We scurried through the tunnels, Mr. Crepsley leading the way, Vancha and I in the middle with our prisoners, Harkat bringing up the rear. We said as little as possible, and I cuffed Steve into silence whenever he started to speak --- I wasn't in the mood to listen to his threats or insults.
I didn't have a watch, but I'd been ticking off the seconds inside my head. About ten minutes or so had passed by my reckoning. We'd moved out of the modern tunnels and were back in the warren of old, damp tunnels. There was still a long way to go --- plenty of time for the vampaneze to run us down.
We came to a junction and Mr. Crepsley took the left turn. Vancha started to follow him, then stopped. "Larten," he called him back. When Mr. Crepsley returned, Vancha crouched low. He was almost invisible in the darkness of the tunnels. "We have to try and shake them off," he said. "If we make straight for the surface, they'll be upon us before we're halfway there."
"But we could lose ourselves if we detour," Mr. Crepsley said. "We do not know this area. We might run into a dead end."
"Aye," Vancha sighed, "but it's a chance we'll have to take. I'll act as a decoy and go back the way we came. The rest of you try and find an alternative route out. I'll work my way back to you later, if the luck of the vampires is with me."
Mr. Crepsley thought about that a moment, then nodded quickly. "Luck, Sire," he said, but Vancha was already gone, disappearing into the gloom in an instant, moving with the almost perfect silence of the vampires.
We rested a moment, than took the right tunnel and pressed on, Harkat now in charge of the vampet Vancha had kidnapped. We moved quickly but carefully, trying not to leave any signs that we'd passed this way. At the end of the tunnel, we branched off, again to the right. As we entered a fresh stretch of tunnel, Steve coughed loudly. Mr. Crepsley was on him in a flash. "Do that again and you die!" he snapped, and I sensed the blade of his knife pressing against Steve's throat.
"It was a real cough --- not a signal," Steve snarled in reply.
"It matters not!" Mr. Crepsley hissed. "The next time, I will kill you."
Steve was silent after that, as was the vampet. We marched steadily upward, instinctively navigating the tunnels, wading through water and waste. I felt terrible, tired and drawn, but I didn't slow down. It must be daylight above ground, or very close to it. Our only hope was to get clear of the tunnels before the vampaneze found us --- the sunlight should prevent them from pursuing us any further.
A short while later, we heard the vampaneze and vampets. They were coming up the tunnels at great speed, not having to worry about stealth. Mr. Crepsley dropped back a bit, to check if they were following us, but they didn't seem to have found our trail --- all of them appeared to have gone after Vancha.
We continued to climb, working our way closer to the surface. Our pursuers kept passing in and out of earshot. By the sounds they made, they'd realized we weren't following the shortest route back, and had stopped and fanned out in search of us. I guessed that we were at least half an hour from ground level. If they located us anytime soon, we were certainly doomed. The tunnels were as tight as they were dark --- a lone, well-placed vampet would have no difficulty mowing us down with a rifle or arrow-gun.
We were picking our way over a heap of rubble in a crumbling tunnel when we were eventually spotted. A vampet with a torch entered the tunnel at the far end, picked us out with a strong beam of light, and roared triumphantly. "I've found them! They're here! They ---"
He got no further. A figure stepped out of the shadows behind him, grabbed his head and twisted sharply, left then right. The vampet dropped to the ground. His assailant paused just long enough to turn off the torch, then hurried over. I knew without having to see him that it was Vancha.
"Good timing," Harkat muttered as the scraggly Prince joined us.
"I've been shadowing you for a while," Vancha said. "He's not the first one I've picked off. He just got a bit closer to you than the others."
"Any idea how far we are from the surface?" I asked.
"No," Vancha said. "I was ahead of you earlier, but I've been bringing up the rear for the last quarter of an hour, covering you and laying a few false trails."
"What about the vampaneze?" Mr. Crepsley said. "Are they close?"
"Aye," came Vancha's reply, and then he slipped away again, to provide more cover.
Slightly further ahead, we found ourselves in familiar tunnels. We'd explored a vast slice of the city's infrastructure when hunting for the vampaneze, and had been in this section three or four times. We were no more than six or seven minutes from safety. Mr. Crepsley whistled loudly, signaling to Vancha. The Prince swiftly joined us and we pushed on vigorously, finding a new lease on life.
"There they go!"
The shout came from a tunnel to our left. We didn't stop to check how many were nearby --- putting our heads down, we pushed Steve and the vampet in front and ran.
The vampaneze weren't long surging after us. Vancha dropped back and kept them at bay with his shurikens --- sharp, multi-edged throwing stars that were lethal when thrown by one as experienced as Vancha March. By the hysterical voices, I knew most --- if not all --- of the vampaneze and vampets had now converged behind us, but the tunnel we were in ran straight ahead, with hardly any side-tunnels opening out of it. Our enemies weren't able to sneak around and attack us from the side or in front --- they were forced to follow behind.
As we got closer to street level, the tunnels grew brighter, and my half-vampire eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light. I was now able to see the vampaneze and vampets trailing behind --- and they were able to see us! The vampaneze, like vampires, had sworn not to use any missile-firing weapons such as guns or bows, but the vampets weren't limited by that oath. They began firing as soon as they had a clear line of sight, and we had to run doubled-over. If we'd had to cover a long distance in that uncomfortable crouch, they'd have surely picked us off one by one, but within a minute of them opening fire, we arrived at a steel ladder leading up to a manhole.
"Go!" Vancha barked, unleashing a hail of shurikens at the vampets.
Mr. Crepsley grabbed me and shoved me up the ladder. I didn't protest at being first. It made the most sense --- f the vampaneze pressed forward, Mr. Crepsley was better equipped to fight them off.
At the top of the ladder I braced myself, then heaved against the manhole cover with my shoulders. It flew off, clearing the way up. I hauled myself out and quickly checked my surroundings. I was in the middle of a small street; it was early in the morning and nobody was about. Leaning back over the manhole, I yelled, "It's clear!"
Seconds later, Steve Leopard crawled out of the manhole, grimacing in the sunlight (almost blinding after being down the tunnels so long). Then Harkat came, followed by the vampet. There was a short delay after that. The tunnel underneath echoed with angry gun retorts. Fearing the worst, I was about to climb back down the ladder to check on Mr. Crepsley and Vancha when the orange-haired vampire burst out of the manhole, gasping wildly. Almost immediately, Vancha shot out after him. The pair must have jumped, one directly after the other.
As soon as Vancha was clear of the manhole, I stumbled across the street, picked up the cover, shuffled back with it and set it in place. Then all four of us gathered around it, Vancha grasping several shurikens, Mr. Crepsley his knives, Harket his axe, and me my sword. We waited ten seconds. Twenty. Half a minute. A minute passed. Mr. Crepsley and Vancha were sweating stingingly beneath the wan glare of the morning sun.
Vancha cocked an eyebrow at Mr. Crepsley. "Think they've given up?"
"For a moment." Mr. Crepsley nodded, backing off warily, switching his attention to Steve and the vampet, making sure they didn't make a break for freedom.
"We should get out of . . . this city," Harkat said, wiping a layer of dried blood from around his stitchedtogether grey face. Like Mr. Crepsley and Vancha, he was nicked in many places after his battle with the vampaneze, but the cuts weren't serious. "It would be suicide to remain."
"Run, rabbits, run," Steve murmured, and I cuffed him around the ears again, shutting him up.
"I'm not leaving Debbie," I said. "R.V.'s a crazed killer. I'm not going to abandon her to him."
"What did you do to that maniac to madden him so much?" Vancha asked, peeking down one of the small holes in the manhole cover, still not entirely convinced that we were in the clear. The purple animal hides he dressed in were hanging from his frame in shreds, and his dyed green hair was flecked with blood.
"Nothing," I sighed. "There was an accident at the Cirque Du Freak. He ---"
"We have no time for recollections," Mr. Crepsley interrupted, tearing off the left sleeve of his red shirt, which had been slashed in as many places as Vancha's hides. He squinted up at the sun. "In our state, we cannot bear to stay in the sun very long. Whatever our choice, we must choose soon."
"Darren's right," Vancha said. "We can't leave. Not because of Debbie --- much as I like her, I wouldn't sacrifice myself for her --- but the Lord of the Vampaneze. We know he's down there. We have to go after him."
"But he's too well protected," Harkat protested. "Those tunnels are full of vampaneze . . . and vampets. We'd perish for certain if we went . . . down again. I say we flee and come back . . . later, with help."
"You've forgotten Mr. Tiny's warning," Vancha said. "We can't ask other vampires for help. I don't care how poor the odds are --- we must try to breach their defenses and kill their Lord."
"I agree," Mr. Crepsley said. "But now is not the time. We are wounded and exhausted. We should rest and form a plan of action. The question is, where do we retire to --- the apartments we have been using, or elsewhere?"
"Elsewhere," Harkat said instantly. "The vampaneze know where . . . we've been living. If we stay, we'd be crazy to go where . . . they can attack anytime they like."
"I don't know," I muttered. "It was weird, the way they let us leave. I know Gannen said it was to spare the lives of his companions, but if they'd killed us, they were guaranteed victory in the War of the Scars. I think there's more to it than he was letting on. Having spared us when they had us trapped on their own turf, I doubt they'll come all the way up here to fight on our territory."
My companions mused on that in silence.
"I think we should return to our base and try to make sense of this," I said. "Even if we can't, we can get some rest and tend to our wounds. Then, come night, we'll attack."
"Sounds good to me," Vancha said.
"As good a plan as any," Mr. Crepsley sighed.
"Harkat?" I asked the Little Person.
His round green eyes were full of doubt, but he grimaced and nodded. "I think we're fools to stay, but if . . . we're going to, I guess at least we have weapons and . . . provisions there."
"Besides," Vancha added grimly, "most of the apartments are empty. It's quiet." He ran a menacing finger along the neck of his captured vampet, a shavenheaded man with the dark "V" of the vampets tattooed above either ear. "There are some questions I want answered, but the asking won't be pleasant. It'll be for the best if there's nobody around to hear."
The vampet sneered at Vancha as though unimpressed, but I could see fear in his blood-rimmed eyes. Vampaneze had the strength to withstand horrible tor- ture, but vampets were human. A vampire could do terrible things to a human.
Mr. Crepsley and Vancha wrapped their robes and hides around their heads and shoulders, to protect them from the worst of the sun. Then, pushing Steve and the vampet ahead of us, we climbed to roof level, got our bearings, and wearily headed for base.
Excerpted from KILLERS OF THE DAWN (Cirque du Freak #9) © Copyright 2005 by Darren Shan. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All r