Late on Christmas Eve. Down in the tunnels.
We'd been searching for a couple of hours, but it felt longer. We were sweating and covered with dirt, our feet and pants soaked through with filthy water. We were moving as fast as we could, making a lot of noise in the process. My ribs hurt to begin with, but I was over the worst of it now and barely noticed the stabbing pain as I bent and crouched down and twisted.
"Slow down!" Mr. Crepsley hissed several times. "He will hear us if you keep this up. We must be more careful."
"To hell with being careful!" I yelled back. "This is our last chance to find him. We've got to cover as much ground as possible. I don't care how much noise we make."
"But if Murlough hears us - " Mr. Crepsley began.
"We'll chop off his head and stuff it with garlic!" I snarled, and moved ahead even faster, making still more noise.
Soon we reached a particularly large tunnel. The water level was higher in most of the tunnels than it had been the night before, because of the melting snow on the ground, but this one was dry. Maybe it was an emergency pipe, in case the others overflowed.
"We will rest here," Mr. Crepsley said, collapsing. The search was harder for him than for me, since he was taller and had to bend more.
"We don't have time for a rest," I snapped. "Do you think Murlough is resting?"
"Darren, you must calm down," Mr. Crepsley said. "I understand your agitation, but we cannot help Evra by panicking. You are tired, as am I. A few minutes will make no difference, one way or the other."
"You don't care, do you?" I whined. "Evra's down here somewhere, being tormented or cooked, and all you're worried about are your tired old legs."
"They are old," Mr. Crepsley growled, "and they are tired, and so, I am sure, are yours. Sit down and stop acting like a child. If we are destined to find Evra, we shall. If not..."
I snarled hatefully at the vampire and stepped in front of him. "Give me that flashlight," I said, trying to rip it out of his hands. I'd dropped mine earlier and broken it. "I'll go on ahead by myself. You sit here and rest. I'll find Evra on my own."
"Stop it," Mr. Crepsley said, pushing me away. "You are behaving intolerably. Calm down and -?
I gave a ferocious tug and the flashlight flew out of Mr. Crepsley's hands. It also spun out of mine, and shattered to pieces against the tunnel wall. We were thrust into complete darkness.
"You idiot!" Mr. Crepsley roared. "Now we will have to go back up and find a replacement. You have cost us time. I told you something like this would happen."
"Shut up!" I shouted, shoving the vampire in the chest. He fell down hard, and I backed away blindly.
"Darren!" Mr. Crepsley shouted. "What are you doing?"
"Going to find Evra," I said.
"You cannot! Not by yourself! Come back and help me up: I have twisted my ankle. We will return with stronger flashlights and work faster. You cannot search without a light."
"I can hear," I replied. "And I can feel. And I can shout. Evra!" I yelled, to prove my point. "Evra! Where are you? It's me!"
"Stop! Murlough will hear. Come back and keep quiet!"
I heard the vampire scrambling to his feet. Taking a deep breath, I ran. I fled far into the tunnel, then slowed and found a small pipe leading out of the large one. I slipped into it and crawled. Mr. Crepsley's shouts grew dimmer and dimmer. Then I came to another pipe and scurried down it. Then another. And another. Within five minutes, I'd lost the vampire.
I was alone. In the dark. Underground.
I shivered, then reminded myself why I was there and what was at stake. I looked around for a larger tunnel, feeling my way with my fingers.
"Evra," I called softly. I cleared my throat and this time yelled, "Evra! It's me! Darren! Can you hear? I'm coming to find you. Yell if you can hear me. Evra. Evra? Evra!"
Shouting and calling, I moved forward, hands outstretched, ears straining for any sound, eyes useless - a perfect target for all the demons of the dark.
I'm not sure how long I was down there. There was no way of telling time in the tunnels. I had no sense of direction, either. I might have been going in circles. I just moved forward, calling Evra's name, scraping my hands on the walls, feeling my feet and lower legs turn numb from the damp and cold.
Sometimes a draft of air tickled my nostrils, a reminder of the world above. I moved fast whenever I felt the air, afraid of losing my nerve if I stopped to breathe it in.
I was moving downward, getting deeper into the system of pipes and tunnels. I wondered how many people had been down here over the years. Not many. In some of the older pipes, I might be the first human (half-human) to pass in decades. If I'd had time, I would have stopped to scrawl my initials on the walls.
"Evra! Can you hear me? Evra!" I repeated.
There'd been no response so far. I wasn't really expecting one. If I did stumble upon Murlough's lair, it was a pretty sure thing he would have taped up Evra's mouth. The vampaneze wasn't the sort to overlook a minor detail like that.
" Evra!" I croaked, my voice beginning to crack from the strain. "Are you there? Can you -?
All of a sudden, with no warning, a hand jammed hard into my back and sent me crashing to the floor. I gave a yell of pain and rolled over, gazing blindly into the pitch-black depths.
"Who's there?" I asked shakily. A dry chuckle answered me. "Who is that?" I gasped. "Mr. Crepsley? Is that you? Did you follow me down? Is it -?
"No," Murlough whispered in my ear. "It's not." He flicked on a flashlight directly in front of my eyes.
The light was blinding. I gasped and shut my eyes, all thoughts of defending myself forgotten. It was what the vampaneze had been waiting for. Before I could react, he ducked forward, opened his mouth, and breathed on me... the breath of the undead... the gas that knocks people out.
I tried drawing back, but it was too late. The gas was in me. It raced up my nostrils and down my throat, flooding my lungs, forcing me to double over, coughing fitfully.
The last thing I remember was falling forward, Murlough's bare purple feet growing larger as I dropped toward them.
And then... nothing. Just black.
When I came to, I found myself face to face with a skull. Not any old skull, either - this still had flesh on it, and one of the eyeballs was floating in its socket.
I screamed and tried pulling away, but I couldn't. Looking up (up? Why wasn't I looking down?) atmy body, I realized I was bound tightly with ropes. After a few seconds of puzzled panic, I noticed another rope around my ankles, and it dawned on me that I was hanging upside down.
"I bet the world looks different from there, hmmm?" Murlough said. Twisting around - I couldn't move my limbs, but I could swing around - I saw him sitting a little ways from the skull, chewing on a fingernail. He stuck out a foot and began rocking the skull. "Say hello to Evra," he chuckled.
" No!" I screamed, swinging forward, baring my teeth, trying to bite deep into his leg. Unfortunately, the rope wouldn't stretch that far. "You promised you wouldn't kill him before Christmas!" I cried.
"You mean it isn't Christmas?" Murlough asked innocently. "Whoops! Sorry. Bit of a boo-boo, hmmm?"
"I'll kill you," I swore. "I'm going to -?
A groan stopped me short. Turning, I noticed I wasn't alone. Somebody else was strung upside down, a couple of feet away.
"Who's that?" I asked, certain it was Mr. Crepsley. "Who's there?"
"D-D-D-Darren?" a tiny voice said.
" Evra?" I gasped with disbelief.
Murlough laughed and flicked on a bright light. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the light. When they did, I was able to make out the familiar shape and features of the snake-boy. He looked hungry, exhausted, and scared - but he was alive.
Evra was alive!
"Fooled you, didn't I?" Murlough giggled, shuffling closer.
"What are you doing here, Darren?" Evra moaned. His face was badly cut and bruised, and I could see a pinkish patch on his right arm and shoulder where scales had been brutally hacked off. "How did he -?
"That's enough out of you, reptile!" Murlough growled. He kicked out at Evra, sending him snapping back on his rope.
"Stop that!" I roared.
"Make me." Murlough laughed. "Be quiet," he warned Evra. "If you speak again without permission, they'll be your last words. Understand?" Evra nodded feebly. All the fight had been hammered out of him. He was a pitiful sight. But at least he was alive. That was the main thing.
I began to take in my surroundings. We were in a large cavern. It was too dark to tell if it was natural or man-made. Evra and me were hanging from a steel bar. Skeletons littered the floor. I could hear water dripping somewhere, and I spotted a rough bed in one corner.
"Why have you brought me here?" I asked.
"Snakey was lonely," Murlough answered. "I thought you'd be good company for him, hmmm?"
"How did you find me?"
"Wasn't hard," Murlough said. "Wasn't hard. Heard you and the vampire coming from miles away. Followed you. Murlough knows these pipes like the back of his teeth, yes he does. Young Murlough's smart. Been down here long enough. Wasn't just twiddling my thumbs."
"Why didn't you attack?" I asked. "I thought you wanted to kill Mr. Crepsley."
"I will," Murlough said. "Biding my time. Waiting for the right moment. Then you stormed off and made things easy. Young Murlough couldn't pass up a gift. I'll get the vampire later. You'll do for now. You and Snakey."
"Mr. Crepsley was alone," I baited him. "He had no flashlight. He was in the dark. But you decided to come after me. You're a coward. You were too scared to attack someone your own size. You're no better than -?
Murlough's fist connected with my jaw, and I saw stars.
"Say that again," he hissed, "and I'll slice off an ear."
I stared at the vampaneze with hatred, but held my tongue.
"Murlough's afraid of nothing!" he told me. "Especially not a weak old vampire like Crepsley. What kind of a vampire is it that consorts with children, hmmm? He isn't worth bothering with. I'll knock him off later. You have more guts. You're more hot-blooded." Murlough bent and tweaked my cheeks. "I like hot blood," he said softly.
"You can't drink from me," I said. "I'm a half-vampire. I'm off-limits."
"Maybe I'm finished with limits. I'm a free agent. I answer to no one. The laws of the vampaneze don't trouble me down here. I'll do what I like."
"It's poison," I gasped. "Vampire blood is poison to vampaneze."
"Yes. So's snake blood. You can't drink from either of us."
Murlough made a face. "You're right about the snake blood," he grumbled. "I took a little from him - just testing, you understand, just testing - and threw up for hours after."
"I told you!" I said triumphantly. "We're no good to you. Our blood's worthless. It can't be drunk."
"You're right," Murlough murmured, "but it can be shed. I can kill and eat the two of you, even if I can't drink from you." He began pushing us, so that we were swinging around wildly. I felt sick.
Then Murlough went to get something. When he came back, he was carrying two huge knives. Evra began whimpering quietly when he saw the blades.
"Ah! Snakey remembers what these are for." Murlough laughed evilly. He sliced the knives together, producing a sharp, grating sound that made me shiver. "We had some fun with these, didn't we, reptile?"
"I'm sorry, Darren." Evra sobbed. "He made me tell him where you were. I couldn't help it. He cut my scales off and... and..."
"It's all right," I said calmly. "It's not your fault. I would have talked, too. Besides, that wasn't how he caught me. We left the hotel before he found it."
"You must have left your brains behind, too," Murlough said. "Did you really think you could waltz down here into my lair, rescue the snake-boy, and run along like a happy little lamb? Did it never occur to you that I am master of this domain, and would do all in my power to stop you?"
"It occurred to me," I said softly.
"But you came anyway?"
"Evra's my friend," I said simply. "I'd do anything to help him."
Murlough shook his head and snorted. "That's the human in you. If you were a full vampire, you would have known better. I'm surprised Crepsley came so far with you before bailing out."
"He didn't bail out!" I shouted.
"Yes he did, yes he did." Murlough laughed. "I followed him to the top. That's why I didn't come after you sooner, hmmm? He ran as if the sun itself was at his back."
"You're lying," I said. "He wouldn't run. He wouldn't leave me."
"No?" The vampaneze grinned. "You don't know him as well as you think, boy. He's gone. He's out of the game. He's probably halfway back to wherever it was he came from by now, fleeing with his tail between his legs."
Murlough leaped forward without warning and swung the two knives at my face, one from either side. I screamed and shut my eyes, expecting him to draw blood. But he stopped just a quarter of an inch short of my flesh, tapped my ears with them, then drew back.
"Just testing," he said. "Wanted to see how much moral fiber you have. Not much, hmmm? Not much. Snakey didn't scream until the fourth or fifth lunge. You're going to be less fun than I thought. Maybe I won't bother torturing you. Perhaps I'll kill you outright. Would you like that, half-vampire? It would be for the best: no pain, no suffering, no nightmares. Snakey has nightmares. Tell him about your nightmares, reptile. Tell him how you jerk awake, screaming and sobbing like a baby."
Evra pulled his lips in tight and said nothing.
"Oh ho!" Murlough smirked. "Getting brave again in front of your friend, are you? Rediscovering your courage, hmmm? Well, don't worry - it won't take long to knock it back out of you."
He scraped the knives together again and circled around behind us, where we couldn't see him. "Which one should I start with?" he mused, jumping around behind us. "I think... I'll choose..." He went very quiet. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing upright.
" You!" he suddenly roared, and threw himself on... me.