MR CREPSLEY's ankle had improved vastly by the time we left the silo to face our destiny. His flesh was still a nasty shade of purple, but the worst of the swelling had died down. He tested the ankle as little as possible during our trek through the tunnels, but was able to stand unassisted when he had to.
There was no fuss about our descent into the menacing darkness. When the time came, we simply walked down the stairs of the silo, broke out through a boarded-up door, found a manhole, slipped beneath the streets and advanced. We didn't encounter any vampaneze or traps.
We said nothing during the journey. Each of us knew how serious this was, and the odds stacked against us. Victory was unlikely, and even if it came, escape seemed impossible. If we managed to kill the Lord of the Vampaneze, his followers would surely cut us down in revenge, their hands no longer tied by the prophecies of Mr Tiny. We were marching to our doom, and tongues have a tendency to seize up at such times, regardless of how brave you might be.
After a long, uneventful journey, we reached the newly built tunnels, dry and warm in comparison to the older links, and from there it was only a short walk to the cavern where we'd faced the vampaneze less than twenty-four hours ago.
Twenty-four hours - It felt like years!
Several burning candles were set in nooks around the walls, and their light revealed an apparently deserted cavern. The bodies of the vampaneze we'd killed the night before had been dragged away, though drying pools of their blood remained. The huge door at the other side of the cavern was closed.
"Tread carefully," Mr Crepsley said, pausing at the entrance. "Hold your weapons low and?"
He stopped abruptly and his face fell. Clearing his throat, he said in a surprisingly meek voice, "Did either of you bring a weapon?"
"Of course?" I began, then stopped as suddenly as Mr Crepsley had, my hand flying to my waist, where my sword would normally be nesting. But not now. I'd abandoned it when I was arrested, and with all that had happened since then, it had never occurred to me to replace it.
"Um - you're not going to believe this ?" I mumbled.
"You forgot too?" Mr Crepsley groaned.
We looked appealingly at Harkat.
The Little Person shook his neckless grey head. "Sorry."
"Brilliant!" Mr Crepsley snapped. "The most important fight of our lives, and we come unarmed. What manner of fools are we?"
"The greatest who ever stalked the shadows of the night," said someone from within the cavern.
Freezing, we stared into the gloom, our fingers twitching helplessly by our sides. Then a head popped into view from above the doorway and our hearts sank back in our chests. "Vancha!" we cheered.
"The one and only," grinned the Prince. He swung around from where he'd been hanging from the ceiling. Landing on his feet, he turned to greet us. Harkat and I hurried forward and embraced the scruffy, smelly man with the dyed green hair and animal hides. Vancha's huge eyes widened with surprise. Then his small mouth split into a smile. "Sappy idiots," he chuckled, hugging us back. He stuck his arms out to Mr Crepsley. "Haven'tyou got a hug for me, Larten, old buddy?" he croaked.
"You know where you can insert your hug," Mr Crepsley retorted.
"Oh, the ingratitude," Vancha moaned, then let us go and took a step back, beckoning us forward into the cavern. "Is it true what I overheard?" he asked. "You came without weapons?"
"We have had a difficult afternoon," Mr Crepsley sniffed, ears reddening.
"It must have been the most bloody awful afternoon in history if you forgot to come armed to the scrap of the century," Vancha chuckled, then grew serious. "Did you get away OK? Any unpleasantness?"
"Our breakout was relatively easy," Mr Crepsley said. "There were some sticky moments along the way - it has been a long time since I had to flee a wrathful mob - but all things considered, we fared rather splendidly. Our captors, however, were not so fortunate ?"
He told Vancha about Steve and the guards and nurses he'd killed. Vancha's red face - he'd been engaged in a private duel with the sun for many decades - darkened when he heard the news. "That one is aptly nicknamed," he growled. "If ever a human was bonded at the soul with a leopard, it's him. I just pray to the gods that I have a chance to slit his throat tonight."
"You'll have to get in line," I said. Nobody laughed - they knew I wasn't joking.
"Anyway," Vancha boomed, "one point of order at a time. I don't mind taking the vampaneze on empty-handed - it's my preferred method of fighting - but you three will need more than your fists and feet if we're to stand any chance of getting out of this alive. Luckily, Uncle Vancha has been busy. Follow me."
Vancha led us to one of the darker corners of the cavern, where a small pile of weapons lay stacked next to a large, motionless figure.
"Where did you get these?" Harkat asked, jumping on the weapons before Mr Crepsley and I had a chance. Rooting through them, he found a jagged knife and a small double-headed axe, which he swung over his head, delighted.
"The vampaneze left them when they were clearing their dead away," Vancha explained. "I imagine they assumed we'd come armed. If they knew how empty-headed you lot were, they'd have taken more care."
Ignoring the Prince's jibes, Mr Crepsley and I picked through the pile. He took a couple of long knives and afew shorter ones for throwing. I found a small curved sword I liked the feel of. I tucked a knife into the back of my trousers, for back-up, and then I was ready.
"What's that?" Harkat asked, nodding at the large figure on the ground.
"My guest," Vancha said, and rolled the figure over.
The pale white face of a bound, gagged, enraged Chief Inspector Alice Burgess came into view. "Urfl guffle snurf!" she shouted into the folds of her gag, and I'm certain she wasn't saying hello or wishing us well!
"What's she doing here?" I snapped.
"She was company for me," Vancha smirked. "Besides, I didn't know what to expect when I returned. If the police had taken to the tunnels and sewers, I might have needed her to trade my way past."
"What do you plan to do with her now?" Mr Crepsley asked coolly.
"I'm not sure," Vancha frowned, crouching to study the Chief Inspector. "I tried explaining things to her while we were passing the day away in a forest a few miles outside the city, but I don't think she believed me. In fact, by what she told me to do with my tales of vampires and vampaneze, Iknow she didn't!" The Prince paused. "Having said that, she'd be a great one to have on our side. We may have need of an extra pair of hands in the battle ahead."
"Could we trust her?" I asked.
"I don't know," Vancha said. "But there's one way to find out."
Vancha started to undo the knots of the Chief Inspector's gag. He stopped on the final knot and addressed her sternly. "I'm only going to say this once, so pay attention. I'm sure your first impulse when I free you will be to scream and curse and tell us what trouble we're in. And when you're on your feet, weapon in hand, you might feel like taking a stab at us and setting off by yourself.
"Don't!" His eyes were grim. "I know what you think of us, but you're wrong. We didn't kill your people. We're out to stop the killers. If you want to put an end to the torment, come with us and fight. You've nothing to gain by attacking us. Even if you don't believe that, act as if you do. Otherwise, I'll leave you here, trussed up like a turkey."
"Animal!" the Chief Inspector spat, as Vancha removed her gag. "I'll see you hang for this, all of you. I'll have you shaved bald, smeared with tar, covered with feathers, then set alight as you dangle!"
"Isn't she magnificent?" Vancha beamed, freeing her legs and arms. "She's been like that all afternoon. I think I'm falling in love."
"Savage!" she shouted, and struck out at him.
Vancha caught her arm and held it in mid air, his expression grave. "Remember what I said, Alice? I don't want to leave you here, at the mercy of our enemies, but I will if you force me to."
The Chief Inspector glared at him, then turned her head aside, disgusted, and held her tongue.
"Better," Vancha said, letting go. "Now, pick a weapon - two or three if you'd prefer - and get ready. We've an army of darkness to deal with."
The Chief Inspector gazed around at us uncertainly. "You guys arecrazy ," she muttered. "You really expect me to believe you're vampires, but not killers? That you're here to take on a bunch of - what did you call them?"
"Vampaneze," Vancha said cheerfully.
"That these vampaneze are the bad guys and you're here to sort them out, even though there's dozens of them and only four of you?"
"That's about the sum of it," Vancha smirked, "except there's five of us now, which should make all the difference."
"Crazy," she growled, but bent and picked up a long hunting knife, tested it, and gathered together another few knives. "OK," she said, standing. "I don't believe your story, but I'll tag along for the time being. If we run into these vampaneze, and they're all that you say, I'll throw my lot in with you. If we don't ?" She pointed at Vancha's throat with the largest of her knives and jerked it sharply to one side.
"I love it when you talk threateningly," Vancha laughed, then checked that we were all prepared, pulled his belts of shurikens tight around his chest, and led us forward in search of the vampaneze lair.