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Chapter SEVENTEEN

Vancha blinked slowly. "You're saying I'll die whether we win or lose?" His voice was surprisingly steady.

"is destined to destroy you," Mr Tall replied. "I cannot say when or how it happens, but it will."

"Who's this Lord of the Shadows?" Harkat asked. I was the only person who'd been told about him. Evanna had warned me not to speak of it to anybody else.

"He's the cruel leader who will ruin the world after the War of the Scars," Mr Tall said.

"I don't get it," Harkat grumbled. "If we kill Steve, then there won't be a? Lord of the bloody Shadows."

"Oh, but there will," Mr Tall said. "The world is set to produce a monster of unimaginable power and fury. His coming is unavoidable. Only his identity is yet to be determined - and that will be decided shortly."

"The wasteworld," Harkat said sickly. "You mean, even if we kill Steve, that's what? the future will be? The desolate land where Darren and I found? out the truth about me - that's what lies? in store?"

Mr Tall hesitated, then nodded. "I could not tell you before. I have never spoken of matters such as this in the past. But we are at the time where no harm can come of revealing it, since nothing can be done to avert it. is upon us - within twenty-four hours he will be born, and all the world will tremble at his coming."

There was a long, stunned silence. Vancha, Harkat, Debbie and Alice were filled with confusion, especially the latter pair, who knew nothing of the wasteworld of the future.I was filled with fear. This was confirmation of all my worst nightmares. would rise regardless of what happened in the War of the Scars. And not only could I not prevent his coming - in one of the futures, I wouldbe him. Which meant, if we won the war, at some stage in the next fifty or sixty years, along with all the other lives I'd ruin, I would kill Vancha too. It seemed impossible. It sounded like a sick joke. But Evanna and Mr Tall both had the gift of reading the future - and both had told me the same thing.

"Let me get this straight," Vancha growled, breaking the silence and disrupting my train of thought. "No matter what happens between us and Steve Leonard - or in the war with the vampaneze - a Lord of the Shadows is going to come along and destroy the world?"

"Yes," Mr Tall said. "Humans are soon to lose control of this planet. The reins of power will be handed over. This is written. What remains to be seen is whether the reins pass to a vampaneze or? to a vampire." He didn't look at me when he said that. It might have been my imagination, but I got the feeling he had deliberately avoided making eye contact with me.

"But regardless of who wins, I'm for the chop?" Vancha pressed.

"Yes." Mr Tall smiled. "But do not fear death, Vancha, for it comes for us all." His smile dimmed. "For some of us, it comes very soon."

"What are you talking about?" Vancha snapped. "You're not part of this. No vampire or vampaneze would raise a hand against you."

"That might be true," Mr Tall chuckled, "but there are others in this world who do not hold me in such high esteem." He cocked his head sideways and his expression mellowed. "And to prove my point?"

A woman screamed. We all sprang to our feet and rushed to the door, except Mr Tall, who slowly rose behind us.

Alice was first to the door. Flinging it open, she dived out, drew a gun, rolled when she hit the ground, then came to her knees. Vancha was next. He leapt out, pulling a couple of shurikens free, jumping high to launch them from a height if he had to. I was third. I had no weapons, so I sprang over to where Alice was, guessing she'd be able to supply me with something. Harkat and Debbie moved at the same time, Harkat brandishing his axe, Debbie pulling a pistol like Alice's. Behind them, Mr Tall stood in the doorway, gazing up at the sky. Then he stepped down.

There was nobody in sight, but we heard another scream, this time a child's. Then a man gave a shout of panic - it was Evra.

"A weapon!" I yelled at Alice as she got to her feet. With one hand she reached down and produced a short hunting knife from a pouch on her left leg.

"Stay behind me," Alice commanded, homing in on the screams. "Vancha to my left, Debbie and Harkat to my right."

We obeyed the ex-chief inspector, fanned out and advanced. I could sense Mr Tall following, but I didn't look back.

A woman screamed again - Merla, Evra's wife.

People spilt out of the caravans and tents around us, performers and staff, eager to help. Mr Tall roared at them to keep out of this. His voice was thunderous and they quickly bolted back inside. I glanced over my shoulder, stunned by his fierceness. He smiled apologetically. "This is our fight, not theirs," he said by way of explanation.

The "our" surprised me - was Mr Tall finally abandoning his neutrality? - but I hadn't time to dwell upon it. Ahead of me, Alice had cleared the end of a tent and come into sight of the disturbance. A second later, I was on the scene too.

The Vons - except Lilia, who wasn't present - were under attack. Their assailants - R.V., Morgan James and Steve Leopard's son, Darius! R.V. had killed Evra's snake and was in the process of chopping up Shancus's. Evra was fighting with the hook-handed madman, trying to drag him off. Shancus was in a wrestling lock with Darius. Merla had hold of Urcha, who was gripping his snake for dear life, sobbing pitifully. They were backing away from Morgan James. He was following slowly, smiling a jagged half-faced smile, red circles of blood highlighting his evil little eyes. The nose of his rifle was aimed at Merla's stomach.

Vancha reacted quickest. He sent a shuriken flying at Morgan James's rifle, knocking it off-target. James's finger tightened on the trigger at the contact and the rifle exploded - but the bullet shot wide. Before he could fire again, Merla released Urcha, ripped her right ear loose, and sent it flying at James's face. The ear struck him between the eyes and he fell back, grunting with surprise.

Alerted to our presence, R.V. knocked Evra out of the way and drove after Shancus. He grabbed him from Darius and held him up, laughing, daring us to risk the snake-boy's life.

"I don't have a clear shot!" Alice yelled.

"I've got Morgan James covered!" Debbie shouted back.

"Then take him out!" Alice roared.

"The boy dies if you hurt Morgan!" R.V. retorted, pressing the three blades of his hookedleft hand up into the scaly flesh of Shancus's throat. Shancus either didn't realize the danger he was in, or didn't care, because he kept kicking and punching R.V. But we saw the killer's intent and paused.

"Let him go, Hooky," Vancha snarled, moving ahead of the rest of us, hands spread wide. "I'll fight you man to man."

"You're no man," R.V. replied scornfully. "You're scum, like all your race. Morgan! Are you OK?"

"Uh'm fuhn," Morgan James groaned. He picked up his rifle and aimed it at Merla again.

"Not this time!" Harkat shouted, stepping in front of Merla and swinging at James with his axe. James leapt clear of the deadly blade. Across from him, Darius drew a small arrow-gun and fired at Harkat. But he fired too hastily and the arrow flew high of its mark.

I threw myself at Darius, meaning to grab and hold him, as R.V. was holding Shancus. But Shancus's snake was thrashing wildly in its death throes, and I tripped over it before I could bring my hands together around Darius's throat. Flying forward, I crashed into Evra, who was rushing to his son's aid. We both fell over, wrapped in the dying snake's coils.

During the confusion, Morgan James and Darius regrouped around R.V.

Alice, Debbie, Harkat and Vancha hung back, unable to pursue them for fear that R.V. would kill Shancus.

"Let him go!" Merla screamed, eyes filled with tears of desperation.

"Make me!" R.V. jeered.

"You can't get out of here," Vancha said as R.V. backed away.

"Who's going to stop us?" R.V. mocked him.

Evra was back on his feet and he made to run after the retreating trio. R.V. dug his hooks deeper into Shancus's throat. "No you don't!" he sang, and Evra froze.

"Please," Debbie said, lowering her pistol. "Release the boy and we'll let you leave unharmed."

"You're in no position to make deals," R.V. laughed.

"What do you want?" I shouted.

"The snake-boy," R.V. giggled.

"He's no good to you." I took a determined step forward. "Take me instead. I'll swap for Shancus."

I expected R.V. to leap at my offer, but he only shook his head slyly, red eyes shining. "Stuff it, Shan," he said. "We're taking the boy. If you get in our way, he dies."

I glanced around at my allies - nobody was reacting. The vampaneze had us in a bind. Vancha could move with the speed of a full-vampire, and Debbie and Alice both had guns. But R.V. could kill Shancus before any of us could stop him.

R.V., Morgan James and Darius continued to back away. R.V. and James were grinning, but Darius looked the same way he'd looked after shooting me - scared and slightly sickened.

Then, as the rest of us hesitated, Mr Tall spoke. "I cannot allow this."

R.V. paused uncertainly. "This is none of your business!" he shouted. "Keep your nose out of it."

"You have made it my business," Mr Tall disagreed quietly. "This is my home. These are my people. I must intervene."

"Don't be a?" R.V. yelled, but before he got any further, Mr Tall was upon him. He moved at a supernatural speed which even a vampire couldn't match. In less than a flash of an eye he was in front of R.V., his hands on the lunatic's hooks. He wrenched them away from Shancus's throat, tore two of the hooks off the left hand, and one off the right.

"My hands!" R.V. screamed in agony, as though the gold and silver hooks were part of his flesh. "Leave my hands alone, you?"

Whatever foul name he shouted was lost in the burst of a gun retort. Morgan James, who'd been standing next to R.V., had jammed the tip of his rifle hard into Mr Tall's ribs and pulled the trigger. A bullet fired down the chamber of the rifle at a merciless speed - then ripped through the ribcage of the defenceless Hibernius Tall!

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