The Lake of Souls - Chapter Three


IT WASa cold but dry March - star-filled nights, frost-white dawns and sharp blue days. The Cirque Du Freak was performing in a large town situated close to a waterfall. We'd been there four nights already, and it would be another week before we moved on - lots of tourists were coming to our shows, as well as the residents of the town. It was a busy, profitable time.

In the months after I first cried in Truska's tent, I'd wept a lot for Mr Crepsley. It had been horrible - the slightest reminder of him could set me off - but necessary. Gradually the tearful bursts had lessened, as I came to terms with my loss and learnt to live with it.

I was lucky. I had lots of friends who helped. Truska, Mr Tall, Hans Hands, Cormac Limbs, Evra and Merla all talked me through the hard times, discussing Mr Crepsley with me, gently guiding me back to normality. Once I'd patched things up with Harkat and apologized for the way I'd treated him, I relied on the Little Person more than anyone else. We sat up many nights together, remembering Mr Crepsley, reminding each other of his personal quirks, things he'd said, expressions he'd favoured.

Now, months later, the tables had turned andI was doing the comforting. Harkat's nightmares had returned. He'd been suffering from agonizing dreams when we left Vampire Mountain at the start of our quest, dreams of wastelands, stake-filled pits and dragons. Mr Tiny said the dreams would worsen unless Harkat went with him to find out who he'd been before he died, but Harkat chose to accompany me instead on my hunt for the Vampaneze Lord.

Later, Evanna helped me stop his nightmares. But the witch said it was only a temporary solution. When the dreams resumed, Harkat would have to find out the truth about himself or be driven insane.

For the last month Harkat had been tormented every time he slept. He stayed awake as long as he could - Little People didn't need much sleep - but whenever he dozed off, the nightmares washed over him and he'd thrash and scream in his sleep. It had reached the stage where he had to be tied down when he slept - otherwise he stumbled through the camp, hitting out at imaginary monsters, causing damage to anything he encountered.

After five days and nights, he'd fallen asleep at the end of our latest show. I'd tied him down in his hammock, using strong ropes to strap his arms by his sides, and sat beside him while he tossed and moaned, wiping green beads of sweat from his forehead, away from his lidless eyes.

Finally, early in the morning, after hours of shrieking and straining, the cries stopped, his eyes cleared and he smiled weakly. "You can untie me - now. All done for tonight."

"That was a long one," I muttered, undoing the knots.

"That's the trouble with putting - sleep off so long," Harkat sighed, swinging out of his hammock. "I postpone the nightmares for a while, but I - sleep longer."

"Maybe you should try hypnosis again," I suggested. We'd done everything we could think of to ease Harkat's pain, asking all the performers and crew in the Cirque if they knew of a cure for nightmares. Mr Tall had tried hypnotizing him, Truska had sung to him while he slept, Rhamus Twobellies had rubbed a foul-smelling ointment over his head - all to no avail.

"No good," Harkat smiled tiredly. "Only one person can help - Mr Tiny. If he returns and shows me how to - find out who I was, the dreams - will hopefully stop. Otherwise ?" He shook his squat, grey, neckless head.

After washing off the sweat in a barrel of cold water, Harkat accompanied me to Mr Tall's van, to learn our schedule for the day. We'd been doing a variety of odd jobs since hooking up with the Cirque, putting up tents, fixing broken seats and equipment, cooking and washing.

Mr Tall had asked me if I'd like to perform in the shows, as his assistant. I told him I didn't want to - it would have felt too weird being on stage without Mr Crepsley.

When we reported for duty, Mr Tall was standing in the doorway of his van, beaming broadly, his little black teeth shining dully in the early morning light. "I heard you roaring last night," he said to Harkat.

"Sorry," Harkat said.

"Don't be. I mention it only to explain why I didn't come to you straightaway with the news - I thought it best to let you sleep."

"What news?" I asked warily. In my experience, unexpected news was more often bad than good.

"You have visitors," Mr Tall chuckled. "They arrived late last night, and have been waiting impatiently." He stepped aside and waved us in.

Harkat and I shared an uncertain glance, then entered cautiously. Neither of us carried a weapon - there seemed to be no need while we travelled with the Cirque Du Freak - but we bunched our hands into fists, ready to lash out if we didn't like the look of our "visitors". Once we saw the pair sitting on the couch, our fingers relaxed and we bounded forward, excited.

"Debbie!" I yelled. "Alice! What are you doing here?"

Debbie Hemlock and Chief Inspector Alice Burgess rose to hug us. They were simply dressed in trousers and jumpers. Debbie had cut her hair since I last saw her. It was short and tightly curled. I didn't think it suited her, but I said nothing about it.

"How are you?" Debbie asked once I'd released her. She was studying my eyes quietly, checking me out.

"Better," I smiled. "It's been rough but I'm over the worst - touch wood."

"Thanks to his friends," Harkat noted wryly.

"What about you?" I asked the women. "Did the vampaneze return? How did you explain things to your bosses and friends?" Then, "What are you doing here?" I asked again, perplexed.

Debbie and Alice laughed at my confusion, then sat down and explained all that had happened since we parted in the forest outside the city. Rather than make a genuine report to her superiors, Alice claimed to have been unconscious the entire time since being kidnapped by Vancha March. It was a simple story, easy to stick to, and nobody had cause to disbelieve her.

Debbie faced rougher questioning - when the vampaneze told the police we were holding Steve Leonard, they also mentioned Debbie's name. She'd protested her innocence, said she only knew me as a student, and knew nothing at all about Steve. With Alice's support, Debbie's story was finally accepted and she was released. She'd been shadowed for a few weeks, but eventually the police left her to get on with her life.

The officials knew nothing of the battle that had taken place in the tunnels, or of the vampaneze, vampets and vampires who'd been busy in their city. As far as they were concerned, a group of killers - Steve Leonard, Larten Crepsley, Darren Shan, Vancha March and Harkat Mulds - were responsible for the murders. One escaped during their arrest. The others broke out of prison later and fled. Our descriptions had been circulated near and far, but we were no longer the problem of the city, and the people there didn't much care whether we'd been humans or vampires - they, were just glad to be rid of us.

When a suitable period had passed, and interest in them dropped, Alice met Debbie and the pair discussed their bizarre brush with the world of vampires. Debbie had quit her job at Mahler's - she couldn't face work - and Alice was thinking about handing in her resignation too.

"It seemed pointless," she said quietly, running her fingers through her short white hair. "I joined the force to protect people. When I saw how mysterious and deadly the world really is, I no longer felt useful. I couldn't return to ordinary life."

Over a number of weeks, the women talked about what they'd experienced in the tunnels, and what to do with their lives. They both agreed that they couldn't go back to the way they'd been, but they didn't know how to reshape their futures. Then, one night, after a lot of drinking and talking, Debbie said something that would change their lives completely and give them a new, purposeful direction.

"I was worrying about the vampets," Debbie told us. "They seem more vicious than the vampaneze. Their masters have morals of a kind, but the vampets are just thugs. If the vampaneze win the war, it doesn't seem likely that the vampets will want to stop fighting."

"I agreed," Alice said. "I've seen their kind before. Once they develop a taste for battle, they never lose it. But without vampires to attack, they'll have to look elsewhere for prey."

"Humanity," Debbie said quietly. "They'll turn on humans if they get rid of all the vampires. They'll keep recruiting, growing all the time, finding weak, greedy people and offering them power. With the vampaneze behind them, I think they might pose a real threat to the world in the years to come."

"But we didn't think the vampires would worry about that," Alice said. "The vampaneze are the real threat to the vampire clan. The vampets are just a nuisance as far as vampires are concerned."

"That's when I said we needed to fight fire with fire." Debbie's face was stern, unusually so. "This isour problem. I said we needed to recruit humans to fight the vampets, now, before they grow too strong. I was speaking generally when I used 'our' and 'we', but as soon as I said it, I realized it wasn't general - it was personal."

"Victims wait for others to fight on their behalf," Alice said roughly. "Those who don't want to be victims fight for themselves."

By the time the sun rose, the pair had drawn up a plan to travel to Vampire Mountain, elicit the approval of the Princes, and build an army of humans to counter the threat of the vampets. Vampires and vampaneze don't use guns or bows and arrows - they make a vow when blooded never to avail of such weapons - but vampets aren't bound by such laws. Alice and Debbie's army wouldn't be bound by those laws either. With the help of the vampires they could track the vampets, then engage them on equal, vicious terms.

"We'd almost finished packing before the glaring flaw hit us," Debbie laughed. "We didn't know where Vampire Mountain was!"

That's when Alice recalled the piece of paper Evanna had given her. Returning to her apartment, where she'd stored it, she unfolded it and discovered directions to where the Cirque Du Freak was currently playing - here by the waterfall.

"But Evanna gave you that paper months ago!" I exclaimed. "How did she know where the Cirque would be?"

Alice shrugged. "I've tried not to think about that one. I'm just about OK with the notion of vampires, but witches who can foresee the future - that's a step too far. I prefer to believe she checked with the guy who runs this place before she met us."

"Though that doesn't explain how she knew when we'd read the message," Debbie added with a wink.

"I suppose this means we're meant to - guide you to Vampire Mountain," Harkat mused.

"Looks like it," Alice said. "Unless you've other plans?"

Harkat looked at me. I'd made it very clear when Mr Crepsley died that I didn't want anything to do with vampires for a while. This call was mine.

"I'm not keen on going back," I sighed. "It's still too soon. But for something this important, I guess I don't have much of a choice. As well as showing you the way, maybe I can act as the middle man between you and the Generals."

"We were thinking along those lines," Debbie smiled, leaning over to squeeze my hands. "We're not sure what the vampires will think of two human women turning up with an offer to build an army to help them. We know little of their ways or customs. We need someone to fill us in."

"I'm not sure the Princes will - accept your proposal," Harkat said. "Vampires have always fought their - own battles. I think they'll want to do the same now, even - if the odds are stacked against them."

"If they do, we'll fight the vampets without them," Alice snorted. "But they'd be fools to disregard us, and from what I've seen, vampires aren't foolish."

"It makes sense," I said. "Send humans to fight the vampets and leave the clan free to focus on the vampaneze."

"Since when did vampires do things - because they made sense?" Harkat chuckled. "But it's worth a try. I'll come with you."

"Oh no you won't," someone chortled behind us. Turning, startled, we saw that we'd been joined in the van by a third, uninvited guest, a short man with a savage leer. He was instantly recognizable and immediately unwelcome ?Mr Tiny !

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