Alexander Ribs stood, rapped his ribcage with a spoon and opened his mouth. A loud musical note sprang out and all conversation ceased. Facing the boy at the head of the table, Alexander sang, "He's green, he's lean, snot he's never seen, his name is Shancus - happy birthday!"
Everybody cheered. Thirty performers and helpers from the Cirque Du Freak were seated around a huge oval table, celebrating Shancus Von's eighth birthday. It was a chilly April day, and most people were wrapped up warmly. The table was overflowing with cakes, sweets and drinks, and we were digging in happily.
When Alexander Ribs sat down, Truska - a woman who could grow her beard at will - stood and sung another birthday greeting. "The only things he fears is his mother's flying ears, his name is Shancus - happy birthday!"
Merla snapped one of her ears off when she heard that and flicked it at her son. He ducked and it flew high over his head, then circled back to Merla, who caught and reattached it to the side of her head. Everyone laughed.
Since Shancus had been named in my honour, I guessed I'd better chip in with a verse of my own. Thinking quickly, I stood, cleared my throat, and chanted, "He's scaly and he's great, today he has turned eight, his name is Shancus - happy birthday!"
"Thanks, godfather," Shancus smirked. I wasn't really his godfather, but he liked to pretend I was - especially when it was his birthday and he was looking for a cool present!
A few others took turns singing birthday greetings to the snake-boy, then Evra stood and wrapped up the song with, "Despite the pranks you pull, your mum and I love you, pesky Shancus - happy birthday!"
There was lots of applause, then the women at the table shuffled over to hug and kiss Shancus. He pulled a mortified expression, but I could see he was delighted by the attention. His younger brother, Urcha, was jealous and sat a little way back from the table, sulking. Their sister, Lilia, was rooting through the piles of presents Shancus had received, seeing if there was anything of interest to a five-year-old girl.
Evra went to try and cheer up Urcha. Unlike Shancus and Lilia, the middle Von child was an ordinary human and he felt he was the odd one out. Evra and Merla had a tough time making him feel special. I saw Evra slip a small present to Urcha, and heard him whisper, "Don't tell the others!" Urcha looked much happier after that. He joined Shancus at the table and tucked into a pile of small cakes.
I made my way over to where Evra was beaming at his family. "Eight years," I remarked, clapping Evra on his left shoulder (some of his scales had been sliced away from his right shoulder a long time ago, and he didn't like people touching him there). "I bet it feels like eight weeks."
"You don't know how right you are," Evra smiled. "Time flies when you have kids. You'll find out yourself one?" He stopped and grimaced. "Sorry. I forgot."
"Don't worry about it," I said. As a half-vampire, I was sterile. I could never have children. It was one of the drawbacks to being part of the clan.
"When are you going to show the snake to Shancus?" Evra asked.
"Later," I grinned. "I gave him a book earlier. He thinks that's his real present - he looked disgusted! I'll let him enjoy the rest of the party, then hit him with the snake when he thinks the fun is over."
Shancus already owned a snake, but I'd bought a new one for him, larger and more colourful. Evra helped me choose it. His old snake would be passed on to Urcha, so both boys would have cause to celebrate tonight.
Merla called Evra back to the party - Lilia had got stuck in wrapping paper and needed to be rescued. I watched my friends for a minute or two, then turned my back on the festivities and walked away. I wandered through the maze of vans and tents of the Cirque Du Freak, coming to a halt near the Wolf Man's cage. The savage man-beast was snoring. I took a small jar of pickled onions out of my pocket and ate one, smiling sadly as I remembered where my taste for pickled onions had come from.
That memory led to others, and I found myself looking back over the years, recalling major events, remarkable triumphs, and sickening losses. The night of my blooding, when Mr Crepsley pumped his vampiric blood into me. Slowly coming to terms with my appetite and powers. Sam Grest - the original pickled onion connoisseur. My first girlfriend, Debbie Hemlock. Learning about the vampaneze. The trek to Vampire Mountain. My Trials, where I'd had to prove myself worthy of being a child of the night. Failing and running away. The revelation that a Vampire General - Kurda Smahlt - was a traitor, in league with the vampaneze. Exposing Kurda. Becoming a Prince.
The Wolf Man stirred and I walked on, not wanting to wake him. My mind continued to turn over old memories. Kurda telling us why he'd betrayed the clan - the Lord of the Vampaneze had arisen and stood poised to lead his people into war against the vampires. The early years of the War of the Scars, when I'd lived in Vampire Mountain. Leaving the safety of the fortress to hunt for the Vampaneze Lord, accompanied by Mr Crepsley and Harkat. Meeting Vancha March, the third hunter - only he, Mr Crepsley or I could kill the Vampaneze Lord. Travelling with a witch called Evanna. Clashing with the Lord of the Vampaneze, unaware of his identity until afterwards, when he'd escaped with his protector, Gannen Harst.
I wanted to stop there - the next set of memories was the most painful - but my thoughts raced on. Returning to the city of Mr Crepsley's youth. Running into Debbie again - an adult now, a teacher. Other faces from the past - R.V. and Steve Leopard. The former used to be an eco-warrior, a man who blamed me for the loss of his hands. He'd become a vampaneze and was part of a plot to lure my allies and me underground, where the Lord of the Vampaneze could kill us.
Steve was part of that plot too, though at first I thought he was on our side. Steve was my best friend when we were kids. We went to the Cirque Du Freak together. He recognized Mr Crepsley and asked to be his assistant. Mr Crepsley refused - he said Steve had evil blood. Later, Steve was bitten by Mr Crepsley's poisonous tarantula. Only Mr Crepsley could cure him. I became a half-vampire to save Steve's life, but Steve didn't see it that way. He thought I'd betrayed him and taken his place among the vampires. He became hell-bent on revenge.
Underground in Mr Crepsley's city. Facing the vampaneze in a chamber Steve had named the Cavern of Retribution. Me, Mr Crepsley, Vancha, Harkat, Debbie and a police officer called Alice Burgess. A huge fight. Mr Crepsley faced the man we thought was the Lord of the Vampaneze. He killed him. But then Steve killed Mr Crepsley by knocking him into a pit of stakes. A gut-churning blow, made all the worse when Steve revealed the shocking truth ?he was the real Lord of the Vampaneze!
I reached the last of the tents and stopped, gazing around, half-dazed. We'd set up camp in an abandoned football stadium. It used to be the home ground of the local football team, but they'd moved to a new, purpose-built stadium some years ago. The old stadium was due to be demolished - apartment blocks were to be built over the ruins - but not for several months yet. It was an eerie feeling, staring around at thousands of empty seats in the ghost stadium.
Ghosts? That put me in mind of my next, bizarre quest with Harkat, in what we now knew was a shade of the future. Once again I began to wonder if that ruined future world was unavoidable. Could I prevent it by killing Steve, or was it destined to come no matter who won the War of the Scars?
Before I got too worked up about it, someone stepped up beside me and said, "Is the party over?"
I looked around and saw the scarred, stitched-together, grey-skinned face of Harkat Mulds. "No," I smiled. "It's winding down, but it hasn't finished yet."
"Good. I was afraid I'd miss it." Harkat had been out on the streets most of the day, handing out fliers for the Cirque Du Freak - that was one of his regular jobs every time we arrived at a new venue. He stared at me with his round, green, lidless eyes. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"Strange. Worried. Unsure of myself."
"Have you been out there yet?" Harkat waved a hand at the town beyond the walls of the stadium. I shook my head. "Are you going to go, or do you plan? to hide here until we leave?"
"I'll go," I said. "But it's hard. So many years. So many memories." This was the real reason I was so fixed on the past. After all these years of travel, I'd returned home to the town where I was born and had lived all my human life.
"What if my family's still here?" I asked Harkat.
"Your parents?" he replied.
"And Annie, my sister. They think I'm dead. What if they see me?"
"Would they recognize you?" Harkat asked. "It's been a long time. People change."
"Humans do," I snorted. "But I've only aged four or five years."
"Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to? see them again," Harkat said. "Imagine their joy if they learnt that? you were still alive."
"No," I said forcefully. "I've been thinking about that ever since Mr Tall told me we were coming here. Iwant to track them down. It would be wonderful for me - but terrible for them. They buried me. They've done their grieving and have hopefully moved on with their lives. It wouldn't be fair to bring back all those old pains and torments."
"I'm not sure I agree with that," Harkat said, "but it's? your decision. So stay here with the Cirque. Lay low. Hide."
"I can't," I sighed. "This is my home town. I've got an itch to walk the streets again, see how much has changed, look for old faces that I used to know. I want to find out what happened to my friends. The wise thing would be to keep my head down - but when didI ever do the wise thing?"
"And maybe trouble would find you? even if you did," Harkat said.
"What do you mean?" I frowned.
Harkat glanced around uneasily. "I have a strange feeling about? this place," he croaked.
"What sort of a feeling?" I asked.
"It's hard to explain. Just a feeling that this is? a dangerous place, but also the place where? we're meant to be. Something's going to happen here. Don't you sense it?"
"No - but my thoughts are all overthe place right now."
"We've often discussed your decision to? stay with the Cirque," Harkat reminded me, making little of the many arguments we'd had about whether or not I should leave and seek out the Vampire Generals. He believed I was hiding from my duty, that we should seek out the vampires and resume the hunt for the Vampaneze Lord.
"You're not starting that again, are you?" I groaned.
"No," he said. "The opposite. I now think you were right. If we hadn't stuck with the Cirque? we wouldn't be here now. And, as I said, I think we're? meant to be here."
I studied Harkat silently. "What do you think will happen?" I asked quietly.
"The feeling isn't that specific," Harkat said.
"But if you had to guess?" I pressed.
Harkat shrugged awkwardly. "I think we might run into? Steve Leonard, or find a clue which? points towards him."
My insides tightened at the thought of facing Steve again. I hated him for what he'd done to us, especially killing Mr Crepsley. But just before he died, Mr Crepsley warned me not to devote my life to hatred. He said it would twist me like Steve. So although I hungered for the chance to get even, I worried about it too. I didn't know how I'd react when I saw him again, whether I'd be able to control my emotions or give in to blind, hateful rage.
"You're frightened," Harkat noted.
"Yes. But not of Steve. I'm frightened of whatI might do."
"Don't worry," Harkat smiled. "You'll be OK."
"What if?" I hesitated, afraid I'd jinx myself. But that was silly, so I came out with it. "Whatif Steve tries to use my family against me? What if he threatens my parents or Annie?"
Harkat nodded slowly. "I thought of that already. It's the sort of sick stunt I can? imagine him pulling."
"What will I do if he does?" I asked. "He already sucked Debbie into his insane plot to destroy me - not to mention R.V. What if?"
"Easy," Harkat soothed me. "The first thing is to find out if? they still live here. If they do, we can arrange protection? for them. We'll establish a watch around their house? and guard them."
"The two of us can't protect them by ourselves," I grunted.
"But we're not by ourselves," Harkat said. "We have many friends in? the Cirque. They'll help."
"You think it's fair to involve them?" I asked.
"They may already be involved," Harkat said. "Their destinies are tied to ours, I think. That may be another reason why you felt? you had to stay here." Then he smiled. "Come on - I want to get to the party before? Rhamus scoffs all the cakes!"
Laughing, I put my fears behind me for a while and walked back through the campsite with Harkat. But if I'd known just how closely the destinies of my freakish friends were connected with mine, and the anguish I was steering them towards, I'd have about-faced and immediately fled to the other end of the world.