THE CREATORof the Little People was dressed in his customary yellow suit and green Wellington boots. He eyed us though thick glasses and twirled a heart-shaped watch between the fingers of his left hand. He was small and pudgy, with pure white hair and a cruel, mocking smile.
"Hello boys," he greeted Harkat and me. "Andhello ! beautiful ladies." He winked rakishly at Debbie and Alice. Debbie smiled, but the ex-Chief Inspector was wary. Mr Tiny took a seat and removed a boot to empty dirt out of it. I saw the strange, six webbed toes I'd glimpsed once before. "I see you survived your run-in with Master Leonard," he drawled, putting the boot back on.
"No thanks to you," I sniffed angrily. "You knew Steve was the Lord of the Vampaneze. You could have told us."
"And spoilt the surprise?" Mr Tiny laughed. "I wouldn't have missed that fatal confrontation in the Cavern of Retribution for anything. I haven't enjoyed myself so much in years. The tension was unbearable, even though I guessed the outcome."
"You weren't in the cavern," I challenged him. "And you didn'tguess the outcome - youknew how it would end!"
Mr Tiny yawned insolently. "I might not have been there physically," he said, "but I was there in spirit. As for knowing the final outcome - I didn't. I suspected Larten would fail, but I wasn't sure. Hecould have won.
"Anyhow," he said, clapping sharply. "That's in the past. We've other fish to fry." Looking at Harkat, he spun his watch so that it caught the light shining in the window of the van and reflected it into Harkat's round green eyes. "Been sleeping well, Master Mulds?"
Harkat stared straight back at his master and said blankly, "You know only too damn - well that I haven't."
Mr Tiny tucked his watch away without taking his eyes off Harkat. "Time to find out who you used to be," he murmured. Harkat stiffened.
"Why now?" I asked.
"His nightmares have intensified. He must come with me and search for his true identity, or stay, go mad - and perish."
"Why can't you just tell him?" I prodded.
"Doesn't work that way," Mr Tiny said.
"Will I be gone long?" Harkat asked quietly.
"Oh yes," came the answer. "For ever, if things don't go well. It's not a case of simply finding out who you were and returning. The road is long and dangerous, and even if you struggle along to the end, there's no guarantee you'll make it back. But it's a road you must tread - unless you'd rather go loopy and die." Mr Tiny let out a fake sigh. "Poor Harkat - trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea."
"You're all heart," Harkat grumbled, then faced me with a look of disgust. "Looks like this is where - we part company."
"I could come with you?" I began, but he cut me short with a wave of a rough grey hand.
"Forget it," he said. "You have to lead Debbie and - Alice to Vampire Mountain. Not just to guide them, but to - protect them - it's a hard trek."
"We could wait until you returned," Debbie said.
"No," Harkat sighed. "There's no telling how long - I'll be gone."
I gazed helplessly at Harkat. He was my best friend, and I hated the thought of leaving him. But I loved Debbie and didn't want to abandon her.
"Actually," Mr Tiny purred, stroking the top of his heart-shaped watch, "I think young Shanshould accompany you - assuming you value your life."
"What do you mean?" Harkat barked sharply.
Mr Tiny studied his fingernails and spoke with a deceptively light tone. "If Darren accompanies you, your chances of survival are fair. Alone, it's practically certain you'll fail."
My eyes narrowed hatefully. Mr Tiny had set Mr Crepsley and me on the trail of the Vampaneze Lord, knowing it was a journey bound to end in death. Now he wished to launch me on another.
"Darren's not coming," Harkat said as I opened my mouth to lay into Mr Tiny. "He has problems of his own - with the vampaneze. This is my quest, not his."
"Of course, dear boy," Mr Tiny simpered. "I fully understand, and if he chooses to go with the beautiful ladies, I won't say anything to stop him. But it would be terribly wrong of me not to let him know in advance the awful?"
"Stop!" Harkat snapped. "Darren goes with Debbie and - Alice. End of story."
"Harkat," I muttered uncertainly, "maybe we should?"
"No," he stopped me. "Your loyalty lies with the vampires. It's time you returned to the fold. I'll be OK on my own." And he turned away and wouldn't say anything more about it.
We broke camp before midday. Debbie and Alice had come well equipped, with ropes, thick jumpers, climbing boots, strong torches, lighters and matches, guns, knives, you name it! As a half-vampire, I didn't require any special tools. All I packed in my rucksack was a good strong knife and a change of clothes. I was wearing jeans, a shirt and a light jumper. Although Truska had gone to a lot of trouble restoring my pirate costume, I didn't feel comfortable in it - it was a child's outfit. I'd picked up more normal gear over the lastfew months. Truska didn't mind - she said she'd give the costume to Shancus or Urcha when they were older.
I didn't wear my shoes. The trek to Vampire Mountain was a solemn tradition among vampires. No shoes or climbing gear were allowed. Normally you weren't allowed to flit either.
In recent years, because of the War of the Scars, that rule had been relaxed. But the others still stood. Debbie and Alice thought I was crazy! It's hard for humans to understand the world of the creatures of the night.
One other thing I did take was my diary. I'd thought the diary lost for ever - it had been left behind in the city, along with the rest of my personal belongings - and was astonished when Alice produced it with a flourish.
"Where'd you get it?" I gasped, fingering the soft, crinkled cover of one of the several notepads that made up the diary.
"It was part of the evidence my officers collected after you were arrested. I sneaked it out before I quit the force."
"Did you read it?" I asked.
"No, but others did." She smiled. "They dismissed it as the fictional work of a lunatic."
I looked for Harkat before we left, but he was locked away in Mr Tall's van with Mr Tiny. Mr Tall came to the door when I knocked and said the Little Person was not receiving visitors. I called out "Goodbye" but there was no reply.
I felt lousy as we cleared the camp, having said farewell to Evra, Merla and my other friends. But Harkat had been firm about his wishes, and I knew it made more sense to go to Vampire Mountain and take my rightful place in the Hall of Princes again.
Debbie was delighted to have me back, and held on tight to my hand, telling me how excited she was - and a bit scared - to be heading for Vampire Mountain. She pumped me for information - what did vampires wear, did they sleep in coffins, could they turn into bats - but I was too distracted to answer in any great detail.
We'd walked two or three kilometres when I drew to a sudden halt. I was thinking about the times Harkat had saved my life - when he'd rescued me from the jaws of a savage bear, when he'd jumped into a pit during my Trials of Initiation and killed a wild boar as it was about to gouge me to death, the way he'd fought beside me, swinging his axe with speed and skill, when we'd taken on the vampaneze.
"Darren?" Debbie asked, gazing into my eyes, worried. "What's wrong?"
"He's got to go back," Alice answered for me. I stared at her and she smiled. "You can't ignore the obligations of friendship. Harkat needs you more than we do. Go help him, and catch us up later if you can."
"But he told me to leave," I muttered.
"Doesn't matter," Alice insisted. "Your place is with him, not us."
"No!" Debbie objected. "We can't find our way to the Mountain alone!"
Alice pulled a map out of her rucksack. "I'm sure Darren can point us in the right direction."
"No!" Debbie cried again, clutching me tight. "I'm afraid I'll never see you again if you leave!"
"I must," I sighed. "Alice is right - I have to help Harkat. I'd rather stay with you, but I'd feel like a traitor if I did."
There were hard tears in Debbie's eyes, but she blinked them back and nodded tensely. "OK. If that's the way you want it."
"It's the way it has to be," I said. "You'd do the same thing in my place."
"Possibly." She smiled weakly, then, hiding her feelings behind a businesslike facade, she grabbed the map off Alice, laid it on the ground and told me to ink in the route to Vampire Mountain.
I quickly outlined the easiest route, pointed out a couple of alternate paths in case the first was blocked, and told them how to find their way through the maze of tunnels which led up the inside of the Mountain to the Halls where the vampires lived. Then, without any long goodbyes, I kissed Debbie quickly and thrust the rucksack with my newly recovered diary into Alice's hands. I asked her to look after it for me.
I wished both women well, then turned and raced back for camp. I tried not to dwell on all that could happen to them on their way to the Mountain, and offered up a quick prayer to the gods of the vampires as I ran, asking them to watch over the ex-Chief Inspector and the teacher I loved.
I was on the edge of the camp when I spotted Mr Tiny and Harkat in an open field. In front of the pair stood a shimmering arched doorway, unconnected to anything else. The edges of the doorway glowed red. Mr Tiny also glowed, his suit, hair and skin pulsing a dark, vibrant, crimson shade. The space within the edges of the doorway was a dull grey colour.
Mr Tiny heard me coming, looked over his shoulder and smiled like a shark. "Ah - Master Shan! I thought you might turn up."
"Darren!" Harkat snapped furiously. "I told you not to come! I won't take you with - me. You'll have to?"
Mr Tiny laid a hand on the Little Person's back and shoved him through the doorway. There was a grey flash, then Harkat disappeared. I could see the field through the grey veil of the doorway - but no sign of Harkat.
"Where's he gone?" I shouted.
"To search for the truth." Mr Tiny smiled, edged aside and gestured towards the glowing doorway. "Care to search with him?"
I stepped up to the doorway, gazing uneasily at the glowing red edges and the grey sheen between. "Where does this lead?" I asked.
"Another place," Mr Tiny answered obscurely, then laid a hand on my right shoulder and looked at me intently. "If you follow Harkat, you might never return. Think seriously about this. If you go with Harkat and die, you won't be here to face Steve Leonard when the time comes, and your absence might have terrible repercussions for vampires everywhere. Is your short, grey-skinned friend worth such an enormous risk?"
I didn't have to think twice about that. "Yes," I answered simply, and stepped through into unnatural, otherworldly greyness.