Hours later, when wordreached me of Arra's death, I returned to the cave to try to make sense of it all inside my head. The vampires had departed. The dead bodies had been cleared away by the morbid Guardians of the Blood. Even the many trampled spiders had been removed. Only the blood remained, great ugly pools of it, seeping through the cracks in the floor, drying on the walls, dripping from the roof.

I scratched my cheeks - caked in dust, dried blood, and tears - and studied the random patterns of blood on the floor and walls, thinking back over the fighting and the lives I'd taken. As I listened to the echoes of the dripping blood, I found myself reliving the screams of the vampaneze and vampires, the moans of the dying, Seba leading the blind Vanez away, the relish with which the battle had been fought, Glalda's expression when I killed him, Arra and the way she'd winked at me.

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"Mind if I join you?" someone asked.

Glancing up, I saw it was the aged quartermaster of Vampire Mountain, Seba Nile, limping badly from a wound he'd sustained during the fighting. "Be my guest," I said hollowly, and he sat down beside me.

For a few minutes we stared around the crimson-splashed cave in silence. Finally, I asked Seba if he'd heard about Arra's death.

"Yes," he said softly. He laid a hand on my knee. "You must not mourn too grievously for her, Darren. She died proudly, as she would have wished."

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"She died stupidly!" I snapped.

"You should not say that," Seba scolded me gently.

"Why not?" I shouted. "It's the truth! This was a stupid fight, fought by stupid people."

"Arra did not think so," Seba said. "She gave her life for this 'stupid fight. Others gave theirs too."

"That's what makes it stupid," I groaned. "We could have driven them off. We didn't have to come down here and cut them to pieces."

"If I remember correctly," Seba said, "it was your novel idea regarding the spiders which paved the way for our attack."

"Thanks for reminding me," I said bitterly, lapsing back into silence.

"You must not take it to heart," Seba said. "Fighting is our way. It is how we judge ourselves. To the uninitiated this might look like a barbaric bloodbath, but our cause was just. The vampaneze were plotting our downfall. It was us or them. You know that better than anybody - you were there when they killed Gavner Purl."

"I know," I sighed. "I'm not saying they didn't deserve it. But why were they here? Why did they invade?"

Seba shrugged. "Doubtless we will unearth the truth once we have had a chance to interrogate the survivors."

"You mean torture," I snorted.

"If that is what you want to call it," he replied bleakly.

"OK," I said. "We'll torture them and maybe learn that they attacked just for the hell of it, to knock us out of shape and take over the mountain. Everything will be fine then. We can walk around proudly and slap ourselves on the back.

"But what if that wasn't why they attacked?" I pressed. "What if there was a different reason?"

"Such as?" Seba asked.

"I don't know. I've no idea how the vampaneze think or why they do what they do. The point is, neither do you or the other vampires. This attack came as a surprise to everyone, didn't it?"

"It was unexpected," Seba agreed. "The vampaneze have never attacked us this aggressively before. Even when they split from us, they cared only about establishing their own society, not undermining ours."

"So why did they do it?" I asked again. "Do you know?"

"No," Seba said.

"There!" I exclaimed. "You don't know, I don't know, the Princes don't know." I got to my knees and locked eyes with him. "Don't you think somebody should have asked? We stormed down here and tore them apart, and not once did any of us stop to question their motives. We reacted like wild animals."

"There was no time for questions," Seba insisted, but I could tell he was troubled by my words.

"Maybe there wasn't," I said. "Not now. But what about six months ago? A year? Ten years? A hundred? Kurda was the only one who contacted the vampaneze and tried to understand them. Why didn't others help him? Why weren't attempts made to befriend them, to prevent something like this from ever happening?"

"You are commending Kurda Smahlt?" Seba asked distastefully.

"No. Kurda betrayed us. There's no defending what he did. What I'm saying is - if we'd made the effort to get to know the vampaneze, perhaps there would have been no need for him to betray us. Maybe we somehow forced his hand."

"Your way of thinking puzzles me," Seba said. "You are more human than vampire, I suppose. In time you will learn to see things our way and -?

"No!" I shouted, jumping up. "I don't want to see things your way. Your way is the wrong way. I admire the strength, honesty, and loyalty of the vampires and want to fit in as one. But not if it means abandoning myself to stupidity, not if it means turning a blind eye to wisdom and common sense, not if it means enduring bloody messes like this just because my leaders are too proud to sit down with the vampaneze and work out their differences."

"It might have been impossible to work out their differences," Seba noted.

"But the effort should have been made. The Princes should have tried.?

Seba shook his head wearily. "Perhaps you are right. I am old and stuck in the past. I remember when vampires had no choices, when it was kill or be killed, fight or perish. From where I stand, today's battle was savage, but no worse than a hundred others I have witnessed over the course of my centuries.

"Having said that, I must admit that the world has changed. Perhaps it is time for us to change too." He smiled. "But who will lead us out of the darkness of the past? Kurda was the face of our future. He, perhaps, could have altered our ways of thinking and living. Now that he has shamed himself, who will dare speak up for the new world and its ways?"

"I don't know," I said. "But somebody should. If they don't, nothing will change, and today's disaster will be repeated, over and over, until the vampires wipe the vampaneze out, or vice versa."

"Heavy thoughts," Seba sighed, then stood and massaged his injured left thigh. "However, I did not come to discuss the future. We have a more immediate and less troubling decision to make."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

He pointed to the floor, and I realized that Madam Octa and the spider with light grey spots on his back were squatting behind us. "Many of our eight-legged friends were crushed in the fighting," Seba said. "These were among the survivors. They could have slipped away with the rest, but they remained, as though awaiting further orders."

"Do you think that guy's sweet on her?" I asked, pointing to the grey-spotted spider, momentarily forgetting my darker concerns.

"Most certainly." Seba grinned. "I do not think spiders know love as we do. But he remained by her side throughout the fighting and did not leave when she decided to stay. I think they wish to couple."

I smiled at the absurd notion of Madam Octa walking down an aisle in a tiny white dress, Mr. Crepsley waiting at the end to give her away. "You think I should put him in her cage?" I asked.

"Actually, I was thinking along the lines of freeing her, so that she could make her home with him. I am opposed to the captivity of wild creatures, except where strictly necessary."

"You want me to let her go?" I chewed my lower lip and thought it over. "What if she bites someone?"

"I do not think she will," he said. "With all the mountain tunnels to pick from, it is unlikely that she will choose to set up home where people might intrude."

"What about offspring? If she breeds, she could give rise to an army of poisonous spiders."

"I doubt it." Seba smiled. "Even if she could breed with Ba'Halen's spiders, her offspring would probably be no more poisonous than their fathers."

I considered it awhile longer. Seba had suggested letting Madam Octa go before, and I had disagreed. But after all she'd been through, it seemed fitting to release her now. "OK," I said. "You've convinced me."

"You do not want to check with Larten?" Seba asked.

"I think he's got bigger things to worry about," I said, referring to Arra.

"Very well," Seba agreed. "Do you want to tell her the good news, or shall I?"

"I'll do it," I said. "Wait a minute - I'll fetch my flute."

Finding the flute where I'd dropped it, I hurried back, pressed it between my lips, blew soundlessly, and sent the thought to Madam Octa: "Go. You're free. Leave."

The spider hesitated, then crawled away, the grey-spotted mountain spider in close attendance. Seba and I watched them until they slipped from sight through a crack in the wall. I'd never have fallen in with Mr. Crepsley if not for Madam Octa. She'd played a key part in deciding my ultimate destiny. Though I'd never liked the spider since she bit my best friend, Steve Leopard, now that she'd slid out of my life forever, I felt strangely lonely, as though I'd lost a dear companion.

Shrugging off my peculiar mood, I laid my flute down - I wouldn't be needing it any longer - and told Seba I'd like to return to the Halls. Side by side, silent as a pair of ghosts, we turned our backs on the scene of the battle and departed, leaving the pools of blood to settle and thicken as they may.

    

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