MR. CREPSLEY, GAVNER, AND STREAK had been checking a maze of cliff-top tunnels when they heard faint echoes of the fight. They raced back, arriving fifteen minutes or so after I'd killed the bear. They were stunned when I explained what happened and told them about Harkat Mulds. The Little Person had replaced his robes and hood, and when they asked him if it was true that he could talk, there was a long moment of silence during which I thought he wasn't going to say anything. Then he nodded and croaked, "Yes." Gavner actually jumped back a few steps when he heard the Little Person speak. Mr. Crepsley shook his head, amazed. "We will discuss this later," he said. "First there is the bear to deal with." He crouched beside the dead bear and studied it from top to bottom. "Describe how it attacked you," he said, and I told him about the bear's sudden appearance and savage attack. "It makes no sense." Mr. Crepsley frowned. "Bears do not behave in such a fashion unless agitated or starving. It was not hunger that motivated it - look at its round stomach - and if you did nothing to upset it..."
"It was foaming at the mouth," I said. "I think it had rabies."
"We shall soon see." The vampire used his sharp nails to cut open the bear's belly. He stuck his nose close to the cut and sniffed the blood that was oozing out. After a few seconds he made a face and stood up.
"Well?" Gavner asked.
"The bear was insane," Mr. Crepsley said, "but not with rabies - it had consumed the blood of a vampaneze!"
"How?" I gasped.
"I am not sure," Mr. Crepsley replied, then looked up at the sky. "We have time before dawn. We will trace this bear's trail and perhaps learn more along the way."
"What about the dead Little Person?" Gavner asked. "Should we bury him?"
"Do you want to bury him... Harkat?" Mr. Crepsley asked, echoing my earlier question.
Harkat Mulds shook his head. "Not really."
"Then leave him," the vampire snapped. "Scavengers and birds will pick his bones clean. We do not have time to waste."
The path of the bear was easy to follow - even an untrained tracker like me could have traced it by the deep footprints and broken twigs.
Night was coming to a close as we pulled up at a small mound of stones and found what had driven the bear mad. Half-buried underneath the stones was a purple body with a red head of hair - a vampaneze!
"By the way his skull is crushed, he must have died in a fall," Mr. Crepsley said, examining the dead man. "The bear found him after he was buried and dug him up. See the chunks that have been bitten out of him?" He pointed to the gaping holes in the vampaneze's belly. "That is what drove it mad - the blood of vampaneze and vampires is poisonous. Had you not killed it, it would have died in another night or two anyway."
"So that's where our mystery vampaneze was," Gavner grunted. "No wonder we couldn't find him."
"We don't have to worry about him anymore, do we?" I sighed.
"Quite the contrary," Mr. Crepsley snapped. "We have more reason to worry now than before."
"Why?" I asked. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"He is," Mr. Crepsley agreed, then pointed to the stones which had been laid over the vampaneze. "But who buried him?"
We made camp at the base of a cliff, using branches and leaves to make a shelter where the vampires could sleep, safe from the sun. Once they were inside, Harkat and me sat by the entrance and the Little Person told his incredible story. The wolves had gone off hunting, except for Rudi, who curled up in my lap and dozed.
"My memories... are not... complete," said Harkat. Speaking wasn't easy for him and he had to pause for breath a lot. "Much is... clouded. I will tell... you what... I remember. First - I am a... ghost."
Our jaws dropped.
"A ghost!" Mr. Crepsley shouted. "Absurd!"
"Absolutely," Gavner agreed with a grin. "Vampires don't believe in crazy things like ghosts, do we, Larten?"
Before Mr. Crepsley could reply, Harkat corrected himself. "What I should... have said... is, I... was a ghost. All... Little People... were ghosts. Until... they agreed to terms... with Mr. Tiny."
"I don't understand," Gavner said. "Agreed to what terms? How?"
"Mr. Tiny can... talk with... dead," Harkat explained. "I did not... leave Earth... when I died. Soul... could not. I was... stuck. Mr. Tiny found... me. Said he'd give... me a... body, so I... could live again. In return... I'd serve him, as a... Little Person."
According to Harkat, each of the Little People had struck a deal with Mr. Tiny, and each deal was different. They didn't have to serve him forever. Sooner or later, they would be freed, some to live on in the gray, short bodies, some to be reborn, others to move on to heaven or paradise or wherever it is that dead souls go.
"Mr. Tiny has that much power?" Mr. Crepsley asked.
"What deal did you strike with him?" I asked curiously.
"I do not... know," he said. "I cannot... remember."
There were lots of things he couldn't remember. He didn't know who he'd been when he was alive, when or where he'd lived, or how long he'd been dead. He didn't even know if he'd been a man or a woman! The Little People were genderless, which meant they were neither male nor female.
"So how do we refer to you?" Gavner asked. "He? She? It?"
"He will... do fine," Harkat said.
Their blue robes and hoods were for show. Their masks, on the other hand, were necessary, and they carried several spares, some sewn under their skin for extra safekeeping! Air was lethal to them - if they breathed normal air for ten or twelve hours, they'd die. There were chemicals in their masks that purified the air.
"How can you die of you're already dead?" I asked, confused.
"My body can... die, like anyone... else's. If it does... my soul goes... back to the way... it was."
"Could you agree to another contract with Mr. Tiny?" Mr. Crepsley asked.
Harkat shook his head. "Not sure. But don't... think so. One shot at... extra life is... all I think... we get."
The Little People could read each other's minds. That's why they never spoke. He wasn't sure if the others were able to speak or not. When asked why he'd never spoken before, he flashed a crooked grin and said he'd never had cause to.
"But there must be a reason," Mr. Crepsley pressed. "In all the hundreds of years that we have known them, no Little Person has ever spoken, even when dying or in great pain. Why have you broken that long silence? And why?"
Harkat hesitated. "I have a... message," he finally said. "Mr. Tiny... gave me it... to give to... Vampire Princes. So I'd... have had to speak... soon anyway."
"A message?" Mr. Crepsley leaned forward intently, but pulled back into the shadows of the shelter when the sun hit him. "What sort of message?"
"It is for... Princes," Harkat said. "I do not... think I should... tell you."
"Go on, Harkat," I urged him. "We won't tell them you told us. You can trust us."
"You will... not tell?" he asked Mr. Crepsley and Gavner.
"My lips are sealed," Gavner promised.
Mr. Crepsley was slower to make his pledge, but finally nodded.
Harkat took a deep, shuddering breath. "Mr. Tiny told... me to tell... Princes that the... night of the... Vampaneze Lord... is at hand. That is... all."
"The night of the Vampaneze Lord is at hand?" I repeated. "What kind of a message is that?"
"I do not... know what... it means," Harkat said. "I'm just... the messenger."
"Gavner, do you -" I started to ask, but stopped when I saw the expressions of the vampires. Although Harkat's message didn't mean anything to me, it obviously meant a whole lot to them. Their faces were even paler than usual, and they were trembling with fear. In fact, they couldn't have looked more terrified if they'd been staked to the ground out in the open and left for the sun to rise!