The noise from inside the main hall at Earls Court is deafening. It sounds as though all the vampires in England have gathered for the dog fight. Hal and his companions are bowed in, literally, through to the backstage area, and Alex is visibly impressed by this demonstration of his influence.
Snow is already there, waiting calmly in a green room outside which attendants hover nervously. Hal accepts the offered hand, kisses it, and introduces Alex to Snow.
"A new child, Hal?" Snow says, raising cool eyes to Alex. "Was that wise?"
Hal shrugs. "Possibly not. But I believe she has potential. Ow!" He turns to Alex, who has hit him on the arm.
"I'm right here!" she says. "Stop talking like I'm not."
"Spirited," comments Snow. "Hal, this appears to have been a successful idea."
"Thank you." Hal bows. "I had a feeling it would be."
One of the staff approaches, nervous, and fidgets until they turn to regard him, when he informs Hal that all is ready. Outside the curtain, the noise is peaking. Hal allows Alex to straighten his collar and Cutler to brush fluff off his shoulder before shrugging them away. He glances at Snow one last time, receiving a nod in return, and steps on to the stage.
The roars from the crowd are deafening and the spotlights blinding. Hal walks to the microphone in the centre of the stage and leans into it. The cheers amplify, and then die out.
"Good evening," he says. In the darkness he can see hundreds – thousands – of faces looking back at him. His voice echoes into the vastness of the hall. "My name is Henry Yorke," he says, to the darkness, and after a second's pause there comes a reply of resounding approval. Hal waits, lets it sink in. "Welcome," he continues, "to Earls Court. Welcome to our new world. Before we proceed with the evening's entertainment – full moon is in 43 minutes – I would like to present to you its architect. I owe him much. Mr Snow."
Snow emerges on to the stage, the lights making his skin even paler and more luminous than usual. For a moment Hal feels as though the audience are not sure what to do, but they respond with even louder cheers and relief courses through him. Together, he and Snow accept the adulation. There have been times like this in the past, but never on the same scale. It is, he admits to himself, intoxicating.
Snow does not speak to the crowd, but steps back and sits down in one of the seats ready for them.
"Let us begin," Hal says to the microphone. The lights in the centre of the hall come up, illuminating the cage in the centre. Big screens around the hall flicker into life.
"Tonight's contenders," he continues, pulling out a card which was pushed into his hand when they got to Earls Court. "In the furry corner, Dr Martin Shaw. Full-time general practitioner. Part-time lycanthrope."
The guards haul Shaw into the cage through a passageway from the holding cells. He already looks like the change is approaching, and curls into a ball in the middle as soon as the door is shut.
"And in the red corner, Mr David Swann, a chivalrous student." He watches with no small degree of pleasure as Swann is brought into the arena, walking calmly into the cage. Swann looks about him, spots the stage and gives Hal a small, ironic bow, which Hal returns before checking the giant clock suspended above the cage. "Thirty-five minutes," he announces.
To kill the time, while Shaw writhes in the cage and Swann waits calmly, there are some dancers, and the big screens show news highlights and music videos. Hal sits next to Snow and watches. With fifteen minutes to go, the crowd is dancing along, the thrumming bass beat of the music sending them wild.
Swann has moved to the edge of the cage, away from the werewolf. The tension is beginning to show in the line of his shoulders and his clenched fists. With a word to Snow, Hal descends into the arena and approaches the cage.
"Holding up?" he asks.
David Swann snorts a laugh. "Yeah, right. I'm in a cage, surrounded by vampires, with a … well, whatever he's going to become, about to attack me. I'm holding up fine, thanks." He eyes Hal. "So you're the boss around here, are you?"
"One of them," Hal says.
"Got a bet on me?"
"Not a monetary one," says Hal. "But I do think you can win this. And I made you a promise; win it and I'll give you what you want."
Swann just looks at him. "Did you give that girl what I wanted you to give her?"
"Which was?" Hal glances over at the stage, and beckons to Alex.
Alex bounds up, somehow managing not to be clumsy in her boots. "Hey."
"Alex, this is David Swann. You've him to thank for being here."
She and Swann look at each other, and Swann turns back to Hal. "The idea was to release her, not keep her like some sort of pet."
"Release her to what?" Hal asks. "Into our world? How long do you think she would have had?"
Swann folds his arms, leaning against the bars. Behind him, Shaw is curled into a shuddering, whimpering ball. There are perhaps 10 minutes until the full moon.
"That's what you thought he'd do?" Alex puts in, scornfully. "C'mon, look at him!"
"I said I'd fight for him if he let you out," Swann tells her.
Alex flashes her fangs at him. "Yeah, well. Thanks. He says it's all going to be good."
Resting his hand on her shoulder, Hal nods. "Trust me. I've had half a century's practice. Think about what you might ask for, Mr Swann." He gestures at one of the guards, who comes running over and produces the knife requested. Hal passes it through the bars, hilt-first. "Here. You do not have to wait until full moon."
Swann takes the knife and does not move. Hal turns Alex away, steering her back to the stage.
The crowd quieten as full moon approaches and the tension in the hall rises. In the cage Swann stands still, turning the knife in his hands. Alex bends low to speak in Hal's ear.
"What will he ask for?"
"You're assuming he'll win," Hal says.
"Don't you think he will?"
Hal looks at the spotlit cage. "Perhaps. I think he'll ask to join us." She gives him a look. "Really. Many here have chosen to be vampires. I did, though the choice was this or death from infection in a stinking tent. Fergus did. Cutler … Cutler did not, but the young man with him tonight volunteered with his friends, just a few weeks ago. They saw this was a better way of living."
She still looks sceptical. "I think you've forgotten what being human is like."
"Yes," he agrees. "But I've tried living in many ways over many years, Alex. For most of my life I have masqueraded as human. I've pretended to be what I'm not. It is nice not to have to pretend any longer."
The clock ticks down to five minutes, then four, then three. Shaw has almost completely transformed now, his fingers elongating to claws and his body covered in dark, dense fur. He raises himself, baring yellow teeth as he howls at the full moon.
And David Swann plunges the knife into the werewolf's body.
The crowd erupts in noise. Some are cheering the swift victory, others booing the loss of a true fight. From somewhere backstage, Hal hears the combined howls of the other werewolves as their transformations also complete.
He stands, and goes to the microphone, asking for silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our victor, David Swann!" he says, and waits for the cheers to subside again. "Mr Swann agreed to fight for you tonight on the condition that should he win, I would grant him what he wished for. Bring him out."
The guards open the cage, and drag Swann out, forcing the bloody knife from his hand as they do so. They bring him to the stage and, at Hal's nod, on to it. Hal turns back to the microphone.
"I therefore give our champion tonight a choice," he says, looking at Swann as he does. "His freedom, and my guarantee of safe passage to any port he so chooses. Any vampire who attacks him would be punished, by my own hand if necessary." He waits for the import of that statement to sink in. "Or he can join us, and have forever as a favoured member of our society."
He meets Swann's gaze. "Or you can be locked away again for another month, and you can fight again, until a wolf mauls you to death," he says. "Your choice."
The audience are silent. They may have been deprived of the promised battle to the death, but in its own way this is just as enthralling. From the wings Hal can hear Fergus and Cutler, engaged in a whispered argument over the choice Swann may make. Alex is biting a nail.
Finally Swann moves, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "Can I ask you a question, Mr Yorke?" he queries.
Hal assents with a nod, wondering what the self-assured young man would ask of him.
"Are you happy?" Swann asks. He swings around, facing Snow, who has been watching still and silent. "And you? Are you happy?"
"Perfectly. Thank you," Snow says, calmly.
It is a serious question and, Hal thinks, deserves a serious answer. He considers. Had the question been asked only a few months before he would have said no; despite the simplicity and quiet of the half-life with Pearl and Leo it had been only that. Half a life. Snow had woken him from slumber. But was 'happiness' the right way to describe it?
He thinks back further, to a time before the blood but not before violence. There had always been violence. Men taking their pleasure with his mothers, roughly and without tenderness. The women slapping him, for something or other. Public executions at Tyburn. The boy Hal, named hopefully for a great king, had never know true joy. It had been no wonder, really, that when he had had the chance to take what he could he had grabbed that chance with both hands, with teeth and the strength of the undead.
"Well?" Swann demands.
Hal brings himself back from his memories. "Yes," he says, deciding aloud. "Yes, I'm happy. I would never have predicted I would be here, but now that I find myself here, I am glad."
Swann nods. "My freedom. Fighting for you. Or joining you."
Around them, everyone is watching, tense with Swann's choice. He raises his head, and deliberately unbuttons the collar of his plain pale blue shirt. The audience roar their approval of the choice. Hal extends his fangs and waits for the noise to rise and die, as Swann closes his eyes.
There is something impersonal about drinking in front of such a crowd, Hal thinks briefly, in the second before teeth pierce soft flesh. But the moment is more than just him and Swann. It is a sign for those watching that they have won. The world, for the moment, for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever, belongs to them. It belongs to Hal, and to Snow, and to the Old Ones leading regional revolutions around Europe. He lets the approbation wash around him as he drips his own blood into Swann's throat.
When it is done, Fergus and Cutler appear from the wings and take Swann away to wake up. Snow stands from his chair, comes to Hal's side, and kisses him formally. "And there he is," he says, softly, in Hal's ear. "My lieutenant. Well done, Hal."
Snow steps back, and leaves Hal alone at the front of the stage. There is a spotlight blinding him but he knows how the hall is filled and he can hear their chant, growing in volume: "Lord Hal! Lord Hal! Lord Hal!"
He raises his arms to them and breathes it in. For this is where he belongs.
Note: Apologies for the long wait for an update. Real Life overtook me and I wasn't able to finish this final chapter when I'd hoped.