We passed quickly through the tunnels. Murlough marked the walls as he went, scratching them with his nails. He didn't want to, but I told him the deal was off if he didn't. This way, I would only have to follow the marks when I returned. A lot simpler than trying to remember every twist and turn.

Murlough had to carry me whenever crawling or climbing was required. I hated being so close to him - his breath stank of human blood - but I had to put up with it. He wasn't going to loosen the ropes around my arms, no matter what the circumstances.

Advertisement

We left the tunnels by a drain close to the square. Murlough hauled me up, only to shove me down violently when a car passed nearby.

"Have to be careful," he hissed. "Police have been over the city like flies since they found the bodies. Most annoying. In the future, I'll bury bones more carefully."

He brushed some dirt off his white suit when he stood, but made no effort to clean mine. "Have to get new clothes when I come back," he said. "Very awkward. Can never visit the same tailor twice, hmmm?"

"Why not?" I asked.

-- Advertisement --

He raised an eyebrow at me. "Is this a face you would forget in a hurry?" he asked, pointing to his purplish skin and red features. "Nobody would. That's why I have to kill any tailor once he's measured and fitted me. I'd steal clothes from stores if I could, but I am of uncommon build." He patted his gross stomach and giggled.

"Come on," he said. "You lead. Take the back route. Less chance of being seen."

The streets were pretty much deserted - it was late on Christmas Eve, and the melting snow meant walking was slippery business - and we met no one. We trudged through the slush, Murlough shoving me to the ground whenever a car drove by. I was getting sick of it - unable to break my fall with my hands, my face was taking the worst of the punishment - but he only laughed when I complained.

"Toughen you up, hmmm?" he said. "Build muscles."

Eventually we reached Debbie's. Murlough paused at the darkened back door and glanced around nervously. The surrounding houses were in darkness, but still he hesitated. For a moment I thought he was going to back out of our deal.

"Scared?" I asked softly.

"Young Murlough's scared of nothing!" he snapped immediately.

"Then what are you waiting for?"

"You seem very eager to lead me to your girlfriend," he said suspiciously.

I shrugged as best I could beneath the ropes. "The longer I have to wait, the worse I'm going to feel," I said. "I know what has to be done. I don't like it, and I'll feel awful afterward, but all I want right now is to have it over and done with, so I can take Evra and find someplace warm to lie down and relax. My feet are like blocks of ice."

"Poor little half-vampire." Murlough giggled, then used one of his sharp vampaneze nails to cut a circle in the glass of the back-door window. Reaching in, he opened the door and shoved me through.

He listened quietly to the noises of the house.

"How many people live here?" he asked.

"Three," I said. "Debbie and her parents."

"No brothers or sisters?" I shook my head. "No guests?"

"Just the three of them," I repeated.

"I might nibble one of the parents when I'm finished with the girl," he muttered.

"That wasn't part of the deal!" I hissed.

"So what? I never said I'd spare them. I doubt if I'll be hungry after, but maybe I'll come back another night, pick them off one by one. They'll think it's a family curse." He giggled.

"You're disgusting." I growled.

"You're only saying that because you like me." He chuckled. "Go on," he said, focusing back on serious business. "Up the stairs. The parents' bedroom first. I want to make sure they're asleep."

"Of course they're asleep," I said. "It's the middle of the night. You'd hear them if they were awake."

"I don't want them walking in on me," he said.

"Look," I sighed. "If you want to check on Jesse and Donna, fine, I'll take you to them. But you're wasting time. Wouldn't it be better if we got in and out as quickly as possible?"

The vampaneze thought it over. "Very well," he said. "But if they wake up unexpectedly, young Murlough will kill them, yes he will, and it'll be your fault."

"Fair enough," I said, and started up the stairs.

It was a long, tense walk. Being bound by ropes, I wasn't able to move as quietly as usual. Every time a step creaked, I winced and paused. Murlough was tense, too: his hands were twitching and he drew in a sharp breath whenever I made a noise and stopped.

When I got to Debbie's door, I leaned my head against it and sighed sadly. "This is it," I said.

"Out of the way," Murlough snapped, and shoved me to one side. He stood there, sniffing, then smiled. "Yes," he said. "I can smell her blood. You can smell it, too, I bet, hmmm?"

"Yes," I said.

He turned the handle and eased the door open. It was dark inside, but our eyes were used to the greater darkness of the tunnels, so they adjusted quickly.

Murlough glanced around the room, noting the closets and chests of drawers, the few posters and pieces of furniture, the bare Christmas tree near the window.

Debbie's outline could just be seen beneath the covers of her bed, moving around slightly, like a person does when she's having a bad dream. The smell of her blood was thick in the air.

Murlough moved forward, then remembered me. He tied me to the door handle, tugged at it hard to make sure the knot was secure, then jammed his face up to mine and sneered.

"Have you ever seen death before, Darren Shan?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"It's wonderful, isn't it?"

"No," I said bluntly. "It's horrible."

The vampaneze sighed. "You cannot see the beauty. Never mind. You are young. You will learn as you grow." He pinched my chin between a couple of purple fingers and a thumb. "I want you to watch," he said. "Watch as I rip her throat open. Watch as I suck her blood out. Watch as I steal her soul and make it mine."

I tried turning my eyes away, but he pinched harder and forced them back. "If you don't watch," he said, "I go straight to the parents' room after this and kill the two of them, too. Understand?"

"You're a monster," I said, gasping.

" Understand?" he repeated menacingly.

"Yes," I said, jerking my chin free. "I'll watch."

"Good boy." He chuckled. "Clever boy. You never know - you might like it. This could be the making of you. Maybe you'll come with me when I leave. How about it, Darren Shan? Fancy abandoning that boring old vampire and becoming young Murlough's assistant, hmmm?"

"Just get on with it," I said, not bothering to hide my disgust.

Murlough crossed the room slowly, making no sound. He drew his two knives as he walked and twirled them around like a pair of batons. He began whistling, but softly, too softly for any but the most advanced ears to hear.

The slight movements continued beneath the covers.

I watched, stomach churning, as he closed in on his prey. Even if I hadn't been under orders to watch, I couldn't have torn my eyes away. It was a dreadful sight, but fascinating. Like watching a spider zoom in on a fly. Only this spider carried knives, ate humans, and had an entire city for a web.

He approached the bed from the side nearest the door, stopping half a foot away. Then he pulled something from one of his pockets. Straining my eyes, I realized it was a bag. Opening it, he took out some kind of saltlike substance and sprinkled it on the floor. I wanted to ask what it was for, but didn't dare speak. I guessed it was some ritual that vampaneze performed when they killed somebody at home. Mr. Crepsley had told me they were big on rituals.

Murlough walked around the bed, sprinkling the "salt," muttering words I couldn't make sense of. When he was finished, he walked back to the foot of the bed, glanced over to make sure I was watching, and then, in one swift move - almost too quick for me to follow - leaped on the bed, landed with a foot on either side of the sleeping form, jerked back the covers, and lashed out with both knives, killer cuts that would slash open Debbie's throat and end her life in an instant.

    

-- Advertisement --