Six months earlier.
THE WALKup the tunnels, coming off the back of our battle with the vampaneze, was slow and exhausting. We left Mr Crepsley's charred bones in the pit where he'd fallen. I'd meant to bury him, but I hadn't the heart for it. Steve's revelation - that he was the Lord of the Vampaneze - had floored me, and now nothing seemed to matter. My closest friend had been killed. My world had been torn asunder. I didn't care whether I lived or died. Harkat and Debbie walked beside me, Vancha and Alice Burgess slightly in front. Debbie used to be my girlfriend, but now she was a grown woman, whereas I was stuck in the body of a teenager - the curse of being a half-vampire who only aged one year for every five that passed. Alice was a police chief inspector. Vancha had kidnapped her when we'd been surrounded by police. She and Debbie had taken part in the fight with the vampaneze. They'd both fought well. A shame it had been for nothing.
We'd told Alice and Debbie all about the War of the Scars. Vampires exist, but not the murderous monsters of myth. We don't kill when we feed. But other night creatures do - the vampaneze. They broke away from the vampires six hundred years ago. They always drain their victims dry. Their skin has turned purple over the centuries, and their eyes and fingernails are red.
For a long time there'd been peace between the two clans. That ended when the Lord of the Vampaneze emerged. This vampaneze leader was destined to lead them into war against the vampires and destroy us. But if we found and killed him before he became a full-vampaneze, the war would go our way instead.
Only three vampires could hunt for the Vampaneze Lord (according to a powerful meddler called Desmond Tiny, who could see into the future). Two were Vampire Princes, Vancha March and me. The other had been Mr Crepsley, the vampire who'd blooded me and been like a father to me. He'd faced the person we thought was the Vampaneze Lord earlier that night and killed him. But then Steve sent Mr Crepsley tumbling to his death in a pit of flame-tipped stakes - shortly before he let me know that the person Mr Crepsley killed was an impostor, and that Steve himself was the Vampaneze Lord.
It didn't seem possible that Mr Crepsley was dead. I kept expecting a tap on my shoulder, and the tall orange-haired vampire to be standing behind me when I turned, grinning wickedly, his long facial scar glinting as he held up a torch, asking where we thought we were going without him. But the tap never came. It couldn't. Mr Crepsley was dead. He'd never come back.
Part of me wanted to go mad with rage, seize a sword and storm off after Steve. I wanted to track him down and drive a stake through his rotten excuse for a heart. But Mr Crepsley had warned me not to devote myself to revenge. He said it would warp and destroy me if I gave in to it. I knew in my soul that there was unfinished business between Steve and me, that our paths would cross again. But for the time being I pushed him from my thoughts and mourned for Mr Crepsley.
Except I couldn't really mourn. Tears wouldn't come. As much as I wanted to howl and sob with grief, my eyes remained dry and steely. Inside, I was a broken, weeping wreck, but on the outside I was cold, calm and collected, as though I hadn't been affected by the vampire's death.
Ahead, Vancha and Alice came to a halt. The Prince looked back, his wide eyes red from crying. He looked pitiful in his animal skins, with his filthy bare feet and wild hair, like an overgrown, lost child. "We're almost at the surface," he croaked. "It's still day. Will we wait here for dark? If we're spotted ?"
"Don't care," I mumbled.
"I don't want to stay here," Debbie sobbed. "These tunnels are cruel."
"And I have to inform my people that I'm alive," Alice said, then frowned and picked dried blood flecks from her pale white hair. "Though I don't know how I'm going to explain it to them!"
"Tell the truth," Vancha grunted.
The Chief Inspector grimaced. "Hardly! I'll have to think up some?" She stopped. A figure had appeared out of the darkness ahead of us, blocking the path.
Cursing, Vancha ripped loose a shuriken - throwing stars he kept strapped in belts around his chest - and prepared to launch it.
"Peace, Vancha," the stranger said, raising a hand. "I am here to help, not harm."
Vancha lowered his shuriken and muttered in disbelief, "Evanna?"
The woman ahead of us clicked her fingers and a torch flared into life overhead, revealing the ugly witch we'd travelled with earlier in the year, while we were searching for the Lord of the Vampaneze. She hadn't changed. Short thick muscles, long untidy hair, pointed ears, a tiny nose, one brown eye and one green (the colours kept shifting from left to right), hairy body, long sharp nails and yellow ropes tied tight around her body instead of clothes.
"What are you doing - here?" Harkat asked, his large green eyes filled with suspicion - Evanna was a neutral in the War of the Scars, but could help or hinder those on either side, depending on her mood.
"I came to bid Larten's spirit farewell," the witch said. She was smiling.
"You don't look too cut up about it," I remarked without emotion.
She shrugged. "I foresaw his death many decades ago. I did my crying for him then."
"You knew he'd die?" Vancha growled.
"I wasn't certain, but I guessed he would perish," she said.
"Then you could have stopped it!"
"No," Evanna said. "Those with the ability to sense the currents of the future are forbidden to interfere. To save Larten, I'd have had to abandon the rules I live by, and if that happened, all chaos would break loose."
The witch stretched out a hand, and even though she was many metres away from Vancha, her fingers cupped his chin tenderly. "I was fond of Larten," she said softly. "I hoped I was wrong. But I couldn't take it upon myself to spare him. His fate wasn't mine to decide."
"Then whose was it?" Vancha snapped.
"His own," Evanna replied steadily. "Hechose to hunt for the Lord of the Vampaneze, to enter the tunnels, to fight on the platform. He could have walked away from his responsibilities - but he chose not to."
Vancha glared at the witch a moment longer, then lowered his gaze. I saw fresh tears splash in the dust at his feet. "My apologies, Lady," he muttered. "I don't blame you. I'm just so fired up with hatred.
"I know," the witch said, then studied the rest of us. "You must come with me. I have things to tell you, and I'd rather talk on the outside - the air here is rank with treachery and death. Will you spare me a few hours of your time?" She glanced at Alice Burgess. "I promise I won't keep you long."
Alice sniffed. "I guess a few hours can't make much of a difference."
Evanna looked at Harkat, Debbie, Vancha and me. We shared a glance, then nodded and followed the witch up the last stretch of the tunnels, leaving the darkness and the dead behind.
Evanna gave Vancha a thick deer hide to drape over his head and shoulders, to block out the rays of the sun. Trailing after the witch, we moved quickly through the streets. Evanna must have cast a spell to hide us, because people didn't notice us, despite our blood-stained faces and clothes. We ended up outside the city, in a small forest, where Evanna had prepared a camp amidst the trees. At her offer, we sat and tucked into the berries, roots and water she'd set out for us.
We ate silently. I found myself studying the witch, wondering why she was here - if she'd really come to say goodbye to Mr Crepsley, she'd have gone down to where his body lay in the pit. Evanna was Mr Tiny's daughter. He had created her by mixing the blood of a vampire with that of a wolf. Vampires and vampaneze were barren - we couldn't have children - but Evanna was supposed to be able to bear a child by a male of either clan. When we met her shortly after setting out to hunt the Vampaneze Lord, she'd confirmed Mr Tiny's prophecy - that we'd have four chances to kill the Lord - and added the warning that if we failed, two of us would die.
Vancha finished eating first, sat back and burped. "Speak," he snapped - he wasn't in the mood for formalities.
"You're wondering how many chances you've used up," Evanna said directly. "The answer is - three. The first was when you fought the vampaneze in the glade and let their Lord escape. The second, when you discovered Steve Leonard was a half-vampaneze and took him hostage - although you had several opportunities to kill him, they count as one. The third chance was when Larten faced him on the platform above the pit of stakes."
"That means we still have a shot at him!" Vancha hissed excitedly.
"Yes," Evanna said. "Once more the hunters will face the Vampaneze Lord, and on that occasion the future will be decided. But that confrontation will not come in the near future. Steve Leonard has withdrawn to plot anew. For now, you may relax."
The witch turned to me and her expression softened. "It might not lighten your load," she said kindly, "but Larten's soul has flown to Paradise. He died nobly and earned the reward of the righteous. He is at rest."
"I'd rather he was here," I said miserably, gazing at the leaves of an overhanging tree, waiting for tears which still wouldn't come.
"What about the rest of the vampaneze?" Alice asked. "Are any of them still in my city?"
Evanna shook her head. "All have fled."
"Will they return?" Alice asked, and by the glint in her eyes I saw she was half hoping they would, so she could settle a few scores.
"No." Evanna smiled. "But I think it's safe to say that you will run into them again."
"I'd better," Alice growled, and I knew she was thinking of Morgan James, an officer of hers who'd joined the vampets. They were human allies of the vampaneze, who shaved their heads, daubed blood around their eyes, sported V tattoos above their ears, and dressed in brown uniforms.
"Is the nightmare over then?" Debbie asked, wiping her dark cheeks clean. The teacher had fought like a tigress in the tunnels, but the events of the night had caught up with her and she was shivering helplessly.
"For you - for now," Evanna answered cryptically.
"What does that mean?" Debbie frowned.
"You and the Chief Inspector can choose to distance yourselves from the War of the Scars," Evanna said. "You can return to your ordinary lives and pretend this never happened. If you do, the vampaneze won't come after you again."
"Of course we'll return to our lives," Alice said. "What else can we do? We're not vampires. We don't have any further part to play in their war."
"Perhaps," Evanna said. "Or perhaps you'll think differently when you've had time to reconsider. You'll return to the city - you need time to reflect, and you have affairs to put in order - but whether or not you'll choose to stay ?" Evanna's eyes flicked over Vancha, Harkat and me. "And where do you three wish to go?"
"I'm continuing after that monster, Leonard," Vancha said immediately.
"You may if you wish," Evanna shrugged, "but you'll be wasting your time and energy. Moreover, you will jeopardize your position. Although you are fated to confront him again, it's not written in stone - by pursuing him now, you might miss the final destined showdown."
Vancha cursed bitterly, then asked Evanna where she suggested he should go.
"Vampire Mountain," she said. "Your clan should be told about the Vampaneze Lord. They must not kill him themselves - that rule still applies - but they can scout for him and point you in the right direction."
Vancha nodded slowly. "I'll call a temporary end to the fighting and set everyone searching for him. I'll flit for Vampire Mountain as soon as night falls. Darren - are you and Harkat coming?"
I looked at my fellow Prince, then down at the hard brown earth of the forest floor. "No," I said softly. "I've had all I can take of vampires and vampaneze. I know I'm a Prince and have duties to attend to. But I feel like my head's about to explode. Mr Crepsley meant more to me than anything else. I need to get away from it all, maybe for a while - maybe for ever."
"It's a dangerous time to cut yourself off from those who care for you," Vancha said quietly.
"I can't help that," I sighed.
Vancha was troubled by my choice, but he accepted it. "I don't approve - a Prince should put the needs of his people before his own - but I understand. I'll explain it to the others. Nobody will trouble you." He cocked an eyebrow at Harkat. "I suppose you'll be going with him?"
Harkat lowered the mask from his mouth (air was poisonous to the grey-skinned Little People) and smiled thinly. "Of course." Mr Tiny had resurrected Harkat from the dead. Harkat didn't know who he used to be, but he believed he could find out by sticking with me.
"Where will you go?" Vancha asked. "I can find you using the Stone of Blood, but it'll be easier if I have a rough idea of where you're heading."
"I don't know," I said. "I'll just pick a direction and ?" I stopped as a picture flashed through my thoughts, of circus vans, snake-boys and hammocks. "The Cirque Du Freak," I decided. "It's the nearest place outside Vampire Mountain that I can call home."
"A good choice," Evanna said, and by the way her lips lifted at the edges, I realized the witch had known all along that I'd choose to return to the Cirque.
We went our separate ways as the sun was setting, even though we hadn't slept and were ready to drop with exhaustion. Vancha departed first, on his long trek to Vampire Mountain. He said little when leaving, but hugged me hard and hissed in my ear, "Be brave!"
"You too," I whispered back.
"We'll kill Leonard next time," he vowed.
"Aye," I grinned weakly.
He turned and ran, hitting flitting speed seconds later, vanishing into the gloom of the dusk.
Debbie and Alice left next, to return to the city. Debbie asked me to stay with her, but I couldn't, not as things stood. I needed to be by myself for a while. She wept and clutched me close. "Will you come back later?" she asked.
"I'll try," I croaked.
"If he doesn't," Evanna said, "you can always go looking for him." She handed a folded-up piece of paper to Alice Burgess. "Hold on to that. Keep it closed. When the two of you decide upon your course, open it."
The Chief Inspector asked no questions, just tucked the paper away and waited for Debbie to join her. Debbie looked at me pleadingly. She wanted me to go with her - or ask her to come with me - but there was a huge ball of grief sitting cold and hard in my gut. I couldn't think of anything else right now.
"Take care," I said, turning aside and breaking eye contact.
"You too," she croaked, then sobbed loudly and stumbled away. With a quick "Goodbye", Alice hurried after her, and the two women slipped through the trees, back to the city, supporting one another as they went.
That left just me, Harkat and Evanna.
"Any idea where the Cirque's playing?" the witch asked. We shook our heads. "Then it's lucky that I do and am going there," she smiled. Standing between us, she looped her arms around my left arm and Harkat's right, and led us through the forest, away from the city and its underground caverns of death, back to where my voyage into the night first started - the Cirque Du Freak.