MR. CREPSLEY WAS GRUMPY when I woke him - he hated getting up before the sun went down - but stopped complaining when I told him why I disturbed his sleep. "Mr. Tiny." He sighed, scratching the long scar that ran down the left side of his face. "I wonder what he wants?"

"I don't know," I answered, "but he said not to leave until he had a word with you." I lowered my voice and whispered, "We could sneak away without being seen if we hurried. Dusk isn't too far away. You could handle about an hour of sunlight if we stayed in the shadows, couldn't you?"


"I could," Mr. Crepsley agreed, "were I given to fleeing like a dog with its tail between its legs. But I am not. I will face Desmond Tiny. Bring me my finest cloak - I like to look my best for visitors." That was as close to a joke as the vampire was probably going to come - he didn't have much of a sense of humor.

An hour later, with the sun setting, we made our way to Mr. Tall's caravan, where Mr. Tiny was entertaining the owner of the Cirque Du Freak with stories of what he'd seen in a recent earthquake.

"Ah, Larten!" Mr. Tiny boomed. "Prompt as ever."

"Desmond," Mr. Crepsley replied stiffly.

"Have a seat," Mr. Tiny said.

"Thank you, but I will stand." Nobody liked sitting when Mr. Tiny was around - in case they needed to make a quick getaway.

"I hear you're taking off for Vampire Mountain," Mr. Tiny said.

"We leave tonight," Mr. Crepsley confirmed.

"This is the first Council you've been to in about fifty years, isn't it?"

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"You are well informed," Mr. Crepsley grunted.

"I keep an ear to the ground."

There was a knock at the door, and Mr. Tall let in two of the Little People. One walked with kind of a limp. He'd been with the Cirque Du Freak almost as long as me. I called him Lefty, although that was only a nickname - none of the Little People had real names.

"Ready, boys?" Mr. Tiny asked. The Little People nodded. "Excellent!" He smiled at Mr. Crepsley. "The path to Vampire Mountain is as hazardous as ever, isn't it?"

"It is not easy," Mr. Crepsley agreed cagily.

"Dangerous for a young snip of a thing like Master Shan, wouldn't you say?"

"Darren can look after himself," Mr. Crepsley said, and I grinned proudly.

"I'm sure he can," Mr. Tiny responded, "but it's unusual for someone so young to make the journey, isn't it?"

"Yes," Mr. Crepsley said curtly.

"That's why I'm sending these two along as guards." Mr. Tiny waved a hand at the Little People.

"Guards?" Mr. Crepsley barked. "We do not need any. I have made the trip many times. I can look after Darren myself."

"You can indeed," Mr. Tiny cooed, "but a little help never went astray, did it?"

"They would get in the way," Mr. Crepsley growled. "I do not want them."

"My Little People? Get in the way?" Mr. Tiny sounded shocked. "They exist only to serve. They'll be like shepherds, watching over the two of you while you sleep."

"Nevertheless," Mr. Crepsley insisted, "I do not want -"

"This is not an offer," Mr. Tiny interrupted. Although he spoke softly, the menace in his voice was unmistakable. "They're going with you. End of story. They'll hunt for themselves and see to their own sleeping arrangements. All you have to do is make sure you don't 'lose' them in the snowy wastelands on the way."

"And when we get there?" Mr. Crepsley snapped. "Do you expect me to take them inside? That is not permitted. The Princes will not stand for it."

"Yes they will," Mr. Tiny disagreed. "Don't forget by whose hands the Hall of Princes was built. Paris Skyle and the rest know which side their blood is buttered on. They won't object."

Mr. Crepsley was furious - practically shaking with rage - but the anger seeped out of him as he stared into Mr. Tiny's eyes and realized there was no arguing with the little man. In the end he nodded and shifted his gaze, ashamed at having to bow to the demands of this interfering man.

"I knew you'd see it my way," Mr. Tiny said, then turned his attention to me. "You've grown," he noted. "Inside, where it matters. Your battles with the wolf-man and Murlough have toughened you."

"How do you know about that?" Mr. Crepsley gasped. It was common knowledge that I had a run-in with the maniacal wolf-man, but nobody was meant to know about our fight with Murlough. If the vampaneze ever found out, they'd hunt us to the ends of the Earth and kill us.

"I know everything." Mr. Tiny cackled. "This world holds no secrets from me. You've come a long way," he addressed me again, "but there's a long way yet to go. The path ahead isn't easy, and I'm not just talking about the route to Vampire Mountain. You must be strong and keep faith in yourself. Never admit defeat, even when it seems inevitable."

I hadn't expected this kind of a speech, and I listened in a daze, numbly wondering why he was sharing these words with me.

"That's all I have to say," he finished, standing and rubbing his heart-shaped watch. "Time's ticking. We've all got places to be and deadlines to meet. I'll be on my way. Hibernius, Larten, Darren." He bowed briefly to each of us in turn. "We'll meet again, I'm sure." He turned, headed for the door, exchanged a look with the Little People, then let himself out. In the silence that followed, we stared at one another speechlessly, wondering what all that had been about.

Mr. Crepsley wasn't happy, but he couldn't postpone leaving - making it to the Council on time was more important than anything else, he told me. So, while the Little People stood waiting outside his van, I helped him pack.

"Those clothes will not do," he said, referring to my bright pirate costume, which still fit me after all the years of wear and tear. "Where we are going, you would stand out like a peacock. Here," he threw a bundle at me. I unrolled it to reveal a light gray sweatshirt and pants, plus a woolly hat.

"How long have you been preparing for this?" I asked.

"Some time now," he admitted, pulling on clothes with the same color as mine, in place of his usual red outfit.

"Couldn't you have told me about it earlier?"

"I could have," he replied in that infuriating way of his.

I slipped into my new clothes, then looked for socks and shoes. Mr. Crepsley shook his head when he saw me searching. "No footwear," he said. "We go barefoot."

"Over snow and ice?" I yelped.

"Vampires have harder feet than humans," he said. "You will barely feel the cold, especially when we are walking."

"What about stones and thorns?" I grumbled.

"They will toughen your soles up even more." He grinned, then took off his slippers. "It is the same for all vampires. The way to Vampire Mountain is not just a journey - it is a test. Boots, jackets, ropes: Such items are not permitted."

"Sounds crazy to me." I sighed, but took the rope, spare clothes, and boots out of my bag. When we were ready, Mr. Crepsley asked where Madam Octa was. "You're not bringing her, are you?" I grumbled - I knew who'd have to look after her if she came, and it wouldn't be Mr. Crepsley!

"There is someone I wish to show her to," he said.

"Someone who eats spiders, I hope," I said, but grabbed her from behind his coffin, where I kept her between shows. She shuffled around while I lifted the cage and placed it in my bag, but settled down once she found herself in the dark again.

Then it was time to go. I had said good-bye to Evra earlier - he was taking part in that night's show and had to prepare - and Mr. Crepsley had said good-bye to Mr. Tall. Nobody else would miss us.

"Ready?" Mr. Crepsley asked.

"Ready," I sighed.

Leaving the safety of the van, we cleared the camp, let the two silent Little People fall into place behind us, and set off on what would prove to be a wild, danger-filled adventure into lands cold and foreign and steeped in blood.

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