Hunters of the Dusk Chapter ONE


IT WAS another long, tiring night in the Hall of Princes. A Vampire General called Staffen Irve was reporting to me and Paris Skyle. Paris was the oldest living vampire, with more than eight hundred years under his belt. He had flowing white hair, a long, grey beard, and had lost his right ear in a fight many decades ago.

Staffen Irve had been active in the field for three years, and had been giving us a quick rundown of his experiences in the War of the Scars, as it had come to be known (a reference to the scars on our fingertips, the common mark of a vampire or vampaneze). It was a strange war. There were no big battles and neither side used missile-firing weapons - vampires and vampaneze fight only with hand to hand weapons like swords, clubs and spears. The war was a series of isolated skirmishes, three or four vampires at a time pitting themselves against a similar number of vampaneze, fighting to the death.

"There was four of us 'gainst three of them," Staffen Irve said, telling us about one of his more recent encounters. "But my lads was dry behind the tonsils, while the vampaneze was battle-hardy. I killed one of 'em but the others got away, leaving two of my lads dead and the third with a useless arm.

"Have any of the vampaneze spoken of their Lord?" Paris asked.

"No, Sire. Those I take alive only laugh at my questions, even under torture."

In the six years that we'd been hunting for their Lord, there'd been no sign of him. We knew he hadn't been blooded - various vampaneze had told us that he was learning their ways before becoming one of them - and the general opinion was that if we were to have any chance of thwarting Mr. Tiny's predictions, we had to find and kill their Lord before he assumed full control of the clan.

A cluster of Generals was waiting to speak with Paris. They moved forward as Staffen Irve departed, but I signalled them back. Picking up a mug of warm blood, I passed it to the one-eared Prince. He smiled and drank deeply, then wiped red stains from around his mouth with the back of a trembling hand - the responsibility of running the war council was taking its toll on the ancient vampire.

"Do you want to call it a night?" I asked, worried about Paris's health.

He shook his head. "The night is young," he muttered.

"But you are not," said a familiar voice behind me - Mr. Crepsley. The vampire in the red cloak spent most of his time by my side, advising and encouraging me. He was in a peculiar position. As an ordinary vampire, he held no recognizable rank, and could be commanded by the lowliest of Generals. Yet as my guardian he wielded the unofficial powers of a Prince (since I followed his advice practically all the time). The reality was that Mr. Crepsley was second in charge only to Paris Skyle, yet nobody openly acknowledged this. Vampire protocol - go figure!

"You should rest," Mr. Crepsley said to Paris, laying a hand on the Prince's shoulder. "This war will run a long time. You must not exhaust yourself too early. We will have need of you later."

"Rot!" Paris laughed. "You and Darren are the future. I am the past, Larten. I will not live to see the end of this war if it drags on as long as we fear. If I do not make my mark now, I never will."

Mr. Crepsley started to object, but Paris silenced him with the crooking of a finger. "An old owl hates to be told how young and virile he is. I am on my last legs, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool, a liar, or both."

Mr. Crepsley tilted his head obediently. "Very well. I will not argue with you."

"I should hope not," Paris sniffed, then shifted tiredly on his throne. "But this has been a taxing night. I will talk with these Generals, then crawl off to my coffin to sleep. Will Darren be able to manage without me?"

"Darren will manage," Mr. Crepsley said confidently, and stood slightly behind me as the Generals advanced, ready to advise when required.

Paris didn't make his coffin by dawn. The Generals had much to argue about - by studying reports on the movements of the vampaneze they were trying to pinpoint the possible hiding place of their Lord - and it was close to midday before the ancient Prince slipped away.

I treated myself to a short break, grabbed some food, then heard from three of the Mountain's fighting tutors, who were training the latest batch of Generals. After that I had to send two new Generals out into the field for their first taste of combat. I quickly went through the small ceremony - I had to daub their foreheads with vampire blood and mutter an ancient war prayer over them - then wished them luck and sent them off to kill vampaneze - or die.

Then it was time for vampires to approach me with a wide range of problems and queries. As a Prince I was expected to deal with every sort of subject under the moon. I was only a young, inexperienced half-vampire, who'd become a Prince more by default than merit, but the members of the clan placed their trust completely in their Princes, and I was afforded the same degree of respect as Paris or any of the others.

When the last vampire had departed, I snatched about three hours of sleep, in a hammock which I'd strung up at the rear of the Hall. When I woke, I ate some half-cooked, salted boar meat, washed down with water and followed by a small mug of blood. Then it was back to my throne for more planning, plotting and reports.

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