It was like stepping back into the past. The building was cooler and damper than before, and fresh graffiti had been scrawled across the walls, but otherwise it was no different. I led the way down the long corridor where Mr Tall had sneaked up on Steve and me, appearing out of the darkness with that incredible speed and silence which had been his trademark. A left turn at the end. I noted the spot where Mr Tall had taken and eaten our tickets. Back then, blue curtains had been draped across the entrance to the auditorium. There were no curtains tonight - the only change.
We entered the auditorium, two abreast, Vancha and Alice in front, Debbie and Evra next (Debbie pushing Darius in front of her), then Harkat and I. Evanna drifted along further back, detached from us by distance and attitude.
It was completely black inside the auditorium. I couldn't see anything. But I could hear deep, muffled breathing, coming from somewhere far ahead of us. "Vancha," I whispered.
"I know," he whispered back.
"Should we move towards it?" I asked.
"No," he replied. "It's too dark. Wait."
A minute passed. Two. Three. I could feel the tension rising, both in myself and those around me. But nobody broke rank or spoke. We stood in the darkness, waiting, leaving the first move to our foes.
Several minutes later, without warning, spotlights were switched on overhead. Everyone gasped and I cried out loud, hunching over, covering my extra-sensitive eyes with my hands. We were defenceless for a few vital seconds. That would have been the ideal time for an attack. I expected vampaneze and vampets to fall upon us, weapons flashing - but nothing happened.
"Are your eyes OK?" Debbie asked, crouching beside me.
"Not really," I groaned, slowly raising my eyelids a fraction, just enough to see out of. Even that was agony.
Holding a hand over my eyes, I squinted ahead and caught my breath. It was a good job we hadn't advanced. The entire floor of the auditorium had been torn out. In its place, spreading from one wall to the other, running from a few metres ahead of us all the way to the foot of the stage, was a giant pit, filled with sharpened stakes.
"Impressive, isn't it?" someone called from the stage. My eyes lifted. It was hard to see, because the lights were being trained on us from above the stage, but I gradually brought the scene into focus. Dozens of tall, thick logs clotted the stage, placed vertically, ideal cover. Sticking out from behind one log near the front was the grinning face of Steve Leopard.
When Vancha saw Steve, he drew a shuriken and threw it at him. But Steve had picked his spot carefully and the throwing star ended up buried in the wood of the log behind which he was standing.
"Bad luck, Sire," Steve laughed. "Care to make it the best throw out of three?"
"Maybe I can get him," Alice muttered, stepping up past Vancha. She raised her pistol and fired, but the bullet penetrated no deeper than the shuriken.
"Is that the preliminaries out of the way, or do you want to take a few more pot shots?" Steve called.
"I could possibly leap the pit," Vancha said dubiously, studying the rows of stakes between him and the stage.
"Don't be ridiculous," I grunted. Even vampires had their limits.
"I don't see anybody else," Debbie whispered, casting her eyes around the auditorium. The balcony above us - from where I'd spied on Steve and Mr Crepsley - could have been swarming with vampaneze and vampets, but I didn't think so - I could hear nothing overhead, not even a single heartbeat.
"Where's your army?" Vancha shouted at Steve.
"Around and about," Steve replied sweetly.
"Didn't you bring them with you?" Vancha challenged him.
"Not tonight," Steve said. "I don't need them. The only people sharing the stage with me are my fairy godfather - a.k.a. Gannen Harst - a certain Righteous Vampaneze, and a very scared young snake-boy. What's his name again, R.V.?"
"Shancus," came the reply from behind a log to Steve's left.
"Shancus!" Evra roared. "Are you all right?"
There was no reply. My heart sank. Then R.V. pushed Shancus out from behind the log, and we saw that although his hands were tied behind his back, and he was gagged, he was still very much alive, and he looked unharmed.
"He's a spirited lad," Steve laughed. "A bit loud though, hence the gag. Some of the language he uses? Shocking! I don't know where kids today pick up such filthy words." Steve paused. "By the way, how's my own beloved flesh and blood doing? I can't see too well from here."
"I'm fine, Dad!" Darius shouted. "But they killed Morgan! The grey one cut off his head with an axe!"
"How grisly." Steve didn't sound the least bit upset. "I told you they were savages, son. No respect for life."
"It was revenge!" Harkat yelled. "He killed Mr Tall."
There was silence on the stage. Steve seemed lost for words. Then, from a log close by Steve, I heard Gannen Harst call out to R.V., "Is this true?"
"Yes," R.V. mumbled. "He shot him."
"How do you know he killed him?" Steve asked. "Tall might have simply been wounded."
"No," Evanna answered, her first word of the encounter. "He is dead. Morgan James murdered him."
"Is that you, Lady Evanna?" Steve asked uncertainly.
"Yes," she said.
"Not up to any mischief, I hope, like siding with the vampires?" He said it flippantly, but his anxiety was evident - he didn't fancy a clash with the Lady of the Wilds.
"I have never taken sides between the vampires and vampaneze, and have no intention of starting now," Evanna said coolly.
"That's OK then," Steve chuckled, confidence returning. "Interesting about Mr Tall. I always thought he couldn't be killed by ordinary weapons. I'd have gone after him a long time ago if I'd known he could be so easily bumped off."
"Gone after him for what?" I shouted.
"Harbouring criminals," Steve giggled.
"You're the only criminal here," I retorted.
Steve sighed theatrically. "See how they slander me, son? They soil this world with their murderous presence, then point the finger of blame elsewhere. That's always been the vampire way."
I started to respond, then decided I'd be wasting my time. "Let's cut the crap," I called instead. "You didn't lead us here for a war of words. Are you coming out from behind that log or not?"
"Not!" Steve cackled. "Do you think I'm insane? You'd cut me down dead!"
"Then why did you bring us here?" I looked around again, nervous. I couldn't believe he hadn't laid a trap, that there weren't dozens of vampaneze or vampets slithering up on us as we talked. Yet I didn't sense a threat. I could see Vancha was confused too.
"I want to chat, Darren," Steve said. "I'd like to discuss a peace treaty."
I had to laugh at that - it was such a ludicrous notion. "Maybe you want to become my blood-brother," I jeered.
"In a way, I already am," Steve said cryptically. Then his eyes narrowed slyly. "You missed Tommy's funeral while you were recovering."
I cursed fiercely but quietly. "Why kill Tommy?" I snarled. "Why drag him into your warped web of revenge? Didhe 'betray' you too?"
"No," Steve said. "Tommy was my friend. Even while others were bad-mouthing me, he stuck by me. I had nothing against him. A great goalkeeper too."
"Then why have him killed?" I screamed.
"What are you talking about?" Darius cut in. "You killed Tom Jones. Morgan and R.V. tried to stop you, but? That's right, isn't it, Dad?" he asked, and I saw the first flickers of doubt stir in the boy's eyes.
"I told you, son," Steve replied, "you can't believe anything a vampire says. Pay no attention to him." Then, to me, he said, "Didn't you wonder how Tommy got his ticket to the Cirque Du Freak?"
"I just assumed?" I stopped. "You set him up!"
"Of course," Steve chuckled. "Withyour help. Remember the ticket you gave to Darius? He passed it on. Tommy was opening a sports store, signing autographs. Darius went along and 'swapped' his ticket for a signed football. We still have it lying around somewhere. Could be a collector's item soon."
"You're sick," I snarled. "Using a child to do your dirty work - disgusting."
"Not really," Steve disagreed. "It just shows how highly I value the young."
Now that I knew Steve had given Tommy the ticket, my mind raced ahead, putting the pieces of his plan together. "You couldn't have known for sure that Tommy would run into me at the show," I said.
"No, but I guessed he would. If he hadn't, I'd have worked out some other way to manoeuvre you together. I didn't need to, but I liked the idea. Him being here at the same time as us was providence. I'm just slightly miffed that Alan wasn't here too - that would have made for a complete reunion."
"What about my cup ticket? How did you find out about that?"
"I phoned Tommy that morning," Steve said. "He was astonished - first he bumps into his old pal Darren, then he hears from his old buddy Steve. What a coincidence! I faked astonishment too. I asked all about you. Learnt that you were coming to the match. He invited me as well, but I said I couldn't make it."
"Very clever," I complimented him icily.
"Not especially," Steve said with false modesty. "I simply used his innocence to ensnare you. Manipulating the innocent is child's play. I'm surprised you didn't see through it. You need to work on your paranoia, Darren. Suspect everyone, even those beyond suspicion - that's my motto."
Vancha edged up close to me. "If you keep him talking, maybe I can slip out back and attack him from the rear," he whispered.
I nodded my head a fraction and Vancha slid away slowly. "Tommy told me he'd been in contact with you in the past," I said loudly, hoping to mask the sound of Vancha's footsteps. "He said there was something about you that he had to tell me the next time we met, after the match."
"I can guess what that was," Steve purred.
"Care to share it with me?"
"Not yet," he said. Then, sharply, "If you take one more step towards that door, Mr March, the snake-boy dies." Vancha stopped and shot Steve a look of disgust.
"Leave my son alone!" Evra screamed. He'd been holding himself in check, but Steve's threat proved too much. "If you harm him, I'll kill you! I'll put you through so much agony, you'll pray for death!"
"My!" Steve cooed. "Such vindictiveness! You seem to have the knack of driving all your friends to violence, Darren. Or do you deliberately surround yourself with violent people?"
"Stuff it!" I grunted. Then, tiring of his verbal games, I said, "Are you going to fight or not?"
"Ialready answered that question," Steve said. "We'll fight soon, have no fear, but this is neither the time nor place. There's a rear tunnel - newly carved - which we'll leave by shortly. By the time you pick your way through the stakes, we'll be far out of reach."
"Then what are you waiting for?" I snarled. "Get the hell out!"
"Not yet," Steve said, and hisvoice was hard now. "There's the sacrifice to make first. In the old days, a sacrifice was always made before a large battle, to appease the gods. Now, it's true that the vampaneze don't have any official gods, but to be on the safe side?"
"No!" Evra screamed - it was as clear to him as to the rest of us what Steve meant to do.
"Don't!" I shouted.
"Gannen!" Vancha roared. "You can't allow this!"
"I have no say in it, brother," Gannen Harst responded from behind his log. He hadn't shown his face yet. I had the feeling he was ashamed to show it.
"Ready, R.V.?" Steve asked.
"I'm not sure about this, man," R.V. replied uneasily.
"Don't disobey me!" Steve growled. "I made you and I can break you. Now, you bearded, armless freak - are you ready?"
A short pause. Then R.V. answered softly, "Yes."
Vancha cursed and raced forward to force his way through the pit of stakes. Harkat lumbered after him. Alice and Debbie fired on the log protecting Steve, but their bullets couldn't pierce it. I stood, clutching my knife, thinking desperately.
Then a voice behind me called out shakily, "Dad?" Everybody paused. I looked back. Darius was trembling. "Dad?" he called again. "You're not really going to kill him, are you?"
"Be quiet!" Steve snapped. "You don't understand what's happening."
"But? he's just a kid? like me. You can't?"
"Shut up!" Steve roared. "I'll explain later! Just?"
"No," I interrupted, sliding up behind Darius. "There won't be any 'later'. If you kill Shancus, I'll kill Darius." For the second time that night I felt a dark spirit grow within me, and pressed the blade of my knife to the young boy's throat. Behind me, Evanna made a small cooing noise. I ignored her.
"You're bluffing," Steve jeered. "You couldn't kill a child."
"He could," Debbie answered for me. She stepped away. "Darren was going to kill him earlier. Harkat stopped him. He said we'd need the boy to trade for Shancus. Otherwise Darren would have killed him. Darius - is that the truth?"
"Yes," Darius moaned. He was weeping. Part of it was fear, but an equal part was horror. His father had raised him on lies and false heroics. Only now was he beginning to realize what sort of monster he'd aligned himself with.
I heard Steve mutter something. He peered out from around his log, studying us from the heights of the stage. I made no threatening moves. I didn't need to. My determination was clear.
"Very well," Steve snorted. "Throw away your weapons and we'll swap the two boys."
"You think we'll entrust ourselves to your untender mercies?" Vancha huffed. "Release Shancus and we'll turn your son over."
"Not until you shed your weapons," Steve insisted.
"And allow you to mow us down?" Vancha challenged him.
There was a short pause. Then Steve threw an arrow-gun away, far across the stage. "Gannen," he said, "am I carrying any other weapons?"
"A sword and two knives," Gannen Harst replied immediately.
"I don't mean those," Steve growled. "Do I have any long-range weapons?"
"No," Gannen said.
"What about you and R.V.?"
"We have none either."
"I know you don't believe a word I say," Steve shouted to Vancha, "but you trust your own brother, don't you? He's a pure vampaneze - he'd kill himself before he'd utter a lie."
"Aye," Vancha muttered unhappily.
"Then throw away your weapons," Steve said. "We won't attack if you don't."
Vancha looked to me for advice. "Do it," I said. "He's tied, just like we are. He won't risk his son's life."
Vancha was dubious, but he slipped off his belts of throwing stars and tossed them aside. Debbie threw her pistols away and so, reluctantly, did Alice. Harkat only had an axe, which he laid down on the floor beside him. I kept my knife to Darius's throat.
Steve stepped out from behind the log. He was grinning. I felt a great temptation to throw my knife at him - I might just have been able to strike him from this distance - but I didn't. As a Vampire Prince, and one of the hunters of the Vampaneze Lord, I should have. But I couldn't risk missing and enraging Steve. He'd kill Shancus if I did.
"Out you come, boys," Steve said. Gannen Harst and R.V. emerged from behind their logs, R.V. shoving the bound Shancus ahead of him. Gannen Harst was typically grim-faced, but R.V. was smiling. At first I thought it was a mocking smile, but then I realized it was a smile of relief - he was delighted he hadn't been called upon to kill the snake-boy. R.V. was a twisted, bitter, crazy man, but I saw then that he wasn't entirely evil - not like Steve.
"I'll take the reptile," Steve said, reaching for Shancus. "You go get the plank and extend it across the pit."
R.V. handed Shancus to Steve and retreated to the rear of the stage. He started dragging a long plank forward. It was awkward for him - he couldn't get a decent grip, because of the hooks Mr Tall had torn off. Gannen went to help him, keeping one eye on us. The pair began feeding the plank across the pit, letting it rest on blunt-tipped stakes, which I could now see had been placed there specifically for this purpose.
Steve watched us like a hawk while R.V. and Gannen were busy with the plank. He was holding Shancus in front of him, stroking the snake-boy's long green hair. I didn't like the way he was looking at us - I felt as though we were being X-rayed - but I said nothing, willing R.V. and Gannen to hurry up with the plank.
Steve's eyes lingered on Evra a long moment - he was smiling hopefully, hands half-reaching out to his son - then settled on me. He stopped stroking Shancus's hair and gently placed a hand on either side of his head. "Remember the games we played when we were children?" he asked craftily.
"What games?" I frowned. I had a terrible feeling - a sense of total doom - but I could do nothing but follow his lead.
"'Dare' games," Steve said, and something in his voice made R.V. and Gannen pause and look around. Steve's face was expressionless, but his eyes were alive with insane glee. "One of us would say, 'I dare you to do this,' and stick his hand in a fire or jab a pin in his leg. The other would have to copy him. Remember?"
"No!" I moaned. I knew what was coming. I knew I couldn't stop it. I knew I'd been a fool and made a fool's mistake - I'd assumed Steve was even the slightest bit human.
"I dare you to do this, Darren," Steve whispered dreadfully. Before I could reply - before anything else could happen - he seized Shancus's head tightly and twisted it sharply to the left, then the right. Shancus's neck snapped. Steve dropped him. Shancus fell to the floor. Steve had killed him.