Once we were back with the pack, I told Streak I had to leave for Vampire Mountain. The wolf growled and loosely grabbed my right ankle with his fangs, trying to keep me with him. "I have to go!" I snapped. "I must stop the vampaneze!"
Streak released me when I mentioned the vampaneze, snarling softly. "They plan to attack the vampires," I said quietly. "They'll kill them all unless I stop them."
Streak stared at me, panting heavily, then pawed the snow, sniffed the marks he'd made, and yelped. It was obvious he was trying to communicate something important to me, but I couldn't interpret his actions. "I don't understand," I said.
Streak growled, again ran his nose over the tracks he'd made, then turned and padded away. I followed. He led me to a shabby she-wolf resting slightly away from the pack. I'd noticed her before but hadn't paid much attention to her - she was old, not far from death's door, and didn't have much to do with the pack, surviving off scraps they left behind.
The she-wolf regarded us suspiciously as we approached. Struggling to her feet, she backed away cautiously, but Streak dropped to his belly and rolled over to show he meant no harm. I did the same, and the she-wolf relaxed. When Streak sat up, he pressed close to the she-wolf, whose eyes weren't strong, and stared at her long and hard, growling softly, meaningfully. He made marks in the snow, similar to the ones he'd made for me, then barked at the old she-wolf. She peered at the marks, then up at me, and whined. Streak barked again, to which she replied with a louder, sharper whine.
As I studied the wolves, wondering what was going on, it suddenly struck me that Streak was asking the old she-wolf - I decided on an impulse to call her Magda (my grandmother's name) - to lead me to Vampire Mountain. But all the wolves knew where the mountain was. Why was Streak asking this ancient, pitiful she-wolf to lead me? It made no sense. Unless... My eyes widened. Unless Magda knew a way not just to the mountain, but up it!
"You know how to get inside!" I gasped, crouching forward with excitement. Magda stared at me blankly, but I knew in my gut I was right. I could find my way up the mountain by myself, using common, marked passages, except it would be very difficult to avoid detection that way. But if Magda knew of older, less-used passages, I might be able to sneak in!
I turned to Streak imploringly. "Can she take me there? Willshe?"
Streak ignored me and butted Magda softly with his head, scratching at the marks he'd made in the snow. The she-wolf whined one last time, then lowered her head obediently. I wasn't happy that Streak had bullied her into obeying him, but my need to get safely to the Princes at the top of Vampire Mountain was more important - if a bit of bullying was required to help me sneak past the vampaneze, so be it.
"How far up the mountain can she take me?" I asked. "To the top, the Hall of Princes?" But this was too much for the wolves to comprehend - I'd just have to let her lead me as far as she could, and make my own way from there.
"Can we go now?" I asked, eager to start - I wasn't sure how long the trek would take, and time was precious.
Magda struggled to her feet, ready to follow me, but Streak snarled at me, then jerked his head at Magda and led her through the pack to feast on fresh meat - he wanted to feed her before we set off, which was a wise move, given the sorry state she was in.
While Magda fed, I hopped nervously from foot to foot, thinking about the journey ahead and wondering if we'd make it in time, if Magda really knew the way into and up the mountain, and even if I made it to the top, past the vampaneze, how exactly I could contact the Princes, before some overanxious guard or coconspirator of Kurda's saw me and hacked me down.
When Magda had eaten her fill, we set off. Streak accompanied us, along with two other young male wolves - they seemed to be tagging along for the adventure! Rudi followed us out of camp, yapping with excitement, until Streak nipped him sharply and sent him scampering away. I'd miss the young cub, but there was no place for him where we were headed, so I bade him a silent farewell and left him behind, along with the rest of the pack.
The trek was good at first. Wolves can't run very fast but are strong, able to maintain a steady pace for hours. We surged through the forest, across snow and rocks, making great time.
Then Magda tired. The she-wolf wasn't used to matching the pace of young, tireless males. The wolves would have run on ahead, leaving her to catch up later, but I didn't like the idea of abandoning her. When they saw me slow down to jog beside her, they circled back to join us.
We rested for a few minutes every hour or so. As day dawned, I began to recognize my surroundings. By my reckoning, allowing for our pace and pauses, we would reach the tunnels a couple of hours before sunset.
It actually took a little longer than I thought. When the ground rose, Magda's pace slowed even more. We still made the tunnels an hour before the sun went down, but I was filled with pessimism - Magda was in very poor shape. If the route to the tunnels had left her panting for breath and shaking with exhaustion, how would she cope with a long, hard climb up the mountain?
I said to Magda that she could stay here and leave me to make my own way, but she growled stubbornly. I got the sense that she would continue - not for my sake, but her own. Old wolves were seldom given the opportunity to shine. Magda was relishing her role and would rather die than quit. As a half-vampire, I understood that, so even though I wasn't pleased about letting the she-wolf exhaust herself, I decided not to stop her.
We spent the night waiting in the tunnel near the base of the mountain. The young wolves were restless and eager to proceed, but I knew that night was when the vampires and vampaneze would be most active, so I held my position, and the wolves had no choice but to stay with me. Finally, as the sun rose on the land outside, I stood and nodded, and we climbed.
The tunnels Magda led us through were mostly narrow and unused. Many were natural tunnels, unlike the mainly vampire-carved tunnels that link the Halls. A lot of crawling and slinking along on our bellies was required. It was uncomfortable (and painful in places for someone without any clothes!) but I didn't mind - since no vampires or vampaneze used these tunnels, nobody could catch me!
We stopped for regular rests. The climb was having a dreadful effect on Magda - she looked ready to topple over and die - but she wasn't the only one who found the going tough. All of us were sweating and panting, groaning from aching muscles and bones.
While we rested in a cave that was faintly lit by glowing moss, I started wondering how Magda knew about these tunnels. I guessed she must have wandered in here when she was younger - perhaps lost, starving, separated from her pack - and found her way up, through trial and error, to safety, warmth, and food. If that was the case, she had a truly incredible memory. I was marveling at this - and at the memories of animals in general - when Streak's nose lifted sharply. He sniffed the air, then got to his paws and padded to the mouth of the tunnel leading out of the cave. The younger wolves joined him, and all three bared their fangs and growled.
I was instantly alert. Picking up a sharp stone, I rose to investigate the cause of their concern. But as I was crossing the cave, focusing on the wolves, a slim figure emerged suddenly and silently from the shadows overhead, knocked me to the ground, and roughly jammed a large bone between my lips, choking me and cutting short my panicked cry.