Home > The Lake of Souls (Cirque Du Freak #10)

The Lake of Souls (Cirque Du Freak #10)
Author: Darren Shan

PROLOGUE

DEATH WASon the cards that day, but would it be ours or the panther's?

Black panthers are really leopards. If you look closely, you can see faint spots blended into their fur. But trust me - unless it's in a zoo, you don't ever want to be that close to a panther! They're one of nature's greatest killers. They move silently and speedily. In a one-on-one fight they'll almost always come out on top. You can't outrun them, since they're faster than you, and you can't out-climb them, because they can climb too. The best thing is to stay out of their way completely, unless you're an experienced big game hunter and have come packing a rifle.

Harkat and I had never hunted a panther before, and our best weapons were a few stone knives and a long, round-ended stick that served as a club. Yet there we were, on the edge of a pit which we'd dug the day before, watching a deer we'd captured and were using as bait, waiting for a panther.

We'd been there for hours, hidden in a bush, clutching our humble weapons close to our sides, when I spotted something long and black through the cover of the surrounding trees. A whiskered nose stuck out from around a tree and sniffed the air testingly - the panther. I nudged Harkat gently and we watched it, holding our breath, stiff with fright. After a few seconds the panther turned and padded away, back into the gloom of the jungle.

Harkat and I discussed the panther's retreat in whispers. I thought the panther had sensed a trap and wouldn't return. Harkat disagreed. He said it would come back. If we withdrew further, it might advance fully the next time. So we wriggled backwards, not stopping until we were almost at the end of the long stretch of bush. From here we could only vaguely see the deer.

A couple of hours passed. We said nothing. I was about to break the silence and suggest we were wasting our time, when I heard a large animal moving. The deer was jumping around wildly. There was a throaty growl. It came from the far side of the pit. That was great - if the panther attacked the deer from there, it might fall straight into our trap and be killed in the pit. Then we wouldn't have to fight it at all!

I heard twigs snap as the panther crept up on the deer. Then there was a loud snapping sound as a heavy body crashed through the covering over the pit and landed heavily on the stakes we'd set in the bottom. There was a ferocious howl, followed by silence.

Harkat slowly got to his feet and stared over the bush at the pit. I stood and stared with him. We glanced at each other. I said uncertainly, "It worked."

"You sound like you didn't - expect it to," Harkat grinned.

"I didn't," I laughed, and started towards the pit.

"Careful," Harkat warned. "It could still be alive."

Stepping in front of me, he moved off to the left and signalled for me to go right. Raising my knife, I circled away from Harkat, then we slowly closed on the pit from opposite directions.

Harkat was a few steps ahead of me, so he saw into the pit first. He stopped, confused. A couple of seconds later, I saw why. A body lay impaled on the stakes, blood dripping from its many puncture wounds. But it wasn't the body of a panther - it was a red baboon.

"I don't understand," I said. "That was a panther's growl, not a monkey's."

"But how did ?" Harkat stopped and gasped. "The monkey's throat! It's been ripped open! The panther must?"

He got no further. There was a blur of movement in the upper branches of the tree closest to me. Whirling, I caught a very brief glimpse of a long, thick, pure black object flying through the air with outstretched claws and gaping jaws - then the panther was upon me, roaring triumphantly.

Death was on the cards that day.

Chapter One

Six months earlier.

THE WALKup the tunnels, coming off the back of our battle with the vampaneze, was slow and exhausting. We left Mr Crepsley's charred bones in the pit where he'd fallen. I'd meant to bury him, but I hadn't the heart for it. Steve's revelation - that he was the Lord of the Vampaneze - had floored me, and now nothing seemed to matter. My closest friend had been killed. My world had been torn asunder. I didn't care whether I lived or died. Harkat and Debbie walked beside me, Vancha and Alice Burgess slightly in front. Debbie used to be my girlfriend, but now she was a grown woman, whereas I was stuck in the body of a teenager - the curse of being a half-vampire who only aged one year for every five that passed. Alice was a police chief inspector. Vancha had kidnapped her when we'd been surrounded by police. She and Debbie had taken part in the fight with the vampaneze. They'd both fought well. A shame it had been for nothing.

We'd told Alice and Debbie all about the War of the Scars. Vampires exist, but not the murderous monsters of myth. We don't kill when we feed. But other night creatures do - the vampaneze. They broke away from the vampires six hundred years ago. They always drain their victims dry. Their skin has turned purple over the centuries, and their eyes and fingernails are red.

For a long time there'd been peace between the two clans. That ended when the Lord of the Vampaneze emerged. This vampaneze leader was destined to lead them into war against the vampires and destroy us. But if we found and killed him before he became a full-vampaneze, the war would go our way instead.

Only three vampires could hunt for the Vampaneze Lord (according to a powerful meddler called Desmond Tiny, who could see into the future). Two were Vampire Princes, Vancha March and me. The other had been Mr Crepsley, the vampire who'd blooded me and been like a father to me. He'd faced the person we thought was the Vampaneze Lord earlier that night and killed him. But then Steve sent Mr Crepsley tumbling to his death in a pit of flame-tipped stakes - shortly before he let me know that the person Mr Crepsley killed was an impostor, and that Steve himself was the Vampaneze Lord.

It didn't seem possible that Mr Crepsley was dead. I kept expecting a tap on my shoulder, and the tall orange-haired vampire to be standing behind me when I turned, grinning wickedly, his long facial scar glinting as he held up a torch, asking where we thought we were going without him. But the tap never came. It couldn't. Mr Crepsley was dead. He'd never come back.

Part of me wanted to go mad with rage, seize a sword and storm off after Steve. I wanted to track him down and drive a stake through his rotten excuse for a heart. But Mr Crepsley had warned me not to devote myself to revenge. He said it would warp and destroy me if I gave in to it. I knew in my soul that there was unfinished business between Steve and me, that our paths would cross again. But for the time being I pushed him from my thoughts and mourned for Mr Crepsley.

Except I couldn't really mourn. Tears wouldn't come. As much as I wanted to howl and sob with grief, my eyes remained dry and steely. Inside, I was a broken, weeping wreck, but on the outside I was cold, calm and collected, as though I hadn't been affected by the vampire's death.

Ahead, Vancha and Alice came to a halt. The Prince looked back, his wide eyes red from crying. He looked pitiful in his animal skins, with his filthy bare feet and wild hair, like an overgrown, lost child. "We're almost at the surface," he croaked. "It's still day. Will we wait here for dark? If we're spotted ?"

"Don't care," I mumbled.

"I don't want to stay here," Debbie sobbed. "These tunnels are cruel."

"And I have to inform my people that I'm alive," Alice said, then frowned and picked dried blood flecks from her pale white hair. "Though I don't know how I'm going to explain it to them!"

"Tell the truth," Vancha grunted.

The Chief Inspector grimaced. "Hardly! I'll have to think up some?" She stopped. A figure had appeared out of the darkness ahead of us, blocking the path.

Cursing, Vancha ripped loose a shuriken - throwing stars he kept strapped in belts around his chest - and prepared to launch it.

"Peace, Vancha," the stranger said, raising a hand. "I am here to help, not harm."

Vancha lowered his shuriken and muttered in disbelief, "Evanna?"

The woman ahead of us clicked her fingers and a torch flared into life overhead, revealing the ugly witch we'd travelled with earlier in the year, while we were searching for the Lord of the Vampaneze. She hadn't changed. Short thick muscles, long untidy hair, pointed ears, a tiny nose, one brown eye and one green (the colours kept shifting from left to right), hairy body, long sharp nails and yellow ropes tied tight around her body instead of clothes.

"What are you doing - here?" Harkat asked, his large green eyes filled with suspicion - Evanna was a neutral in the War of the Scars, but could help or hinder those on either side, depending on her mood.

"I came to bid Larten's spirit farewell," the witch said. She was smiling.

"You don't look too cut up about it," I remarked without emotion.

She shrugged. "I foresaw his death many decades ago. I did my crying for him then."

"You knew he'd die?" Vancha growled.

"I wasn't certain, but I guessed he would perish," she said.

"Then you could have stopped it!"

"No," Evanna said. "Those with the ability to sense the currents of the future are forbidden to interfere. To save Larten, I'd have had to abandon the rules I live by, and if that happened, all chaos would break loose."

The witch stretched out a hand, and even though she was many metres away from Vancha, her fingers cupped his chin tenderly. "I was fond of Larten," she said softly. "I hoped I was wrong. But I couldn't take it upon myself to spare him. His fate wasn't mine to decide."

"Then whose was it?" Vancha snapped.

"His own," Evanna replied steadily. "Hechose to hunt for the Lord of the Vampaneze, to enter the tunnels, to fight on the platform. He could have walked away from his responsibilities - but he chose not to."

Vancha glared at the witch a moment longer, then lowered his gaze. I saw fresh tears splash in the dust at his feet. "My apologies, Lady," he muttered. "I don't blame you. I'm just so fired up with hatred.

"I know," the witch said, then studied the rest of us. "You must come with me. I have things to tell you, and I'd rather talk on the outside - the air here is rank with treachery and death. Will you spare me a few hours of your time?" She glanced at Alice Burgess. "I promise I won't keep you long."

Alice sniffed. "I guess a few hours can't make much of a difference."

Evanna looked at Harkat, Debbie, Vancha and me. We shared a glance, then nodded and followed the witch up the last stretch of the tunnels, leaving the darkness and the dead behind.

Evanna gave Vancha a thick deer hide to drape over his head and shoulders, to block out the rays of the sun. Trailing after the witch, we moved quickly through the streets. Evanna must have cast a spell to hide us, because people didn't notice us, despite our blood-stained faces and clothes. We ended up outside the city, in a small forest, where Evanna had prepared a camp amidst the trees. At her offer, we sat and tucked into the berries, roots and water she'd set out for us.

We ate silently. I found myself studying the witch, wondering why she was here - if she'd really come to say goodbye to Mr Crepsley, she'd have gone down to where his body lay in the pit. Evanna was Mr Tiny's daughter. He had created her by mixing the blood of a vampire with that of a wolf. Vampires and vampaneze were barren - we couldn't have children - but Evanna was supposed to be able to bear a child by a male of either clan. When we met her shortly after setting out to hunt the Vampaneze Lord, she'd confirmed Mr Tiny's prophecy - that we'd have four chances to kill the Lord - and added the warning that if we failed, two of us would die.

Vancha finished eating first, sat back and burped. "Speak," he snapped - he wasn't in the mood for formalities.

"You're wondering how many chances you've used up," Evanna said directly. "The answer is - three. The first was when you fought the vampaneze in the glade and let their Lord escape. The second, when you discovered Steve Leonard was a half-vampaneze and took him hostage - although you had several opportunities to kill him, they count as one. The third chance was when Larten faced him on the platform above the pit of stakes."

"That means we still have a shot at him!" Vancha hissed excitedly.

"Yes," Evanna said. "Once more the hunters will face the Vampaneze Lord, and on that occasion the future will be decided. But that confrontation will not come in the near future. Steve Leonard has withdrawn to plot anew. For now, you may relax."

The witch turned to me and her expression softened. "It might not lighten your load," she said kindly, "but Larten's soul has flown to Paradise. He died nobly and earned the reward of the righteous. He is at rest."

"I'd rather he was here," I said miserably, gazing at the leaves of an overhanging tree, waiting for tears which still wouldn't come.

"What about the rest of the vampaneze?" Alice asked. "Are any of them still in my city?"

Evanna shook her head. "All have fled."

"Will they return?" Alice asked, and by the glint in her eyes I saw she was half hoping they would, so she could settle a few scores.

"No." Evanna smiled. "But I think it's safe to say that you will run into them again."

"I'd better," Alice growled, and I knew she was thinking of Morgan James, an officer of hers who'd joined the vampets. They were human allies of the vampaneze, who shaved their heads, daubed blood around their eyes, sported V tattoos above their ears, and dressed in brown uniforms.

"Is the nightmare over then?" Debbie asked, wiping her dark cheeks clean. The teacher had fought like a tigress in the tunnels, but the events of the night had caught up with her and she was shivering helplessly.

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