I didn't really want to involve the wolves any further - in case they were killed - but they remained seated, panting patiently, when I tried chasing them off. "Go!" I said, slapping their flanks. "Home!" But they weren't dogs, and they didn't obey. I saw they planned to stick by me - the younger wolves even looked like they were relishing the thought of a fight - so I gave up trying to drive them to safety and instead settled back to wait for nightfall, judging the time by my internal body clock.
As the day was drawing to a close, the wolves and I crawled back up the steep tunnel and made our way to the wall at the rear of the Hall of Princes. I set to work on the soft layer of rock and carefully carved out a gap big enough for us to squeeze through. I was surprised nobody had ever found this weak point before, but it was very high up, and from the other side the wall must have looked solid.
I paused briefly to consider the extraordinary run of luck I was enjoying. Surviving the gushing madness of the mountain stream, Rudi and Streak finding me when I was at my weakest, Magda leading us through the tunnels to the Hall of Princes. Even failing the Trials had been in one respect fortunate - I'd never have found out about the vampaneze if I hadn't lost against the Blooded Boars.
Was it really just the luck of the vampires, or was it something more - like destiny? I'd never believed in fate, but I was beginning to have my doubts!
Sounds of the approaching procession distracted me from my heavy thoughts. The hour of Kurda's investiture had come. It was time to act. Wriggling through the hole, I dropped to the floor, turned, and caught the wolves as they slithered down. When we were all ready, we flattened close to the wall of the Hall and edged forward.
As we slipped around the curve of the dome, I saw the Generals who'd lined up to welcome Kurda Smahlt. They'd formed a guard of honor, stretching from the tunnel to the doors of the Hall. Almost all were armed, as were the rest of the vampires - the ceremony of investiture was the one time vampires could carry weapons into the chamber. Any one of the armed vampires could be a traitor, with orders to kill me on sight. I tried not to dwell on that horrible thought, for fear it might stop me.
The three Princes stood by the open doors of the dome, dressed regally, waiting to blood Kurda and make him one of their own. I spotted Mr. Crepsley and Seba close to the Princes. Mr. Crepsley was staring in the direction of the tunnel - along with everybody else - but Seba had an eye out for me. When he caught sight of me, he nodded slightly. That meant he'd had words with a few of his staff and had positioned them nearby, with orders to stop any vampire who raised a weapon during the ceremony. Seba hadn't told his assistants about me - we'd agreed it was best to keep my presence a secret - and I hoped they wouldn't hesitate when I made my move, thus giving one of Kurda's men the chance to kill me.
The head of the procession entered the cave. Six vampires preceded Kurda, walking slowly in pairs, carrying the clothes that Kurda would put on once he'd been invested. Next came two deep-voiced vampires, loudly chanting poems and stories, praising the Princes and Kurda. There were more of the chanting vampires behind, and their hymnlike tones carried up the tunnel and echoed around the cave.
Behind the first eight vampires came the vampire of the moment, Kurda Smahlt, carried on a small platform by four Generals, wearing a loose white robe, blond head bowed, eyes closed. I waited until he was halfway between the tunnel and the Princes, then stepped out from the wall, strode forward - the wolves close on my heels - and shouted as loud as I could, "STOP!"
All heads turned, and the chanting ceased immediately. Hardly any of the vampires recognized me at first - all they saw was a dirty, half-naked boy, covered in flour - but as I got closer, they gasped and exclaimed. "Darren!" Mr. Crepsley roared with delight as he started toward me, arms outstretched. I ignored my mentor and stayed focused on the rest of the vampires, alert to signs of retaliation.
The traitors didn't delay. Two vampires in green uniforms raised their spears when they saw me, while another pulled out a pair of knives and moved forward to intercept me. Seba's men reacted splendidly, ignoring the confusion, and darted forward to apprehend the spear-wielding vampires. They dragged them to the ground before they could launch their weapons, disarmed them, and held them down.
But nobody could get to the vampire with the knives - he was too far ahead of Seba's assistants. He broke through the ranks of guards, pushed Mr. Crepsley out of the way, and raced toward me. He threw one of the knives, but I ducked out of its way with ease. Before he could throw the other or get close enough to stick it into me, the two young wolves launched themselves at him and knocked him to the floor. They bit and clawed at him, howling with excitement and fury. He shrieked and tried fighting them off, but they were too powerful.
One of the wolves sank its teeth into the vampire's throat and made a brutal end of him. I didn't mind - I was only concerned about not harming innocent vampires, and by the speed with which this one had reacted, and the determination he'd shown to kill me, he was without a doubt one of Kurda's accomplices.
The other vampires in the cave had frozen with shock. Even Mr. Crepsley stopped where he was, eyes wide, panting uncertainly. "Darren?" he asked shakily. "What is going on? How did -?
"Not now!" I snapped, looking for traitors. There didn't appear to be any more, but I wasn't taking things for granted, not until I'd said my piece. "I'll tell you about it later," I promised Mr. Crepsley, then calmly walked past him to face Kurda and the Princes. Streak padded along by my side, watching out for me, growling warningly.
Kurda had opened his eyes and raised his head at the start of the commotion, but had made no attempt to flee the platform or the cave. He stared at me with hard-to-read eyes as I advanced, more wistful than panicky, then rubbed the three small scars on his left cheek (made by the vampaneze when he was discussing peace terms with them some years before) and sighed.
"What's going on?" Mika Ver Leth roared, his expression as black as the clothes he wore. "Why are those vampires fighting? Break them apart immediately!"
"Sire!" Seba said quickly, before the order could be obeyed. "Those who raised weapons against Darren are not our allies. Those who hold them down do so at my command. I would strongly advise against releasing them until you have heard Darren speak."
Mika stared hard at the calm old quartermaster. "You're part of this chaos, Seba?" he asked.
"I am, sire," Seba said, "and proud to be."
"That boy fled from the judgment of the Princes," Arrow growled, the veins in his bald head throbbing. "He is not welcome here."
"He will be, sire, when you learn why he has come," Seba insisted.
"This is most objectionable," Paris Skyle said. "Never before has anyone interrupted the investiture of a Prince. I do not know why you are siding with the boy, but I think the two of you should be removed from the Hall until later, when we can -?
"No!" I shouted, pushing through the ranks of guards to stand directly before the Princes. Locking gazes with them, I growled so that all could hear. "You say nobody has ever interrupted the investiture of a Prince, and this might be true. But I say no one has ever sought to invest a traitor before, so it's time that -?
The cave erupted with furious roars. The vampires were incensed that I'd called Kurda a traitor (even those who hadn't voted for his investiture), and before I could make any moves to protect myself, a horde surged around me and started kicking, punching, and tearing at me. The three wolves tried dashing to my rescue but were easily pushed away by the crowd of vampires.
"Stop this!" the Princes roared. "Stop! Stop! Stop!"
Finally, the commands of the Princes seeped through, and those who'd surrounded me released me and shuffled backward, eyes aflame with anger, muttering darkly. They hadn't hurt me - the press had been too tight for any of them to get in a decent blow.
"This is a grim night," Mika Ver Leth grumbled. "It's bad enough that a boy violates our laws and customs, but when fully blooded vampires who should know better behave like a pack of barbarians in the presence of their Princes..." He shook his head, disgusted.
"But he called Kurda a traitor!" someone yelled out, and tempers flared again, as vampires hurled curses at me.
"Enough!" Mika bellowed. When silence had fallen, he fixed his gaze on me. He looked only slightly less enraged than those who'd attacked me. "Were it up to me," he snarled, "I'd have you bound and gagged before you could say another word. Then I'd see you hauled off to the Hall of Death, where you'd suffer the fate you deserve."
He paused and glared around at the vampires, who were nodding and murmuring approvingly. Then his eyes alighted on Seba and he frowned. "But one we all know, trust, and admire has spoken up on your behalf. I have no respect for half-vampires who flee instead of standing to face their punishment, but Seba Nile says we should pay attention to what you have to say, and I for one am loath to disregard him."
"I agree with that," Paris Skyle grunted.
Arrow looked troubled. "I also respect Seba," he said, "but such a breach of decorum is deplorable. I think..." Looking hard at Seba, he changed his mind and nodded gruffly. "Very well. I'll side with Paris and Mika. But only for Seba's sake."
Turning to me, looking as kindly as he could given the circumstances, Paris said, "Say your piece, Darren - but make it quick."
"OK," I agreed, glancing up at Kurda, who was staring at me wordlessly. "Let's see if this is quick enough for you - Kurda Smahlt killed Gavner Purl." The vampires gasped, and looks of hatred were replaced with frowns of uncertainty. "At this very moment, dozens of vampaneze lurk in the tunnels beneath us, waiting to attack," I continued. Stunned silence greeted my words. "They were invited here by him!" I pointed at Kurda, and this time no voices were raised in anger. "He's a traitor," I whispered, and as all eyes locked on Kurda, mine dropped, and a couple of confused tears rolled down my cheeks and fell to the dusty cavern floor.