I couldn't," I said numbly. "I wouldn't. There must be some way to avoid it."
"There is," Evanna said. She turned and pointed back the way she'd come. "Go. Walk away. Leave your friends. Hide. If you go now, you'll break the terms of your destiny. Steve will lead the vampaneze to victory over the vampires and become the Lord of the Shadows. You can lead a normal, peaceful life - until he brings the world crashing down around you, of course."
"But? I can't do that," I said. "I can't turn my back on those who've put their trust in me. What about Vancha, Debbie, Shancus? I have to help them."
"Yes," Evanna said sadly. "I know. That is why you cannot escape. You have the power to run from your destiny, but your feelings for your friends won't allow you. You'll never retreat from a challenge. You can't. And so, even though you have the best will in the world, you'll see your destiny through to its bitter end - either death by Steve's hand, or a rise to infamy as the Lord of the Shadows."
"You're wrong," I said shakily. "I won't do that. I'm not evil. Now that I know, I won't let myself go down that road. If I kill Steve? if we win? I'll turn my back on my destiny then. I'll save the clan if I can, then slip away. I'll go where I can't do any harm."
"No," Evanna said simply. "You won't. Now," shewent on before I could argue my case again, "let us hurry after your friends - this night is central to the future, and it would not do to miss a moment more of it." With that, she slid ahead of me and followed after the others, tracking them by means of her own, leaving me to trail behind, silent, dejected, bewildered - and terrified.
We caught up with Debbie, Harkat and Darius after several minutes. They were surprised to see Evanna, but she said nothing to them, just hung back and observed us silently. As we progressed, Debbie asked me if I'd been talking with Evanna. I shook my head, unwilling to repeat what I'd been told, still trying to make sense of it and convince myself that Evanna was wrong.
We regrouped with Vancha and Evra a quarter of an hour later. They'd tracked R.V. to a building and were waiting outside for us. "He went in a few minutes ago," Vancha said. "Alice has gone around the back, in case he tries to escape that way." He glanced at Evanna suspiciously. "Are you here to help or hinder, my Lady?"
"Neither, my Prince," she smiled. "I serve merely as a witness."
"Hurm!" he grunted.
I stared up at the building. It was tall and dark, with jagged grey stones and broken windows. There were nine steps leading up to the oversized front door. The steps were cracked and covered with moss. Apart from some more moss and broken windows, it hadn't changed much since my last visit.
"I know this place," I told Vancha, trying to forget about my conversation with Evanna and focus on the business at hand. "It's an old cinema theatre. This is where the Cirque Du Freak performed when Steve and I were kids. I should have guessed this was where he'd come. It brings everything full circle. Stuff like that is important to a maniac like Steve."
"You shut up about my dad!" Darius growled.
"You think Leonard's inside?" Vancha asked, cuffing Darius around the ear.
"I'm sure of it," I said, wiping streaks of Morgan James's blood from my forehead - there'd been no time to mop myself clean.
"What about Shancus?" Evra hissed. He was trembling with anxiety. "Will he harm my son?"
"Not as long as we holdhis son captive," I said.
Evra stared at Darius, confused - he knew nothing about the boy - but my old friend trusted me, so he accepted my guarantee.
"How should we play this?" Debbie asked.
"Just march straight in," I said.
"Is that wise?" Vancha asked. "Perhaps we should try to sneak up on them from the back, or via the roof."
"Steve's prepared this for us," I said. "Anything we can think of, you can bet he's already considered. We can't outguess him. We'd be fools to try. I say we go in, face him directly, and pray that the luck of the vampires is with us."
"The luck of the damned," Darius sneered. "You won't beat my father or any vampaneze. We're more than a match for the likes of you."
Vancha studied Darius curiously. He leant up close, sniffing like a dog. Then he made a small cut on the boy's right arm - Darius didn't even wince - dabbed a finger in the blood that oozed out, and tasted it. He pulled a face. "He's been blooded."
"By my father," Darius said proudly.
"He's a half-vampaneze?" I frowned, glancing at his fingertips - they were unmarked.
"The blood's weak within him," Vancha said. "But he's one of them. There's just enough blood in his system to ensure he can never regain his humanity."
"Did you volunteer for this, or did Steve force you?" I asked Darius.
"My father wouldn't force me to do anything!" Darius snorted. "Like every vampaneze, he believes in free choice - not like you lot."
Vancha looked at me questioningly. "Steve's fed him a load of rubbish about us," I explained. "He thinks we're evil, and his father's a noble crusader."
"He is!" Darius shouted. "He'll stop you from taking over the world! He won't let you kill freely! He'll keep the night safe from you vampire scum!"
Vancha cocked an amused eyebrow at me. "If we had time, I'd take great delight in setting this boy straight. But we haven't. Debbie - phone Alice and tell her to come here. We'll go in together - all for one and all that guff."
While Debbie was on the phone, Vancha pulled me aside and nodded at Evra, who was standing a few metres ahead of us, gazing at the entrance to the cinema, fingers twisted into desperate fists. "He's in a bad way," Vancha said.
"Of course," I muttered. "How would you expect him to react?"
"Are you clear on what we must do?" Vancha responded. I stared at him coldly. He grabbed my arms and squeezed tight. "Leonardmust be killed. You and I are expendable. So are Debbie, Alice, Harkat, Evra - and Shancus."
"I want to save him," I said miserably.
"So do I," Vancha sighed. "And we will, if we can. But the Lord of the Vampaneze comes first. Remember what happens if we fail - the vampires will be destroyed. Would you trade the snake-boy's life for all those of our clan?"
"Of course not," I said, shaking myself free. "But I won't abandon him cheaply. If Steve's prepared to deal, I'll deal. We can fight him some other night."
"And if he won't deal?" Vancha pressed. "If he forces a showdown?"
"Then we'll fight, and we'll kill or we'll die - whatever the cost." I locked gazes with him so he could see I was telling the truth.
Vancha checked his shurikens and drew a few. Then we turned, gathered our allies around us - Debbie dragged Darius along - and advanced up the steps and into the old abandoned cinema theatre where, for me, all those years ago, the nightmares had begun.