I wanted to speak to the Princes directly - but I couldn't just march up to the doors of the Hall and ask the guards to let me in! I could wait for one of the Princes to emerge and hail him, but they didn't leave the throne room very often. What if Kurda made his move before I could act? I thought about sneaking down to the doors and slipping in the next time they were open, but it was unlikely that I could avoid the attention of the guards. Besides, if Kurda was inside and saw me, he might kill me before I had a chance to speak.

That was my greatest fear - that I'd be killed before I warned the Princes of the peril they faced. With this in mind, I decided I had to contact somebody before approaching the Princes, so that if I died, my message wouldn't die with me.

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But who to trust? Mr. Crepsley or Harkat were the ideal choices, but there was no way I could make it to their cells undetected. Arra Sails and Vanez Blane also dwelt too deep within the mountain to be easily reached.

That left Seba Nile, the ancient quartermaster of Vampire Mountain. His cell was close to the storerooms. It would be risky, but I thought I could get to him without being seen. But could I trust him? He and Kurda were close friends. He'd helped the traitor make maps of infrequently used tunnels, maps that the vampaneze might be using at this very minute to advance on the Hall of Princes. Was it possible that he was one of Kurda's allies?

Almost as soon as I raised the question, I knew it was ridiculous. Seba was an old-fashioned vampire, who believed in loyalty and the ways of the vampires above all else. And he'd been Mr. Crepsley's mentor. If I couldn't trust Seba, I couldn't trust anybody.

I rose to go in search of Seba, and the wolves rose with me. Crouching, I told them to stay. Streak shook his head, growling, but I was firm with him. "Stay!" I commanded. "Wait for me. If I don't come back, return to the pack. This isn't your fight. There's nothing you can do."

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I wasn't sure if Streak understood all that, but he squatted on his haunches and remained with the other wolves, panting heavily as he watched me leave, his dark eyes fixed on me until I vanished around a bend.

Retracing the path by which we'd come, I climbed back down the mountain. It didn't take long to reach the storerooms. They were quiet when I arrived, but I entered cautiously, taking no chances, through the hole that Kurda had revealed to me during my escape.

Finding nobody within, I started for the door leading to the tunnels, then stopped and glanced down at myself. I'd grown so used to being naked, I'd forgotten how strange I'd look to nonanimal eyes. If I turned up in Seba's quarters like this, dirty and wild, he might think I was a ghost!

There were no spare clothes in this room, so I ripped apart an old sack and tied a strip of it around my waist. It wasn't much of an improvement, but it would have to do. I tied another few strips around my feet, so that I could pad more stealthily, then opened a sack of flour and rubbed a few handfuls of the white powder over my body, hopefully to mask the worst of my wolfish smell. When I was ready, I opened the door and crept into the tunnel.

Though it would normally have taken no more than two or three minutes to get to Seba's rooms, I spent nearly four times as long, checking each stretch of tunnel several times before venturing down it, making sure I had somewhere to hide if vampires emerged unexpectedly.

When I finally reached the old quartermaster's door, I was shaking with anxiety and stood in silence a few seconds, collecting myself. When I'd recovered, I knocked lightly. "Come in," Seba called. I entered. The quartermaster was standing by a chest with his back to me. "Over here, Thomas," he muttered, examining the inside of the chest. "I told you not to bother knocking. The investiture is a mere two hours away. We do not have time for -?

Turning, he saw me, and his jaw literally dropped.

"Hello, Seba." I smiled nervously.

Seba blinked, shook his head, blinked again. "Darren?" he gasped.

"The one and only." I grinned.

Seba lowered the lid of the chest and sat upon it heavily. "Are you a vision?" he wheezed.

"Do I look like one?"

"Yes," he said.

I laughed and advanced. "I'm no vision, Seba. It's me. I'm real." I stopped in front of him. "Feel me if you don't believe me."

Seba reached out a trembling finger and touched my left arm. When he realized I was solid, he beamed and rose. Then his face fell, and he sat again. "You were sentenced to death," he said dolefully.

"I figured as much," I said, nodding.

"You fled."

"It was a mistake. I'm sorry."

"We thought you drowned. Your trail led to the stream and ended abruptly. How did you get out?"

"I swam," I said lightly.

"Swam where?" he asked.

"Down the stream."

"You mean... all the way... through the mountain? That is impossible!"

"Improbable," I corrected him. "Not impossible. I wouldn't be here if it was."

"And Gavner?" he asked hopefully. "Is he alive too?"

I shook my head sadly. "Gavner's dead. He was murdered."

"I thought so," Seba sighed. "But when I saw you, I -" He stopped and frowned. "Murdered?" he rumbled.

"You'd better stay sitting," I said, then proceeded to tell him the bare bones of my encounter with the vampaneze, Kurda's treachery, and what happened after.

Seba was shaking with rage when I finished. "Never did I think a vampire would turn against his brothers," he growled. "And one so highly respected! It sickens and shames me. To think I have drunk blood to that sham of a vampire's good health and prayed to the gods to grant him luck! Charna's guts!"

"You believe me?" I asked, relieved.

"I might not recognize treachery when it is skillfully concealed," he said, "but I know the truth when it is revealed. I believe you. The Princes will too." Rising, he strode for the door. "We must hurry to warn them. The sooner we -" He paused. "No. The Princes will see no one until the time of investiture. They reside within their Hall and will not open the doors until twilight, when Kurda presents himself. That is the way it has always been. I would be turned away if I went there now."

"But you'll be able to get to them in time?" I asked anxiously.

He nodded. "There is a lengthy ceremony before the investiture. I will have plenty of time to interrupt and level these grievous charges against our supposed ally, Kurda Smahlt." The vampire was seething with rage. "Come to think of it," he said, eyes narrowing, "he is alone in his chambers now. I could go and slit the villain's throat before-"

"No," I said quickly. "The Princes will want to question him. We don't know who else is working with them, or why he did it."

"You are right," he sighed, shoulders slumping.

"Besides, killing him would be a mercy. He deserves to suffer for what he did to Gavner."

"That's not the only reason why I don't want you to kill him," I said hesitantly. Seba stared at me and waited for me to continue. "I want to blow the whistle on him. I was with Gavner when he died. He was down in the tunnels because of me. I want to look into Kurda's eyes when I expose him."

"To show him how much you hate him?" Seba asked.

"No," I said. "To show him how much pain he's caused." There were tears in my eyes. "I hate him, Seba, but I still think of him as a friend. He saved my life. I'd be dead now if he hadn't intervened. I want him to know how much he's hurt me. Maybe it doesn't make sense, but I want him to see that I don't get any pleasure out of exposing him as a traitor."

Seba nodded slowly. "It makes sense," he said, stroking his chin and considering the proposal. "But it is dangerous. I do not think the guards will kill you, but one of Kurda's allies might."

"I'll take that chance," I said. "What do I have to lose? I'll be killed afterward anyway, because I failed the Trials. I'd rather die on my feet, stopping Kurda, than in the Hall of Death."

Seba smiled warmly. "You are a true, courageous vampire, Darren Shan," he said.

"No," I replied softly. "I'm just trying to do the right thing, to make up for running away earlier."

"Larten will be proud of you," Seba remarked.

I couldn't think of anything to say to that, so I just blushed and shrugged. Then we sat down together and discussed various plans for the night ahead.

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