WE DIDN'T get very far before running into our first obstacle. The huge door leading out of the cavern was bolted shut and wouldn't open. It was the type of door you find on walk-in safes in banks. There was a long row of combination locks running across the middle, beneath a circular handle.
"I wrestled with this for more than an hour," Vancha said, tapping the row of small lock windows. "Couldn't make head nor tail of it."
"Let me have a look," Mr Crepsley said, stepping forward. "I am not adept at locks such as these, but I have broken into safes before. I may be able to ?" He trailed off, studied the locks a minute, then cursed foully and kicked the door.
"Something wrong?" I asked lightly.
"We cannot go this way," he snapped. "It is too intricately coded. We must find a way around."
"Easier said than done," Vancha replied. "I've scoured the cavern for hidden passages and tunnels - didn't find any. This place has been purpose-built. I think this is the only way ahead."
"What about the ceiling?" I asked. "The vampaneze came that way the last time we were down here."
"There are removable panels in the roof of the cavern," Vancha said, "but the space above them is only accessible from down here, not through the tunnel."
"Couldn't we break through the wall - around the door?" Harkat asked.
"I tried," Vancha said, nodding at a hole he'd punched out a few metres to our left. "It's steel-lined.Thick steel. Even vampires have their limits."
"This doesn't make sense," I grumbled. "They knew we'd come. Theywant us to come. Why strand us here? There must be a way through." I knelt and examined the rows of tiny windows, each of which contained two numbers. "Explain this lock to me," I said to Mr Crepsley.
"It is a combination lock. Quite straightforward. The dials are down there." He pointed to a series of thin dials beneath the windows. "You twist them clockwise for a higher number, anti-clockwise for a lower number. When the correct numbers have been entered in all fifteen windows, the door will open."
"And each number's different?" I asked.
"I assume so." He sighed. "Fifteen different locks, fifteen different numbers. I could crack the code eventually, but it would take several nights and days."
"It doesn't make sense," I said again, staring at the meaningless numbers in the windows. "Steve helped design this trap. He wouldn't have built something we couldn't get past. There must be ?" I stopped. The last three windows were blank. I pointed them out to Mr Crepsley and asked why.
"They must not form part of the code," he said.
"So we've only twelve numbers to worry about?"
He smiled ruefully. "That should save us half a night or so."
"Why twelve?" I thought aloud, then closed my eyes and tried to think as Steve might (not a pleasant experience!). He'd exercised great patience in tricking us and setting us up for a fall, but now that we were close to the end, I couldn't picture him placing a boulder in our path which would take a week to remove. He'd be eager to get at us. The code he picked must be one we'd be able to crack pretty quickly, so it had to be simple, something which looked impossible, but in reality was as plain as ?
I groaned, then began counting. "Try these numbers as I call them out," I said to Mr Crepsley, eyes still closed. "Nineteen - Twenty - Five ?"
I carried on until I got to "Eighteen - Four." I stopped and opened my eyes. Mr Crepsley spun the last counter anti-clockwise to four. There was a click and the circular handle popped out. Startled, the vampire grabbed it and twisted. It turned easily at his touch and the round door swung open.
Mr Crepsley, Harkat and Vancha stared at me, awed.
"How ??" Vancha gasped.
"Oh, please!" Alice Burgess snorted. "Isn't it obvious? He just converted the alphabet into numbers, starting with one and finishing with twenty-six. It's the most simplistic code in operation. A child could work it out."
"Oh," Harkat said. "I get it now. A was 1, B was - 2, and so on."
"Right," I smiled. "Using that code, I dialled in 'Steve Leopard'. I knew it had to be something easy like that."
"Isn't education wonderful, Larten?" Vancha smirked. "We'll have to attend night classes when this is over."
"Quiet!" Mr Crepsley snapped, not amused. He was gazing into the darkness of the tunnel beyond. "Remember where we are and who we are facing."
"You can't talk to a Prince like that," Vancha grumbled, but straightened up and focused on the stretch of tunnel ahead. "Get in line," he said, moving to take the lead. "I'll go first, Harkat second, Alice in the middle, Darren behind, Larten at the rear."
Nobody argued with him. Though I was of equal rank, Vancha was far more experienced, and there was no doubt as to who was in charge.
Entering the tunnel, we advanced. Though the ceiling wasn't high, the tunnel was wide, and we were able to walk quite comfortably. Torches were set in the walls at regular intervals. I looked for tunnels leading off this one, but couldn't see any. We pressed on straight ahead.
We'd gone maybe forty metres when a sharp, clanging noise behind made us jump. Turning swiftly, we saw someone standing by the door we'd just come through. When he stepped forward into the light of the closest torch, hooks held up above his head, we knew instantly who it was ?R. V .!
"Lady and gentlemen!" he boomed. "Welcome! The proprietors of the Cavern of Retribution wish you well and hope you enjoy your stay. If you've any complaints, please don't hesitate to?"
"Where's Debbie, you monster?" I screamed, trying to shove past Mr Crepsley. The vampire held me back with a firm arm and shook his head tautly.
"Remember what we discussed in the silo," he hissed.
I struggled a moment, then stepped back and glared at the insane vampaneze, who was jumping about from foot to foot, laughing crazily.
"Where is she?" I snarled.
"Not far from here," he chuckled, his voice carrying in the close confines of the tunnel. "Quite close as the crow flies. Closer still as the crowdies ."
"That's a lousy pun," Harkat shouted.
"I ain't a poet but I don't know it," R.V. tossed back in reply. Then he stopped dancing and stared at us coldly. "Debbie's close, man," he hissed. "And she's alive. But she won't be much longer, not if you don't come with me now, Shan. Leave your rotten friends and surrender yourself to me - I'll let her go. Stay with them and pursue your hateful quest ?I'll kill her!"
"If you do ?" I growled.
"What?" he jeered. "You'll kill me too? You'll have to catch me first, Shanny boy, and that's a lot easier said than done. R.V.'s quick on his feet, yes indeedy, quick as a gazelle."
"He sounds so much like Murlough," Mr Crepsley whispered, referring to a mad vampaneze we'd killed many years earlier. "It is as if his spirit has survived and found a home inside R.V."
I'd no time to worry about spirits of the past. As I thought over the offer, R.V. darted to a hole on his left - it had been covered by as panel when we passed it - ducked into it, then stuck his head out, grinning wildly. "How about it, Shanny? Your life for Debbie's. Is it a deal or do I make her squeal?"
This was my moment of truth. I'd have given my life gladly if it meant sparing Debbie's. But if the Lord of the Vampaneze got the better of us, he'd lead his people to victory over the vampires. My duty was to those who'd placed their faith in me. I had more than myself to think about. And though it pained me intensely, I lowered my head in response to R.V.'s offer and said softly, "No."
"What was that?" R.V. shouted. "Speak up - I can't hear you."
"NO!" I roared, whipping out my knife and launching it at him, although I knew I couldn't hit him from where I was standing.
R.V.'s face twisted with hate. "Cretin!" he snarled. "The others said you wouldn't trade for her, but I was sure you would. Very well. Have it your way, man. It's Debbie stew for breakfast!"
Laughing at me, he withdrew and slammed the panel shut on the passageway. I wanted to run after him, pound on the panel and scream for him to bring Debbie back. But I knew he wouldn't, so I restrained myself - just.
"You did well, Darren," Mr Crepsley said, laying a hand on my shoulder.
"I did what had to be done," I sighed, taking no pleasure from his compliment.
"Was that one of those vampaneze you've been talking about?" Burgess asked, visibly shaken.
"That's one of our ruby-lipped boys, sure enough," Vancha replied chirpily.
"Are they all like that?" she asked, eyes wide, white hair frizzy with fright.
"Oh, no," Vancha said, faking an innocent look. "Most are far worse!"
Then the Prince winked, faced front, and moved on, leading us further down the throat-like tunnel, into the stomach of the vampaneze's monstrous trap, where destiny and death were lying in wait.