"You're mad!" I croaked. "I have a father, a real dad. It isn't you!"
"Dermot Shan was not your father," Mr Tiny replied. "You were a cuckoo's child. Steve too. I did my work quietly, unknown to your mothers. But trust me ¨C you're both mine."
"This is outrageous!" Evanna screeched, her body expanding, becoming more that of a wolf than human, until she filled most of the tunnel. "It is forbidden! How dare you!"
"I acted within the confines of the universe's laws!" Mr Tiny snapped. "You'd know if I had not ¨C all would be chaos. I stretched them a bit, but I didn't break them. I am allowed to breed, and my children ¨C if they lack my magical powers ¨C can act the same way as any normal mortal."
"But if Darren and Steve are your sons, then you have created the future where one of them becomes the Lord of the Shadows!" Evanna roared. "You have cast mankind into the abyss, and twisted the strands of the future to suit your own foul needs!"
"Yes," Mr Tiny chuckled, then pointed a finger at Evanna. "Do not cross me on this, daughter. I would not harm my own flesh and blood, but I could make life very unpleasant if you got on the wrong side of me."
Evanna glared at her father hatefully, then gradually resumed her regular shape and size. "This is unjust," she muttered. "The universe will punish you, perhaps not immediately, but eventually you'll pay a price for your arrogance."
"I doubt it," Mr Tiny smirked. "Mankind was heading towards an all-time boring low. Peace, prosperity, global communication, brotherly love ¨C where's the fun in that ! Yes, there were still plenty of wars and conflicts to enjoy, but I could see the people of the world moving ever closer together. I did my best, nudged nations along the path to battle, sowed seeds of discontent everywhere I could, even helped get a few tyrants wrongfully elected to some of the most powerful positions on Earth ¨C I was sure those fine specimens would push the world to the brink!
"But no! No matter how tense things got, no matter how much meddling my minions did, I could see peace and understanding gradually winning through. It was time for drastic action, to take the world back to the good old days, when everyone was at everybody else's throat. I've simply restored the natural order of beautiful chaos. The universe won't punish me for that. If anything, I expect-"
"Shut up!" I screamed, surprising both Mr Tiny and Evanna. "It's bull, all of it! You're not my father! You're a monster!"
"And so are you," Mr Tiny beamed. "Or soon will be. But don't worry, son ¨C monsters have all the fun!"
I stared at him, sickened, senses reeling, unable to take it all in. If this was true, everything in my life had been false. I was never the person I thought I was, only a pawn of Mr Tiny's, a time bomb waiting to explode. I'd been blooded simply to extend my life, so I could live longer and do more of Mr Tiny's work. My war with Steve had served only to get rid of the weaker of us, so that the stronger could emerge as a more powerful beast. I'd done nothing for the sake of the vampires or my family and friends ¨C everything had been for Mr Tiny. And now that I'd proved myself worthy, I'd become a dictator and lay low anyone who opposed him. My wishes would count for nothing. It was my destiny.
"Fa-fa-fa..." Steve stammered, spitting blood from his mouth. With his free hand he reached out to Mr Tiny. "Father," he managed to croak. "Help... me."
"Why?" Mr Tiny sniffed.
"I... never... had... a... Dad." Each word was a heart-churning effort, but Steve forced them out. "I... want... to... know... you. I'll... serve... you... and... love... you."
"What on earth would I want with love ?" Mr Tiny laughed. "Love is one of the most basic human emotions. I'm so pleased I was never cursed with it. Servitude, gratitude, fear, hatred, anger ¨C these I like. Love... you can take your love to the Lake of Souls when you die. Perhaps it will provide you with some comfort there."
"But... I'm... your... son," Steve cried weakly.
"You were," Mr Tiny sneered. "Now you're just a loser, and soon you'll be dead meat. I'll toss your carcass to my Little People to eat ¨C that's how little I feel for you. This is a winner's world. Second place equals second rate. You're nothing to me. Darren's my only son now."
The pain in Steve's eyes was awful to behold. As a child, he'd been crushed when he thought I'd betrayed him. Now he'd been openly mocked and disowned by his father. It destroyed him. His heart had been full of hatred before this, but now that it was down to its last few beats, there was room only for despair.
But in Steve's anguish I found hope. Consumed by smugness, Mr Tiny had revealed too much, too soon. At the back of my brain an idea sparked into life. In a whirl I began to put various pieces together ¨C Mr Tiny's revelation and Evanna's reaction. Evanna said Mr Tiny had created the future in which Steve or I was the Lord of the Shadows. He'd bent the laws he and she lived by, to twist things round and build a chaotic world which he and I could rule over. Evanna and Mr Tall had told me there was no escaping the Lord of the Shadows, that he was part of the world's future. But they were wrong. He was part of Mr Tiny's future. Des Tiny might be the most powerful inpidual in the universe, but he was still only an inpidual. What one inpidual could build, another could destroy.
Mr Tiny's eyes were on Steve. He was laughing at him, enjoying Steve's dying misery. Evanna's head was bowed ¨C she'd given in and accepted this. Not me. If I'd inherited Mr Tiny's evil, destructive streak, I'd also inherited his cunning. I'd stop at nothing to deny him his vision of a ruined future.
Slowly, everso slowly, I released Steve's left hand and moved my arm away. He had a free shot at my stomach now, in the perfect position to finish the job he'd started when he stabbed me earlier. But Steve didn't notice. He was wrapped up in his sorrow. I faked a cough and plucked at his left sleeve. If Mr Tiny had seen it, he could have stopped my plan there. But he thought he'd won, that it was all over. He couldn't even imagine the vaguest possibility of a threat.
Steve's gaze flickered down. He realized his hand was free. He saw his chance to kill me. His fingers stiffened on the handle of his knife... then relaxed. For a terrible moment I thought he'd died, but then I saw that he was still alive. What made him pause was doubt. He'd spent most of his life hating me, but now he'd been told I was his brother. I could see his brain churning. I was a victim of Des Tiny, just as he was. He'd been wrong to hate me ¨C I'd had no choice in what I'd done. In all the world, I was the person he should be closest to, and instead I was the person he'd hurt the most.
What Steve found in those last few moments was what I thought he'd lost for ever ¨C his humanity. He saw the error of his ways, the evil he'd committed, the mistakes he'd made. There was possible salvation in that recognition. Now that he could see himself for what he truly was, perhaps, even at this late stage, he could repent.
But I couldn't afford humanity. Steve's salvation would be my undoing ¨C and the world's. I needed him mad as hell, fire in his gut, filled with fury and hate. Only in that state could he find the power to maybe help me break Des Tiny's hold over the future.
"Steve," I said, forcing a wicked smile. "You were right. I did plot with Mr Crepsley to take your place as his assistant. We made a mug of you, and I'm glad. You're a nobody. A nothing. This is what you deserve. If Mr Crepsley was alive, he'd be laughing at you now, just like the rest of us are."
Mr Tiny howled with delight. "That's my boy!" he hooted. He thought I was getting one last dig in before Steve died. But he was wrong.
Steve's eyes refilled with hatred. The human within him vanished in an instant and he was Steve Leopard, vampire killer, again. In one fast, crazed movement he brought his left hand up and drove his knife deep into my stomach. Less than a second later he did it again, then again.
"Stop!" Mr Tiny yelled, seeing the danger too late. He lurched at us, to pull me off, but Evanna slid in front of him and blocked his way.
"No, father!" she snapped. "You cannot interfere in this!"
"Get out of my way!" he bellowed, struggling with her. "The fool's going to let Leonard kill him! We have to stop it!"
"Too late," I giggled, as Steve's blade slid in and sliced through my guts for a fifth time. Mr Tiny stopped and blinked dumbly, at a complete loss for what may well have been the first time in his long, ungodly life. "Destiny... rejected," I said with my final whole breath. Then I grabbed Steve tight as he lunged at me with his knife again, and rolled to my right, off the edge of the path, into the river.
We went into the water together, wrapped in each other's arms, and sank quickly. Steve tried stabbing me again, but it was too much for him. He went limp and fell away from me, his dead body dropping into the dark depths of the river, disappearing from sight within seconds.
I was barely conscious, hanging sluggishly, limbs being picked at and made to sway by the current of the river. Water rushed down my throat and flooded my lungs. Part of me wanted to strike for the surface, but I fought against it, not wanting to give Mr Tiny even the slightest opportunity to revive me.
I saw faces in the water, or in my thoughts ¨C impossible to tell the difference. Sam Grest, Gavner Purl, Arra Sails, Mr Tall, Shancus, R.V., Mr Crepsley. The dead, come to welcome me.
I stretched my arms out to them, but our fingers didn't touch. I imagined Mr Crepsley waving, and a sad expression crossed his face. Then everything faded. I stopped struggling. The world, the water, the faces faded from sight, then from memory. A roaring which was silence. A darkness which was light. A chill which burnt. One final flutter of my eyelids, barely a movement, impossibly tiring. And then, in the lonely, watery darkness of the river, as all must do when the Grim Reaper calls ¨C I died.