First things first ¨C make sure Annie and Darius got away safely. I couldn't concentrate on helping my friends trapped inside the stadium if I was worrying about my sister and nephew. Once they were free of Steve's influence, safe somewhere he couldn't find them, I could focus on business entirely. Until that time I would only be a distracted liability.
Annie didn't want to go. This was her home and she wanted to fight to protect it. When, after telling her about some of the atrocities Steve had committed over the years, I convinced her they had to leave, she insisted I go with them.
For years she'd believed I was dead. Now she knew otherwise, she didn't want to lose me again so quickly.
"I can't come," I sighed. "Not while my friends are in danger. Later, when it's over, I'll find you."
"Not if Steve kills you!" Annie cried. I had no answer for that one. "What about Darius?" she pressed. "You said he needs training. What will he do without you?"
"Give us your mobile number," I said. " Alice will contact her people before we go to the stadium. In the worst case scenario, somebody will get in touch. A vampire will link up with you and instruct Darius, or guide him to Vampire Mountain, where Seba or Vanez can look after him."
"Who?" she asked.
"Old friends," I smiled. "They can teach him everything he'll ever need to know about being a vampire."
Annie kept trying to change my mind, telling me my place was with her and Darius, that I was her brother before I became a vampire and I should think of her first. But she was wrong. I left the human world behind when I became a Vampire Prince. I still cared for Annie and loved her, but my first loyalty was to the clan.
When she realized she couldn't win me round, Annie bundled Darius into the back of their car ¨C he was still sound asleep ¨C and tearfully went to gather some personal belongings. I told her to take as much as she could, and not to come back. If we defeated Steve, she and Darius could return. If not, somebody would fetch the rest of her stuff. The house would have to be sold, and they'd remain in hiding under the protection of the vampire clan, for as long as the clan was capable of looking after them. (I didn't say "Until the clan falls," but that's what I was thinking.) It wouldn't be an ideal life ¨C but it would be better than winding up in the hands of Steve Leopard.
Annie hugged me with all her strength before getting into the car. "It's not fair," she wept. "There's so much you haven't told me, so much I want to know, so much I want to say."
"Me too," I said, blinking away tears. It was a weird feeling. Everything was happening at ten times the speed it should. It had only been a few hours since we returned to the Cirque Du Freak to chat with Mr Tall, but it felt like weeks had passed. His death, the chase, Morgan James's beheading, the theatre, Shancus being slaughtered by Steve, finding out about Darius, coming to see my sister... I wanted to put my foot down on the brake, take time out, make sense of all that was going on. But life makes its own rules and sets its own pace. Sometimes you can rein it in and slow it down ¨C other times you can't.
"You really can't come with us?" Annie tried one last time.
"No," I said. "I want to... but no."
"Then I wish you all the luck in the world, Darren," she moaned. She kissed me, began to say something else, then broke down in tears. Hurling herself into the car, she checked on Darius, then started the engine and roared away, disappearing into the night, leaving me standing outside my old home ¨C heartbroken.
"Are you all right?" Alice asked, creeping up behind me.
"I will be," I replied, wiping tears from my eyes. "I wish I'd been able to say goodbye to Darius."
"It's not goodbye," Alice said. "Just au revoir !"
"Hopefully," I sighed, though I didn't really believe it. Win or lose, I had a sick feeling in my stomach that tonight was the last time I'd ever see Annie and Darius. I paused a moment to wish them a silent farewell, then turned around, put them from my thoughts, and let all my emotions and energies centre on the problems to hand and the dangers faced by my friends at the Cirque Du Freak.
Inside the house, we discussed our next move. Alice was for getting out of town as quickly as possible, abandoning our friends and allies. "Three of us can't make a difference if there are hordes of police stationed around the stadium," she argued. "Steve Leonard remains the priority. The others will have to fend for themselves."
"But they're our friends," I muttered. "We can't just abandon them."
"We must," she insisted. "It doesn't matter how much it hurts. We can't do anything for them now, not without placing our own lives in jeopardy."
"But Evra... Harkat... Debbie !"
"I know," she said, her eyes sad but hard. "But like I said, it doesn't matter how much it hurts. We have to leave them."
"I don't agree," I said. "I think..." I stopped, reluctant to voice my belief.
"Go on," Vancha encouraged me.
"I can't explain it," I said slowly, eyes flicking to Evanna, "but I think Steve's there. At the stadium. Waiting for us. He set the police on us before ¨C when Alice was one of them ¨C and I can't see him pulling the same trick twice. It would be boring the second time round. He craves originality and new thrills. I think the police outside are just for cover."
"He could have set a trap in the cinema theatre," Vancha mused, taking up my train of thought. "But that wouldn't have been as elaborate a setting as where we fought him before ¨C in the Cavern of Retribution."
"Exactly," I said. "This is our big showdown. He'll want to go out on a high, with something outlandish. He's as much of a performer as anyone at the Cirque Du Freak. He loves theatrics. He'd relish the idea of a stadium setting. It would be like the ancient gladiator duels in the Colosseum."
"We're in trouble if you're wrong," Alice said uneasily.
"Nothing new about that," Vancha huffed. He cocked an eyebrow at Evanna. "Care to drop us a hint?"
To our astonishment, the witch nodded soberly. "Darren is right. You either go to the stadium now and face your destiny, or flee and hand victory to the vampaneze."
"I thought you couldn't tell us stuff like that," Vancha said, startled.
"The endgame has commenced," Evanna answered cryptically. "I can speak more openly about certain matters now, without altering the future."
"It'd alter it if we turned tail and ran like hell for the hills," Vancha grunted.
"No," Evanna smiled. "It wouldn't. As I said, that would simply mean the vampaneze win. Besides," she added, her smile widening, "you aren't going to run, are you?"
"Not in a million years!" Vancha said, spitting against the wall for added emphasis. "But we won't be fools about this either. I say we check out the stadium. If it looks like Leonard's in residence, we'll force a way in and chop the fiend's head off. If not, we'll search elsewhere and the circus folk will have to make their own luck. No point risking our lives for them at this stage, aye, Darren?"
I thought of my freakish friends ¨C Evra, Merla, Hans Hands and the rest. I thought of Harkat and Debbie, and what might happen to them. And then I thought of my people ¨C the vampires ¨C and what would happen to the clan if we threw our lives away trying to save our non-vampire allies.
"Aye," I said miserably, and though I knew I was doing the right thing, I felt like a traitor.
Alice and Vancha checked their weapons while I armed myself with some sharp kitchen knives. Alice made a few phone calls, arranging protection for Annie and Darius. Then, with Evanna in tow, we pulled out and I left my childhood home for the second time in my life, certain in my heart that I'd never again return.