The journey across town passed without incident. All the police seemed to have been sent or drawn to the stadium. We didn't run into any road blocks or foot patrols. In fact we met hardly anyone. It was eerily quiet. People were in their homes or in pubs, watching the siege on TV, waiting for the actions kick off. It was a silence I knew from the past, the silence that usually comes before battle and death.
Dozens of police cars and vans were parked in a ring around the stadium when we arrived, and armed guards stood watching every possible entry or exit point. Barriers had been erected to keep back the public and media. Ultra-bright spotlights were trained on the walls of the stadium. My eyes watered from the glare of the lights, even from a long way off, and I had to stop and tie a strip of thick cloth around them.
"Are you sure you're up to this?" Alice asked, studying me doubtfully.
"I'll do what I have to," I growled, although I wasn't as convinced of my vow as I pretended to be. I was in rough shape, the roughest I'd been since my trip down the stream and through the stomach of Vampire Mountain when I'd failed my Trials of Initiation. The purge, my shoulder wound, overall exhaustion and the blood transfer had sapped me of most of my energy. I wanted only to sleep, not face a fight to the death. But in life we don't usually get to choose the time of our defining moments. We just have to stand and face them when they come, no matter what sort of a state we're in.
A large crowd had gathered around the barriers. We mingled among them, unnoticed by the police in the darkness and crush of people ¨C even the weirdly dressed Vancha and Evanna failed to draw attention. As we gradually pushed our way to the front, we saw thick clouds of smoke rising from within the stadium, and heard the occasional gun report.
"What's happening?" Alice asked the people nearest the barrier. "Have the police moved in?"
"Not yet," a burly man in a hunter's cap informed her. "But a small advance team went in an hour ago. Must be some new crack unit. Most of them had shaved heads and were dressed in brown shirts and black trousers."
"Their eyes were painted red!" a young boy gasped. "I think it was blood!"
"Don't be ridiculous," his mother laughed. "That was just paint, so the glare of the lights wouldn't blind them."
We withdrew, troubled by this new information. As we were leaving, I heard the boy say, "Mummy, one of those women was dressed in ropes.'"
His mother responded with a sharp, "Stop making up stories.'"
"Sounds like you were right," Alice said when we were at a safe distance. "The vampets are here, and they generally don't go anywhere without their masters."
"But why did the police let them in?" I asked. "They can't be working for the vampaneze ¨C can they?"
We looked at each other uncertainly. Vampires and vampaneze had always kept their battles private, out of the gaze of humanity. Although both sides were in the process of putting together an army of select human helpers, they'd kept the war secret from humans in general. If the vampaneze had broken that age-old custom and were working with regular human forces, it signalled a worrying new twist in the War of the Scars.
"I can still pass for a police officer," Alice said. "Wait here. I'll try to find out more about this."
She slipped forward, through the crowd and past the barrier. She was immediately challenged by a policeman, but following a quick, hushed conversation, she was led away to talk to whoever was in command.
Vancha and I waited anxiously, Evanna standing calmly nearby. I took the time to analyse my situation. I was weak, dangerously so, and my senses were going haywire. My head was pounding and my limbs were trembling. I'd told Alice I was up for a fight, but in all honesty I couldn't say whether or not I'd be able to fend for myself. It would have been wiser to retreat and recover. But Steve had forced this battle. He was calling the shots. I'd have to struggle along as best I could and pray to the gods of the vampires for strength.
I started thinking about Evanna's prophecy again as I waited. If Vancha and I faced Steve this night, one of the three of us would die. If it was Vancha or me, Steve would become the Lord of the Shadows and the vampaneze would rule the night, as well as the world of mankind. But if Steve died, I'd become the Lord instead of him, turn on Vancha and destroy the world.
There must be some way to change that. But how? Try to make peace with Steve? Impossible! I wouldn't even if I could, not after what he'd done to Mr Crepsley, Tommy, Shancus and so many others. Peace wasn't an option.
But what other way was there? I couldn't accept the fact that the world was damned. I didn't care what Evanna said. There must be a way to stop the Lord of the Shadows from rising. There must ...
Alice returned ten minutes later, her features dark. "They're dancing to a vampaneze tune," she said shortly. "I pretended I was an out-of-town chief inspector. I offered my assistance. The ranking officer said they had everything under control. I asked about the brown-shirted soldiers and he told me they were a special government force. He didn't say as much, but I got the feeling he's taking orders from them. I don't know if they've bribed or threatened him, but they're pulling his strings, no doubt about it."
"So you couldn't persuade him to let us in?" Vancha asked.
"I didn't have to," Alice said. "A way's already open. One rear entrance has been left unblocked. The approaching path is being kept clear. The police around that point aren't to interfere with anyone going in."
"He told you that?" I asked, surprised.
"He was under orders to tell anyone who asked," Alice said. She spat on the ground with disgust. "Traitor!"
Vancha looked at me with a thin smile. "Leonard's in there, isn't he?"
"No doubt about it," I nodded. "He wouldn't miss something like this."
Vancha cocked a thumb at the walls of the stadium. "He's laid this on for our benefit. We're the guests of honour. Be a shame to disappoint him."
"We probably won't come out of there alive if we go in," I noted.
"That's negative thinking," Vancha tutted.
"Then we're going to proceed?" Alice asked. "We're going to push on, even though we're outnumbered and outgunned?"
"Aye," Vancha said after a moment's thought. "I'm too long in the tooth to start bothering with wisdom now!"
I grinned at my fellow Prince. Alice shrugged. Evanna remained as blank-faced as ever. Then, without discussing it any further, we slipped around back to the unguarded entrance.
The lights weren't as bright at the rear of the stadium, and there weren't many people. Lots of police were about, but they deliberately ignored us, as they'd been told to. As we were about to advance through the gap in the ranks of police, Alice stopped us. "I've had an idea," she said hesitantly. "If we all go in, they can close the net around us and we won't be able to punch our way out. But if we attack from two fronts at once..."
She quickly outlined her plan. It made sense to Vancha and me, so we held back while she made several phone calls. Then we waited an impatient hour, taking it easy, preparing ourselves mentally and physically. As we watched, the smoke thickened from the fires inside the stadium, and the crowd around the barriers grew. Many of the newcomers were tramps and homeless people. They mixed with the others and slowly pushed forwards, where they waited close to the barriers, quiet, unnoticed.
When all was as it should be, Alice handed me a pistol and we bade her farewell. The three of us joined hands and wished each other luck. Then Vancha and I set our sights on the unguarded door. With Evanna following us like a ghost, we boldly walked past the ranks of armed police. They averted their eyes or turned their backs on us as we passed. Moments later we left the brightness outside for the darkness of the stadium tunnels and our date with destiny.
We had entered the leopards den.