"LET THEfighting cease," the Lord of the Vampaneze said in a low, unmelodramatic voice. "There's no need for it now."
It was the first time I'd seen the Vampaneze Lord's face and I was surprised by how ordinary he looked. I'd built up a picture in my mind of a fierce, fiery, wild-eyed tyrant, whose gaze could turn water to steam. But this was just a man in his twenties or early thirties, normal build, light brown hair and rather sad eyes. The wound he'd received to his shoulder was minor - the blood had already dried - and he ignored it as he spoke.
"I knew this was coming," the Lord of the Vampaneze said softly, turning his head to gaze at Mr Crepsley. "Des Tiny predicted it. He said I'd have to fight one of the hunters here, above the flames, and that it would most likely be Larten Crepsley. We tried to turn his prophecy on its head and lure the boy up instead. For a while I thought we'd succeeded. But in my heart I knew it was you I'd have to face."
Mr Crepsley raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Did Mr Tiny say which of us would triumph?" he asked.
A thin smile broke across the Vampaneze Lord's lips. "No. He said it could swing either way."
"That is encouraging," Mr Crepsley said dryly.
Mr Crepsley held one of his knives up to catch the light of the chandelier high above his head, studying the blade. The instant he did that, Gannen Harst stepped in front of his Lord, defensively.
"The deal's off," Harst said gruffly. "The two to one ratio no longer applies. If you'd sent Darren Shan as agreed, we'd have kept our side of the bargain. Since you've come in his place, you can't expect us to offer the same generous odds."
"I expect nothing of madmen and traitors," Mr Crepsley said archly, causing the vampaneze and vampets in the cavern to mutter darkly.
"Take heed," Gannen Harst snarled, "or I'll?"
"Peace, Gannen," said the Lord of the Vampaneze. "The time for threats has passed. Let us lock weapons and wits without any further rancour."
The Vampaneze Lord stepped out from behind Gannen Harst and produced a barbed short sword. Harst drew a longer, straight sword, while Steve whistled merrily and dug out a gold dagger and long length of spiked chain.
"Are you ready, Larten Crepsley?" the Vampaneze Lord asked. "Have you made your peace with the gods?"
"I did that long ago," Mr Crepsley said, both knives in his hands, his eyes alert. "But, before we begin, I would like to know what happens after. If I win, will my allies be set free, or must they?"
"No bargains!" the Lord of the Vampaneze snapped. "We're not here to make deals. We're here to fight. The fate of the others - my people and yours - can be settled after we lock blades. Only we matter now. All else is meaningless."
"Very well," Mr Crepsley grunted, then stepped away from the rail, crouched low and edged towards his foes.
On the ground, nobody moved. Vancha, Harkat, Debbie, Burgess and I had lowered our weapons and were oblivious to all around us. It would have been a simple task for the vampaneze to capture us, but they were as captivated by events on the platform as we were.
As Mr Crepsley advanced, the three vampaneze assumed a 'V' formation and shuffled forward a few metres. The Vampaneze Lord was in the middle, Gannen Harst a metre ahead of him on his left, Steve Leopard the same distance ahead on his right. It was a cautiously effective strategy. Mr Crepsley would have to attack through the centre - he had to kill the Vampaneze Lord; the others didn't matter. When he attacked, Harst and Steve would be able to strike from both sides at once.
Mr Crepsley stopped short of the three, arms outstretched to protect against darting attacks from either side. His eyes were focused on the Vampaneze Lord and he didn't blink once while I was watching.
Several strained seconds passed. Then Steve lashed out at Mr Crepsley with his chain. I saw spikes glitter as it snaked towards Mr Crepsley's head - they'd cause serious damage if they connected. But the vampire was faster than the half-vampaneze. Twisting his head ever so slightly to the left, he avoided the chain and spikes by a centimetre, then stabbed sharply at Steve's stomach with the knife in his left hand.
As Mr Crepsley attacked Steve, Gannen Harst swung at the vampire with his sword. My mouth opened to shout a warning, but then I saw I needn't bother - the vampire had been expecting the counter-measure and pivoted sweetly away from the sword, gliding inside the range of its sweep, coming within striking distance of the Vampaneze Lord.
Mr Crepsley used the knife in his right hand to slash forward, seeking to open the Vampaneze Lord's stomach. But the leader of the vampaneze was swift and blocked the blow with his barbed sword. The tip of Mr Crepsley's knife bit into the Lord's waist but only drew a thin trickle of blood.
Before the vampire could strike again, Steve struck at him with his dagger. He chopped wildly at Mr Crepsley - too wild for accuracy - and forced him back. Then Gannen Harst stepped in and let fly with his sword, and Mr Crepsley had to drop to the floor and roll backwards to escape.
They were on him before he got to his feet, blades flashing, Steve's chain whipping. It took all Mr Crepsley's speed, strength and skill to turn the swords aside, duck out of the way of the chain, and retreat on his knees before they overwhelmed him.
As the vampaneze hastened after the vampire, I feared they had the beating of him - the swords and chain were sneaking through Mr Crepsley's desperate defences; nicking him here, slicing him there. The wounds weren't life-threatening, but it was only a matter of time before a blade cut deeply into his stomach or chest, or the spikes of the chain snagged on his nose or eyes.
Mr Crepsley must have known the danger he was in, but he continued to fight a rearguard action, no longer taking the battle to the enemy, merely retreating and protecting himself as best he could, giving ground steadily, letting them push him towards the rail at the end of the platform, where he'd be cornered.
"He can't keep this up," I muttered to Vancha, who was standing close by, his eyes glued to the platform. "He's got to take a risk, and soon, before they trap him."
"You think he's unaware of that?" Vancha replied tersely.
"Then why doesn't he?"
"Hush, boy," the scruffy Prince said softly. "Larten knows what he's doing."
I wasn't so sure. Mr Crepsley was an expert fighter, but I felt he was in over his head this time. One to one, he could handle any vampaneze. Even in a two to one situation, I'd fancy him to walk away victorious. But three to one ?
I looked for some way up to the platform - if I could join him, I might be able to turn the tide of battle. But just then, the fight took a terminal turn.
Mr Crepsley was almost backed up against the rail, no more than half a metre away from a dead end. The vampaneze knew the difficult position he was in, and pushed forward with renewed eagerness, sensing the end. Steve sent his chain flicking at Mr Crepsley's face again, for the umpteenth time, but on this occasion the vampire didn't dodge the deadly spikes or duck out of their way. Instead, dropping the knife in his left hand, he reached up and grabbed the chain mid air. His fingers closed on spikes, and his mouth tightened with pain, but he didn't let go. Yanking sharply on the chain, he brought Steve crashing towards him. At the last possible instant he lowered his chin, so that Steve's face connected bone-crunchingly with the vampire's forehead.
Steve's nose popped and gushed blood. He shrieked loudly, falling to the floor. As he fell, Mr Crepsley sent the knife in his right hand flying at Gannen Harst, leaving himself weaponless. As Harst instinctively pulled out of the path of the knife, the Vampaneze Lord drove at Mr Crepsley with his sword.
Mr Crepsley threw himself away from the incoming sword tip. Crashing into the railing, he spun around so he was facing away from his opponents, grabbed the rail with his hands, swung his legs and body up with ferocious speed, and ended up doing a handstand on the rail.
While those of us on the ground gawped, stunned by the unexpected manoeuvre, Mr Crepsley lowered himself to chin level with the rail, then thrust away from it with all his strength. The vampire sailed, full stretch, through the air, soaring over the Vampaneze Lord and Gannen Harst - who'd stepped in front of his Lord to protect him, as he'd done many times during the fight - and Steve Leopard, who was still lying on the platform.
Mr Crepsley landed on his feet like a cat, behind the unprotected back of the Vampaneze Lord. Before the half-vampaneze or Gannen Harst could react, Mr Crepsley seized the Lord by the scruff of his shirt with his left hand, grabbed the waist of his trousers with his right, lifted him off the floor, spun to the edge of the platform - and tossed him head-first over the side, into the pit of stakes below!
There wastime for the Lord of the Vampaneze to scream - once - then he hit the stakes with a thud which made me wince. The stakes impaled him in a dozen different places, including through the heart and head. His body twitched a couple of times, then went still, and flames caught in his hair and clothes.
It happened so fast, at first I couldn't take it all in. But as the seconds passed, and the vampaneze stared, bewildered and distraught, into the pit at the flaming corpse of their leader, the full truth struck home. Mr Crepsley had killed the Lord of the Vampaneze - without their leader, they faced destined defeat - the War of the Scars was over - the future was ours - we'dWON !