IF YOU MOVE EVEN A fraction," my attacker warned, "I'll drive this right through you without blinking!"
The chilling words didn't have half as much impact on me as the familiar voice that uttered them.
"Steve!" I gasped, glancing up from the tip of the stake to find his face. It was him, sure enough, trying to look brave, but obviously terrified. "Steve, what the..." I began but he cut me short with a poke of the stake.
"Not a word!" he hissed, crouching down behind the stone pillar. "I don't want your friend overhearing."
"My...? Oh, you mean Mr. Crepsley," I said.
"Larten Crepsley, Vur Horston," Steve sneered. "I don't care what you call him. He's a vampire. That's all that bothers me."
"What are you doing here?" I whispered.
"Vampire hunting," he growled, prodding me again with the stake. "And lookee here: seems like I found me a pair!"
"Listen," I said, more annoyed than worried (if he was going to kill me, he would have done it immediately, not sat around talking first, like they do in the movies), "if you're going to stick that thing in me, do it. If you want to talk, put it away. I'm sore enough as it is without you making new holes in me."
He stared, then pulled the stake back a few centimeters.
"Why are you here?" I asked. "How did you know to come?"
"I was following you," he said. "I followed you all weekend after seeing what you did to Alan. I saw Crepsley going into your house. I saw him toss you out the window."
"You're the one who sneaked into the living room!" I gasped, remembering the mysterious late-night visitor.
"Yes." He nodded. "The doctors were very quick to sign your death certificate. I wanted to check for myself, to see if you were still ticking."
"The piece of paper in my mouth?" I asked.
"Litmus paper," he said. "It changes color when you stick it on a damp surface. When you stick it on a living body. That and the marks on the fingers tipped me off."
"You know about the marks on the fingers?" I asked, amazed.
"I read about it in a very old book," he said. "The same one, in fact, that I found Vur Horston's portrait in. There was no mention of it anywhere else, so I thought it was just another vampire myth. But then I studied your fingers and..."
He stopped and cocked his head. I realized I could no longer hear digging sounds. For a moment there was silence. Then Mr. Crepsley's voice hissed across the graveyard.
"Darren, where are you?" he called. "Darren?"
Steve's face collapsed with fear. I could hear his heart beating and see the beads of sweat rolling down his cheeks. He didn't know what to do. He hadn't thought this through.
"I'm fine," I shouted, causing Steve to jump.
"Where are you?" Mr. Crepsley asked.
"Over here," I replied, standing, ignoring Steve's stake. "My legs were weak, so I lay down for a minute."
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I'm fine," I said. "I'll rest a little longer, then try them again. Give me a shout when you're ready."
I squatted back down so I was face to face with Steve. He didn't look so brave anymore. The tip of the stake was pointing down at the ground, a threat no more, and his whole body sagged miserably. I felt sorry for him.
"Why did you come here, Steve?" I asked.
"To kill you," he said.
"To kill me? For heaven's sake, why?" I asked.
"You're a vampire," he said. "What other reason do I need?"
"But you've got nothing against vampires," I reminded him. "You wanted to become one."
"Yes," he snarled. "I wanted to, but you're the one who did. You planned this all along, didn't you? You told him I was evil. You made him reject me so that you could..."
"You're talking nonsense." I sighed. "I never wanted to become a vampire. I only agreed to join him in order to save your life. You would have died if I hadn't become his assistant."
"A likely story," he snorted. "To think I used to believe you were my friend. Ha!"
"I am your friend!" I cried. "Steve, you don't understand. I would never do anything to harm you. I hate what's happened to me. I only did it to..."
"Spare me the sob story," he sniffed. "How long were you planning this? You must have gone to him that night of the freak show. That's how you got Madam Octa, wasn't it? He gave her to you in return for your becoming his assistant."
"No, Steve, that's not true. You mustn't believe that." But he did believe it. I could see it in his eyes. Nothing I said was going to change his opinion. As far as he was concerned, I'd betrayed him. I had stolen the life he felt should have been his. He would never forgive me.
"I'm going now," he said, starting to crawl away. "I thought I'd be able to kill you tonight, but I was wrong. I'm too young. I'm not strong enough or brave enough.
"But heed this, Darren Shan," he said. "I'll grow. I'll get older and stronger and braver. I'm going to devote my entire life to developing my body and my mind, and when the day comes...when I'm ready...when I'm fully equipped and properly prepared...
"I'm going to hunt you down and kill you" he vowed. "I'm going to become the world's best vampire hunter and there won't be a single hole you can find that I won't be able to find, too. Not a hole or a rock or a cellar.
"I'll track you to the ends of the Earth if I have to." he said, his face glowing madly. "You and your mentor. And when I find you, I'll drive steel-tipped stakes through your hearts, then chop off your heads and fill them with garlic. Then I'll burn you to ashes and scatter you across running water. I won't take any chances. I'll make sure you never come back from the grave again!"
He paused, produced a knife, and cut a small cross into the flesh of his left palm. He held it up so I could see the blood dripping from the wound.
"On this blood, I swear it!" he declared, then turned and ran, disappearing in seconds into the shadows of the night.
I could have run after him, following the trail of blood. If I'd called Mr. Crepsley, we could have tracked him down and put an end to both Steve Leopard and his threats. It would have been the wise thing to do.
But I didn't. I couldn't. He was my friend...