I wasn't supposed to join in the fighting, but the uproar of the terrified vampaneze excited me, and before I knew what I was doing, I'd sneaked forward to observe what was happening within the cave.
It was incredible to watch. Spiders covered the floor and walls and - most vitally - the rioting vampaneze. The purple-faced wretches were leaping around like cartoon figures, yelling and screeching, desperately trying to repel the attack. Some used swords and spears, which were no use against the tiny invaders, who easily ducked the wild blows and darted forward to sink their fangs into exposed patches of flesh. The vampaneze with the swords and spears were doing almost as much damage as the spiders. Lashing out blindly, they connected with their colleagues, wounding several, even killing a few.
Some of the wiser vampaneze were struggling to establish control, roaring at the others to form ranks against the spiders. But the pandemonium dwarfed their efforts. They were ignored, sometimes knocked out of the way when they tried to intervene.
In the midst of the panic, Streak and the two younger wolves bounded into the cave from the far entrance, yapping, howling, and snarling as loudly as possible. I don't think anybody had invited the wolves along - they simply came of their own accord, eager to be part of the victory!
When the vampaneze saw the wolves coming, several turned and bolted for the exit. They'd had enough - even the lethal sunlight seemed welcome in comparison to this! I thought about standing aside and letting them pass, but the battle lust was strong in me, and adrenaline was pumping through every cell of my body. I wanted to keep them here if I could so they would suffer along with the rest of their despicable tribe. At the time, revenge was all I could focus on. It was all that seemed to matter.
Looking around, I spotted a spear that one of the tunnel guards had dropped during the course of their hasty retreat. Picking it up, I wedged the end against a crack in the floor, then pointed the tip at the charging vampaneze. The lead vampaneze saw me and tried to veer out of the way of the spear, but those behind pushed him on unwittingly. Running right into the spear, he impaled himself without any help from me.
Standing, I roughly shoved the vampaneze off the spear, then bellowed at those behind him. They must have thought the way was blocked by a horde of savage vampires, because they immediately turned and retreated. I laughed triumphantly and started after them, meaning to add a few more scalps to my collection. Then I happened to glance at the vampaneze who'd run onto my spear, and I came to a sickened halt.
He was young, his face only a light shade of purple. He was crying and making soft whimpering noises. Unable to stop myself, I crouched beside him. "It... hurts!" he gasped, clutching at the deep, wide hole in his belly. His hands were red, and I knew his cause was hopeless.
"It's OK," I lied. "It's only a flesh wound. You'll be up on your -" Before I could say more, he coughed. Blood pumped out of his mouth, a huge torrent of it. His eyes widened, then closed. He groaned softly, fell back, shuddered, then died.
I'd killed him.
The thought shook me to my very core. I'd never killed before. Even though I'd been looking forward to punishing the vampaneze for what they did to Gavner, it was only now that I considered the consequences of my actions. This vampaneze - this person - was dead. I had taken his life and could never restore it.
Maybe he deserved death. He might have been rotten to the core and in need of killing. Then again, maybe he'd been an ordinary guy, like me or any of the vampires, only here because he'd been following orders. Either way, deserving or not, who was I to decide? I didn't have the right to pass judgment on others and kill them. Yet I'd done it. Excited by the fear of the vampaneze, intent on revenge, letting my heart rule my head, I'd raised a weapon against this man and killed him.
I hated myself for what I'd done. I wanted to turn and run, get far away and pretend this never happened. I felt cheap, dirty, nasty. I tried consoling myself with the thought that I'd done the right thing, but how did one separate right from wrong where killing was concerned? I'm sure Kurda thought he was doing right when he stabbed Gavner. The vampaneze thought they were doing right when they drained people they fed upon. However I looked at it, I had the awful feeling that I was now no better than any other killer, one of a vicious, terrible, inhuman breed.
Only my sense of duty held me in place. I knew that vampires would be attacking at any moment. It was my job to keep the spiders active until they did, so that the vampaneze couldn't regroup and meet the assault head-on. If I deserted my post, vampires would perish in great numbers along with the vampaneze. I had to concentrate on the bigger picture, regardless of how I felt inside.
Sticking my flute back between my lips, I played and urged the spiders to swarm over the vampaneze. The scene looked so different in light of the life I'd taken. I no longer enjoyed watching the vampaneze shriek and lash out blindly, or saw them as evil villains on the receiving end of their just deserts. Instead I saw warriors, terrified and humiliated, stranded far from their homes and allies, about to be ruthlessly slaughtered.
At the height of the hysteria, the vampires attacked, led by a bellowing Arrow, who tossed his sharp-edged boomerangs at the vampaneze, one after the other, drawing blood with each. Spearists were beside and behind him, and their hurled weapons caused much damage and claimed many lives.
As vampires poured into the cave, the spiders withdrew, urged to retreat by the unseen Mr. Crepsley and Seba. I held my spiders in place awhile longer, keeping the panic alive at this end of the cave.
In less than a minute, the vampires had stormed the whole cave, those with swords and knives replacing the first wave of spearists. They hadn't come in great numbers - if too many had poured into the narrow chamber, they'd have been in each other's way - but the thirty who'd entered seemed to be far more in comparison with the stricken vampaneze. It seemed as though there were five vampires to every one of their foes.
Arrow was in the thick of the action, leading by example, as mercilessly efficient with his swords as he'd been with his boomerangs. Vanez Blane stood close by the Prince, knives flashing, backing him up. Alarmed as they were by the spiders and wolves, the vampaneze quickly realized where the real threat was, and they hurriedly backed away from the coldly murderous pair.
Arra Sails was also part of the first assault. She was in her element, attacking the vampaneze with a short sword in one hand, a spiked chain in the other, laughing brutally as they fell beneath her. I'd have cheered her display a few minutes earlier, but now I felt only dismay at the joy she and the other vampires were taking in the destruction.
"This isn't right," I muttered to myself. Killing the vampaneze was one thing - it had to be done - but relishing their downfall was wrong. There was something deeply unsettling about seeing the vampires find so much ghoulish satisfaction in the massacre.
Confused as I was, I decided I'd better wade in and help. The sooner we finished off the vampaneze, the sooner I could turn my back on the horror. Taking a sharp dagger from the man I'd killed, I called off my spiders, then threw my flute away and stepped forward to join the press of battling vampires and vampaneze.
I kept to the edges of the fighting, jabbing at the feet or legs of vampaneze, distracting them, making it easier for the vampires they were facing to disarm and kill them. I took no pleasure from my success, only continued, determined to help bring things to a quick conclusion.
I saw Mr. Crepsley and Seba Nile entering the cave, their red robes billowing behind them, eager to be part of the bloodshed. I didn't hold their eagerness to kill against them. I didn't hold it against any of the vampires. I just thought it was misplaced and unseemly.
The fighting intensified shortly after Mr. Crepsley and Seba joined the fray. Only the toughest and most composed of the vampaneze had survived the first period of madness, and now they battled grimly to the finish, making their stands, some alone, some in pairs, taking as many vampires to the grave with them as they could.
I saw the first vampire casualties slump to the ground, bellies sliced open or heads bashed in, bleeding and sobbing, crying out loud with pain. On the floor, dying, covered in blood, they looked no different from the vampaneze.
As the front-runners of the second vampire wave trickled into the cave, Vanez slapped Arrow's back and told him to leave. "Leave?" the Prince snorted. "It's just getting interesting!"
"You've got to go," Vanez roared, dragging Arrow away from the fighting. "It's Mika's turn to bloody his blade. Go back to the Hall of Princes and relieve Paris, as you promised. You've had your fair share of the killing. Don't be greedy."
Arrow left reluctantly. On his way, he passed Mika, and the two clapped each other on the back, as though one was a substitute replacing the other in a game of football.
"Not pleasant, is it?" Vanez grunted, pulling up beside me. He was sweating freely and paused to dry his hands on his tunic as the fighting raged around us.
"It's horrible," I muttered, gripping my knife before me like a cross.
"You shouldn't be here," Vanez said. "Larten wouldn't approve if he knew."
"I'm not doing it for fun," I told him.
Looking deep into my eyes, Vanez sighed. "So I see. You learn quickly, Darren."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He gestured at the warring, whooping vampires. "They think this is a great sport." He laughed bleakly. "They forget that the vampaneze were once our brothers, that by destroying them, we destroy a part of ourselves. Most vampires never realize how pointless and savage war truly is. You were smart enough to see the truth. Don't ever forget it."
A dying vampaneze stumbled toward us. His eyes had been cut out, and he was moaning pitifully. Vanez caught him, lowered him to the floor, and finished him off quickly and mercifully. When he stood, his face was grim. "But, painful as war is," he said, "sometimes it can't be avoided. We didn't seek this confrontation. Remember that later, and don't hold our aggression against us. We were forced into this."
"I know," I sighed. "I just wish there'd been some other way to punish the vampaneze, short of tearing them to pieces."
"You should leave," Vanez suggested. "This is where the truly dirty work begins. Return to the Halls and drink yourself senseless."
"I might do that," I agreed and turned away, leaving Vanez and the others to round up the final stubborn vampaneze. As I was departing, I spotted a familiar face among the crowd - a vampaneze with a dark red birthmark on his left cheek. It took me a moment to recall his name - Glalda, the one who'd spoken with Kurda in the tunnel when Gavner was killed. He'd wanted to kill me as well as Gavner. Hatred flared in my chest, and I had to resist the urge to dart back into the action.
Edging clear of the fighting, I would have slipped away, but a crowd of vampires was blocking my path. They'd surrounded a wounded vampaneze and were taunting him before they closed in for the kill. Disgusted by their antics, I looked for another way out. As I was doing that, Arra Sails stepped forward to meet the challenge of the vampaneze named Glalda. Two vampires lay dead at his feet, but Arra pushed on regardless.
"Prepare to die, worm!" she yelled, flicking at him with her chain.
Glalda brushed aside the length of chain and laughed. "So the vampires send women to do their fighting now!" he sneered.
"Women are all the vampaneze are fit to face," Arra retorted. "You are not worthy of facing men and dying with honor. Imagine the disgrace when word spreads that you perished at the hands of a woman!"
"That would be a disgrace," Glalda agreed, lunging with his sword. "But it won't happen!"
The two ceased trading words and started trading blows. I was surprised they'd exchanged as much banter as they had - most of the combatants were too concerned with the business of trying to stay alive to stand around like movie stars and trade verbal insults. Arra and the vampaneze circled each other warily, lashing out with their weapons, probing for weak points. Glalda might have been surprised to come face-to-face with a woman, but he treated her with wary respect. Arra, for her part, was more reckless. She'd mown down several of the panic-stricken vampaneze early in the encounter and had come to believe that all would fall as easily as her initial victims had. She left clumsy defensive gaps and took perilous, needless risks.
I wanted to escape the confines of the cave and put the fighting behind me, but I couldn't bring myself to leave until I'd seen Arra's encounter through to the end. She'd been a good friend and had come looking for me when I disappeared. I didn't want to slip away until I knew she was safe.
Mr. Crepsley also stopped to observe Arra's battle. He was quite a distance away, separated from her by a pack of scuffling vampires and vampaneze. "Arra!" he yelled. "Do you need help?"
"Not I!" she laughed, driving her chain at the face of the vampaneze. "I'll finish this fool off before you can say -?
Whatever boast she was about to make was cut short. Ducking out of the way of her chain, Glalda brushed her defensive stroke aside, drove the tip of his sword deep into her belly, and twisted cruelly. Arra cried out with anguish and fell.
"Now, woman" the vampaneze sneered, straddling her and raising his sword. "Watch closely - I'll show you how we dispose of your kind!" Aiming the tip of his sword at her eyes, he brought it down slowly. Arra could do nothing but stare up at him hatefully and wait to die.