Chapter FIFTEEN

 

There was a long, edgy period of silence, minutes passing slowly. I felt around my ribs - none were broken. I stood and gritted my teeth as my insides flared with pain. I'd be sore for days.

Making my way over to Mr. Crepsley, I cleared my throat. "Who was that?" I asked.

He glared at me and shook his head. "Idiot!" he growled. "What were you doing here?"

"Trying to stop you from killing him," I said, pointing to the fat man. Mr. Crepsley stared at me. "I heard about those six dead people on the news," I explained. "I thought you were the killer. I trailed -?

"You thought I was a murderer?" Mr. Crepsley roared. I nodded glumly. "You are even dumber than I thought! Do you have so little faith in me that you -?

"What else was I supposed to think?" I cried. "You never tell me anything. You disappeared into the city every night, not saying a thing about where you were going or what you were doing. What was I supposed to think when I heard six people had been found drained of their blood?"

Mr. Crepsley looked startled, then thoughtful. Finally he nodded wearily. "You are right." He sighed. "One must show trust in order to be trusted. I wished to spare you the gory details. I should not have. This is my fault."

"That's okay," I said, taken aback by his gentle manner. "I guess I shouldn't have come after you like I did."

Mr. Crepsley glanced at the knife. "You meant to kill me?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, embarrassed.

To my surprise, he laughed dryly. "You are a reckless young man, Master Shan. But I knew that when I took you on as my assistant." He stood and examined the cut on his arm. "I suppose I should be grateful that I did not come out of this even worse."

"Will you be okay?" I asked.

"I will live," he said, rubbing spit into the cut to heal it.

I looked up at the broken window. "Who was that?" I asked again.

"The question is not 'who, " Mr. Crepsley said. "The question is 'what. He is a vampaneze. His name is Murlough."

"What's a vampaneze?"

"It is a long story. We do not have time. Later, I will -?

"No," I said firmly. "I almost killed you tonight because I didn't know what was going on. Tell me about it now, so there won't be any more mix-ups."

Mr. Crepsley hesitated, then nodded. "Very well," he said. "I suppose here is as good a place as any. I do not think we will be disturbed. But we dare not delay. I must give this unwelcome turn of events much thought and begin planning anew. I will be brief. Try not to ask unnecessary questions."

"I'll try," I promised.

"The vampaneze are..." he searched for words. "In olden nights, humans were looked down upon by many vampires, who fed on them as people feed on animals. It was not unusual for vampires to drink dry a couple of people a week. Over time, we decided this was not acceptable, so laws were established which forbade needless killing.

"Most vampires were content to obey the laws - it is easier for us to pass unnoticed amongst humans if we do not kill them - but some felt our cause had been betrayed. Certain vampires believed humans were put on this planet for us to feed upon."

"That's crazy!" I shouted. "Vampires start off as humans. What sort of -?

"Please," Mr. Crepsley interrupted. "I am only trying to explain how these vampires thought. I am not condoning their actions.

"Seven hundred years ago, events came to a head. Seventy vampires broke away from the rest and declared themselves a separate race. They called themselves the vampaneze and established their own rules and governing bodies.

"Basically, the vampaneze believe it is wrong to feed from a human without killing. They believe there is nobility in draining a person and absorbing their spirit - as you absorbed part of Sam Grest's when you drank from him - and that there is shame in taking small amounts, feeding like a leech."

"So they always kill the people they drink from?" I asked. Mr. Crepsley nodded. "That's terrible!"

"I agree," the vampire said. "So did most of the vampires when the vampaneze broke away. There was a huge war. Many vampaneze were killed. Many vampires were, too, but we were winning. We would have hunted them out of existence, except..." He smiled bitterly. "The humans we were trying to protect got in the way."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Many humans knew about vampires. But, as long as we did not kill them, they let us be - they were afraid of us. But when the vampaneze started slaughtering people, the humans panicked and fought back. Unfortunately they could not tell the difference between vampires and vampaneze, so both were tracked down and killed.

"We could have handled the vampaneze," Mr. Crepsley said, "but not the humans. They were on the verge of wiping us out. In the end, our Princes met with the vampaneze and a truce was agreed to. We would leave them alone if they stopped murdering so freely. They would only kill when they needed to feed and would do all they could to keep their murders secret from humanity.

"The truce worked. When the humans realized they were safe, they stopped hunting us. The vampaneze traveled far away to avoid us - part of the agreement - and we have had virtually nothing to do with them for the last several centuries, apart from occasional clashes and challenges."

" Challenges?" I asked.

"Vampires and vampaneze live roughly," Mr. Crepsley said. "We are forever testing ourselves in fights and competitions. Humans and animals are interesting opponents, but if a vampire really wants to test himself, he fights a vampaneze. It is common for vampires and vampaneze to seek each other out and fight to the death."

"That's stupid," I said.

Mr. Crepsley shrugged. "It is our way. Time has changed the vampaneze," he went on. "You noticed the red hair and nails and eyes?"

"And lips," I added. "And he had purple skin."

"These changes have come about because they drink more blood than vampires. Most vampaneze are not as colorful as Murlough - he has been drinking dangerously large amounts of blood - but they all have similar markings. Except for young vampaneze - it takes a couple of decades for the colors to set in."

I thought over what I'd been told. "So the vampaneze are evil? They're why vampires have such a bad reputation?"

Mr. Crepsley rubbed his scar thoughtfully. "To say they are evil is not entirely true. To humans, they are, but to vampires they are more misdirected cousins than out-and-out ghouls."

" What?" I couldn't believe he was defending them.

"It depends on how one looks at it," he said. "You have learned to take no notice of drinking from humans, yes?"

"Yes," I said, "but -?

"Do you remember how against it you were in the beginning?"

"Yes," I said again, "but -?

"To many humans, you are evil," he said. "A young half-vampire who drinks human blood... how long do you think it would be before somebody tried to kill you if your true identity were known?"

I chewed my lower lip and thought about his words.

"Do not get me wrong," Mr. Crepsley said. "I do not approve of the vampaneze and their ways. But nor do I think they are evil."

"You're saying it's okay to kill humans?" I asked warily.

"No," he disagreed. "I am saying I can see their point. Vampaneze kill because of their beliefs, not because they enjoy it. A human soldier who kills in war is not evil, is he?"

"This isn't the same thing," I said.

"But it falls along similarly murky lines. To humans, vampaneze are evil, plain and simple. But for vampires - and you belong to the vampire clan now - it is not so easy to judge. They are kin.

"Also," he added, "the vampaneze have their noble points. They are loyal and brave. And they never break their word - when a vampaneze makes a promise, he sticks by it. If a vampaneze lies and his kinsmen find out, they will execute him, no questions asked. They have their faults, and I have no personal liking for them, but evil?" He sighed. "That is hard to say."

I frowned. "But you were going to kill this one," I reminded him.

Mr. Crepsley nodded. "Murlough is not ordinary. Madness has invaded his mind. He has lost control and kills indiscriminately, feeding his lunatic lust. Were he a vampire, he would have been judged by the Generals and executed. The vampaneze, however, look more kindly upon their less fortunate members. They are loath to kill one of their own.

"If a vampaneze loses his mind, he is ejected from the ranks and set loose. If he keeps clear of his kind, they make no move to hinder or harm him. He is -?

A groan made us jump. Looking behind, we saw the fat man stirring.

"Come," Mr. Crepsley said. "We will continue our discussion on the way to the roof."

We let ourselves out of the refrigerated room and started back.

"Murlough has been roaming the world for several years," Mr. Crepsley said. "Normally, mad vampaneze do not last that long. They make silly mistakes and are soon caught and killed by humans. But Murlough is craftier than most. He still has sense enough to kill quietly and to hide the bodies. You know the myth about vampires not being able to enter a house unless they are invited inside?"

"Sure," I said. "I never believed it."

"Nor should you. But, like most myths, it has its roots in fact. The vampaneze almost never kill humans at home. They catch their prey outside, kill and feed, then hide the bodies, or disguise the wounds to make the death look accidental. Mad vampaneze normally forget these fundamental rules, but Murlough has remembered. That is how I knew he would not attack the man at home."

"How did you know he was going to attack him at all?" I asked.

"The vampaneze are traditionalists," Mr. Crepsley explained. "They select their victims in advance. They sneak into their houses while the humans are sleeping and mark them - three small scratches on the left cheek. Did you notice such marks on the fat man?"

I shook my head. "I wasn't looking."

"They are there," Mr. Crepsley assured me. "They are small - he probably thought he scratched himself while sleeping - but unmistakable once one knows what to look for: always in the same spot and always the same length.

"That is how I latched onto this man. Until that night I had been searching blindly, scouring the city, hoping to stumble across Murlough's trail. I spotted the fat man by chance and followed him. I knew the attack would come either here or on his way home from work, so it was just a matter of sitting back and waiting for Murlough to make his move." The vampire's face darkened. "Then you arrived on the scene." He was unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"Will you be able to find Murlough again?" I asked.

He shook his head. "Discovering the marked human was a stroke of incredible good fortune. It will not happen twice. Besides, though Murlough is mad, he is no fool. He will abandon any humans he has already marked and flee this city." Mr. Crepsley sighed unhappily. "I suppose I will have to settle for that."

" Settlefor it?" I asked. "Aren't you going to follow him?" Mr. Crepsley shook his head. I stopped on the landing - we were almost at the door of the room with the pipes - and stared at him, aghast. "Why not?" I barked. "He's crazy! He's killing people! You've got to -?

"It is not my business," the vampire said gently. "It is not my place to worry about creatures such as Murlough."

"Then why get involved?" I cried, thinking of all the people the mad vampaneze was going to kill.

"The hands of the Vampire Generals are tied in matters such as these," Mr. Crepsley said. "They dare not take steps to eliminate mad vampaneze, for fear of sparking an all-out war. As I said, vampaneze are loyal. They would seek revenge for the murder of one of their own. We can kill vampaneze in a fair fight, but if a General killed a mad vampaneze, his allies would feel compelled to strike back.

"I got involved because this is the city where I was born. I lived here as a human. Though everyone I knew then has long since died, I feel attached - this city, more than any other place, is where I consider home.

"Gavner Purl knew this. When he realized Murlough was here, he set about tracking me down. He guessed - correctly - that I would not be able to sit back and let the mad vampaneze wreak havoc. It was a sly move on his part, but I do not blame him - in his position, I would have done the same."

"I don't get it," I said. "I thought the Vampire Generals wanted to avoid a war."

"They do."

"But if you'd killed Murlough, wouldn't -?

"No," he interrupted. "I am not a General. I am a mere vampire, with no connection to any others. The vampaneze would have come after me if they learned I had killed him, but the Generals would not have been implicated. It would have been personal. It would not have led to war."

"I see. So, now that your city is safe, you don't care about him anymore?"

"Yes," Mr. Crepsley said simply.

I couldn't agree with the vampire's position - I'd have hunted Murlough down to the ends of the Earth - but I could understand it. He'd been protecting ?his? people. Now that the threat against them had been removed, he no longer considered the vampaneze his problem. It was a typical piece of vampire logic.

"What happens now?" I asked. "We go back to the Cirque Du Freak and forget about this?"

"Yes," he said. "Murlough will avoid this city in the future. He will slope away into the night and that will be that. We can return to our lives and get on with them."

"Until next time," I said.

"I have only one home," the vampire responded. "In all likelihood, there will be no next time. Come," he said. "If you have further questions, I will answer them later."

"Okay." I paused. "What we said earlier - about no more holding important stuff back - is that still on? Will you trust me now and tell me things?"

The vampire smiled. "We will trust each other," he said.

I returned his smile and followed him into the room with the pipes.

"How come I didn't spot Murlough's footsteps earlier?" I asked, retracing the marks we'd made on our way into the building.

"He entered via a different route," Mr. Crepsley said. "I did not want to get close to him until he made his move, in case he saw me."

I was on my way out of the window when I remembered Evra.

"Hold on!" I called Mr. Crepsley back. "We've got to get Evra."

"The snake-boy knew about this, too?" Mr. Crepsley laughed. "Hurry and get him. But do not expect me to tell the story again on his behalf. I will leave such details to you."

I cast around for my friend.

"Evra," I called quietly. When there was no response I shouted a little louder. "Evra!" Where was he hiding? I glanced down and found a lone pair of footprints in the dust, leading away under a mass of pipes.

"Evra!" I shouted again, starting after his trail. He'd probably seen me talking with the vampire and wasn't sure what was going on. "It's okay," I yelled. Mr. Crepsley isn't the killer. It's another -?

There was a sharp crunching noise as my foot came down on something and crushed it. Taking a step back, I bent and picked up the object for a closer look. With a sinking feeling in my gut, I realized what it was - the broken remains of a cellular phone.

"Evra!" I screamed, rushing forward. I saw signs of a scuffle farther on - the dust in this area had been severely disturbed, like somebody had been thrashing around in it. Thousands of dust particles were drifting in unsettled clouds through the air.

"What is it?" Mr. Crepsley asked, approaching warily. I showed him the crushed phone. "Evra's?" he guessed.

I nodded. "The vampaneze must have got him," I said, horrified.

Mr. Crepsley sighed and hung his head. "Then Evra is dead," he said bluntly, and kept his gaze lowered as I started to cry.

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