Upon reaching my cellI fell into my hammock, fully clothed, still stained with the blood of the cave. After sleeping rough for so long, it felt heavenly, and I drifted off to sleep almost immediately. I slept right through the night, and it was early morning when I awoke. The tunnels were quiet outside. Harkat was awake and waiting for me to get up.
"I heard... you killed... two vampaneze," he said, handing me a bucket of cold water, a towel, and a batch of fresh clothes. I grunted in reply, undressed, and washed off the dried, flaky blood.
"The vampires... would not let me... join in. I was glad... in a way. I do not... enjoy the thought... of killing."
"There's little about it to enjoy," I agreed.
"Was it... awful?" he asked.
"I don't want to talk about it," I said.
"Very well. I will not... ask again."
I smiled gratefully, dunked my bald head in the bucket, shook off the water when I came up, scrubbed behind my ears, then asked about Mr. Crepsley. The green light in Harkat's round eyes dimmed slightly. "He is still... with Arra. He is refusing... to leave her side. Seba is with... him, trying to... comfort him."
"Do you think I should go and have a word?"
Harkat shook his head. "Not at the... moment. Later, he will... need you. For now, let him... grieve alone."
Drying myself off, I asked about Vanez and the other vampires, but Harkat wasn't able to tell me much. He knew at least ten vampires had died and more were seriously injured, but word of who they were hadn't reached him.
Once dressed, I accompanied Harkat to the Hall of Khledon Lurt for a quick meal, then we wandered back to our cell and stayed there for the rest of the day. We could have mixed with the vampires in the Hall - they'd cheered loudly when they saw me coming in - but I didn't want to sit listening to them spinning wild tales about the battle and how we'd wiped out the vampaneze.
Finally, toward dusk, Mr. Crepsley staggered into our cell. His face was paler than usual as he slumped into my hammock, lowered his head into his hands, and groaned. "You heard the news?" he whispered.
"Yes," I said. Then, after a brief pause, I added weakly, "Sorry."
"I thought she was going to make it," he sighed. "I knew the wound was fatal, but she lasted such a long time, defying the odds, I began to believe she would live."
"Has she" - I cleared my throat - "has she been cremated yet?"
He shook his head. "Nobody has. The Guardians of the Blood are holding the bodies aside for at least two days and nights, as is our custom. The vampaneze, on the other hand..." He lowered his hands and his expression was genuinely frightening. "They are being fed to the flames at this very moment. We took them from the Guardians and cut them up into tiny pieces, so their souls cannot escape the pull of the Earth - they will never make it to Paradise. I hope they rot here for all eternity."
I sensed this wasn't the right time to speak of the disgust I'd felt in the cave, or my belief that vampires needed to learn compassion, so I held my tongue and nodded quickly.
"What about... Kurda and the... other survivors?" Harkat asked.
"They will be dealt with later," Mr. Crepsley said, eyes narrowing. "They will be questioned first, then executed. I will be there when they are. Do either of you wish to attend?"
"The questioning, yes," I said. "I'm not so sure about the executions."
"I will skip... both," Harkat said. "I don't feel... it's my place... to watch. This is a... matter for vampires."
"As you wish," Mr. Crepsley said. "What about the funerals? Do you want to bid farewell to Arra?"
"Of course," I answered quietly.
"I would like... that," Harkat agreed.
Mr. Crepsley's expression had softened as he mentioned Arra's name. "She did not say much once she left the cave," he whispered, more to himself than to Harkat or me. "Speaking was painful. She conserved her energy. Fought hard. She clung to life as long as she could.
"The medics expected her to die. Every time her breath caught in her throat, they rushed forward, eager to clear the way for other wounded vampires. But she hung on. They got so accustomed to the false alarms that when she did eventually die, they did not realize it, and she lay there twenty minutes, serene in my embrace, smiling blankly at me."
His eyes had filled with tears. I handed him a scrap of cloth as they began to drip, but he didn't use it. "I couldn't hear her last words," he croaked. "She spoke too softly. I think she was making some kind of reference to her defeat on the bars."
"Have you had any sleep?" I asked, beginning to cry too.
"How can I sleep?" he sighed. "There are the inquisitions to prepare for. I will not miss Kurda's sentencing, not if I have to forsake sleep forever."
"Don't be silly," I gently chided him. "When does the questioning start?"
"Midnight," he said with a sniff.
"Then you've plenty of time. Get some sleep. I'll wake you before it starts, and we'll go together."
"Promise?" he asked.
"I wouldn't lie to you about something this important," I replied.
He nodded, rose, and started for his cell. In the doorway, he paused and looked back. "You did well in the cave, Darren. You fought bravely. I was proud of you."
"Thanks," I said, choking on my tears, which were flowing freely now.
"Proud," he muttered again, then faced the corridor and shuffled off to his cell, carrying himself like an old, tired, broken man.
Later that night, Kurda Smahlt's trial began.
The Hall of Princes was packed with furious, bitter vampires, as was the cave outside. Virtually every vampire in the mountain wanted to be there to jeer at the traitor, spit at him, and cheer his sentence when it was announced. I'd come with Mr. Crepsley and Seba Nile. We were seated in the front row. We hadn't thought we'd get so close - we arrived late - but I soon discovered that I was the flavor of the moment. The vampires attributed much of their victory over the vampaneze to my efforts. They roared with rough delight when they saw me, then ushered me forward, pushing Mr. Crepsley and Seba along with me, insisting I take pride of place. I'd have rather hung back and viewed the proceedings from afar, but Mr. Crepsley was anxious to get as close to the platform as possible, and I didn't have the heart to disappoint him, not after what he'd been through with Arra.
The conspirators were going to be brought forward one by one, for separate questioning and sentencing. If they spoke openly, and the Princes were satisfied with their answers, they'd be taken straight to the Hall of Death and executed. If they refused to cooperate, they'd be led away and tortured in the hope that they'd spill their secrets (but vampaneze, like vampires, could deal with enormous amounts of pain and were almost impossible to break).
The first to face trial was Kurda. The disgraced General was dragged forward in chains, past the ranks of hissing and screaming vampires. Some brushed his guards aside and struck or kicked him. A few pulled at his blond hair and yanked fistfuls of it out by the roots. By the time he reached the platform, he was in a sorry state, his white robes ripped, his body bruised and bleeding. Yet still he held his head high, reacting to none of the abuse.
The Princes were waiting for him on the platform, flanked by four guards with long, sharp spears. He was placed before the trio, each of whom spat contemptuously on him. Then he was led to one side and turned around to face the assembled vampires. At first I couldn't bring myself to look him in the eye, but when I finally worked up the courage, I found he was staring down at me, smiling sadly.
"Order!" Mika Ver Leth shouted, silencing the booing vampires. "We have a long night ahead of us. We want to settle each case as quickly and effortlessly as possible. I know feelings are running high, but anyone who interrupts our interrogation of Kurda Smahlt - or the others - will be thrown out immediately. Have I made myself clear?"
The vampires muttered sullenly and settled back in their seats. When peace had been restored, Paris Skyle rose and addressed the congregation. "We know why we are here," he spoke softly. "We have been betrayed and besieged. I am as eager as any to see the vile mongrels suffer for their crimes, but first we must learn why they attacked and if we can expect further assaults." Turning to Kurda, his features hardened. "Were you in league with the vampaneze we killed yesterday?" he asked.
There was a long pause. Then Kurda nodded and said, "I was."
Several vampires screamed bloody murder and were swiftly escorted out of the Hall. The others sat white-faced and trembling, glaring hatefully at Kurda.
"Upon whose orders were you acting?" Paris asked.
"My own," Kurda said.
"Liar!" Arrow barked. "Tell us who put you up to this, or so help me, I'll -?
"I know what you'll do," Kurda interrupted. "Don't worry - I have no wish to be subjected to the rougher questioning of your professional torturers. I will speak the truth here."
"You'd better," Arrow grumbled, sinking back on his throne.
"Upon whose orders were you acting?" Paris asked again.
"My own," Kurda repeated. "The plan was mine. The vampaneze were here at my bidding. Torture me all you wish - my answer won't change because it can't change. It's the truth."
" You dreamt up this outrage?" Mika asked incredulously.
"I did." Kurda nodded. "I arranged for the vampaneze to come. I provided them with copies of my maps, so they could slip in undetected. I -?
"Traitor!" a vampire howled, trying to rush the platform. He was caught by a couple of guards and hauled away, kicking and screaming for all his worth.
"I could reach him," Mr. Crepsley whispered in the midst of the commotion, his eyes pinned on Kurda. "I could leap forward now and make an end of him before anyone could stop me."
"Peace, Larten," Seba whispered, laying a soothing hand on the vampire's trembling shoulders. "Kurda is going nowhere. His death will come soon enough. Let us hear him out."
As soon as the screams of the irate protestor had subsided, Paris resumed the questioning. "Is it true that you planned to slip the vampaneze into the Hall of Princes once you had been invested, to seize control of the Stone of Blood?"
"It is," Kurda answered directly. "We would have waited for the Ceremony of Conclusion. Then, while you were drinking yourselves stupid, reminiscing about this Council and looking forward to the next, I'd have sneaked them up through secret tunnels, eliminated those who stood on guard, and taken over the Hall."
"But you could not have held it," Paris objected. "Surely you knew that Mika, Arrow, and I would force open the doors and overwhelm you."
"That would not have happened," Kurda disagreed. "You wouldn't have been alive to force open the doors. I was going to poison the three of you. I had six bottles of a very rare wine set aside especially for the occasion, each spiked with a particularly lethal concoction. I would have presented them to the three of you in advance of the Ceremony. You'd have toasted my good health, died an hour or two later, and the Hall would have been mine."
"And then you would have set about getting rid of the rest of our kind," Arrow growled.
"No," Kurda said. "I would have set about saving them."
"What do you mean?" Paris asked, surprised.
"Has nobody wondered why I chose such an inopportune moment to instigate an attack?" Kurda asked, addressing the question to the entire Hall. "Doesn't it seem strange that I opted to sneak in a horde of vampaneze during Council, while these Halls and tunnels were packed with vampires, when the chance of their being discovered was far greater than if they'd come in a few months' time?"
Paris looked confused. "I assumed you wanted to strike while we were all gathered together," he muttered.
"Why?" Kurda challenged him. "The plan was to sneak into the Hall and seize the Stone of Blood, not to engage the vampire forces. The more vampires in the mountain, the more difficult our task."
"You wanted to rub it in," Arrow snorted. "You wanted to show off and be able to say you took the Halls in the middle of Council."
"You think I'm that vain?" Kurda laughed. "You think I'd have risked my life just to look stylish? You forget - I'm not like most vampires. I act for the sake of results, not appearances. I'm a cold conspirator, not a hotheaded braggart. I was only interested in success, not showmanship."
"So why did you attack now?" Mika asked, exasperated.
"Because we'd run out of time," Kurda sighed. "It was now or never. As I said, I meant to save our race, not vanquish it. Our only hope lay in an immediate, preemptive strike. Now that it has failed, I fear we are doomed."
"What's this nonsense about preemptive strikes?" Arrow snapped. "We had no intention of attacking the vampaneze."
"It was not an attack by the vampires on the vampaneze I sought to halt," Kurda explained. "It was an attack by the vampaneze on the vampires."
"He talks in riddles!" Arrow exploded angrily. "He attacked with the vampaneze to prevent an attack by the vampaneze?"
"Perhaps he's mad," Mika murmured seriously. "Ludicrous," Kurda chuckled darkly. "This is getting us nowhere," Arrow growled. "I say we take him below and drain the truth out of him, drop by bloody drop. He's playing us for fools. We should -?
"Mr. Tiny has visited the vampaneze," Kurda said, and though he didn't raise his voice, it was as though he'd roared. Arrow and the rest of the vampires lapsed into a sudden, nervous silence and waited for him to continue. "He came three years ago," Kurda said in that same quiet but foreboding tone. "He told them that the Vampaneze Lord walked the lands and that they should search for him. When word reached me, I dedicated myself to the task of reuniting the vampires with the vampaneze. I hoped that if we bonded before they discovered their mythical leader, we could avoid the terrible consequences of Mr. Tiny's prophecy."
"I thought you did not believe the myth of the Vampaneze Lord," Paris noted.
"I didn't," Kurda agreed, "until I saw how seriously the vampaneze were taking it. They'd never been interested in war with us, but since Mr. Tiny's visit, they've been strengthening their arsenals and recruiting vigorously, preparing for their fabled leader's coming.
"And now he has come." A physical shock ran through the Hall. The vampires recoiled in their seats as though struck, and their faces became ashen. "Six months ago, the Vampaneze Lord was discovered," Kurda said, dropping his gaze. "He hasn't been blooded, but he's taken his place among them and is learning their ways. My act of treachery was the last desperate roll of the dice. If I'd gained control of the Stone of Blood, I might have been able to win the vampaneze over - not all of our blood-cousins are eager to engage in a war with us. Now that I've failed, the way is open for him. He'll be blooded, take control of the vampaneze, and lead them against us. And he'll win."
Lowering his voice, Kurda muttered bitterly, "Congratulations, gentlemen. After today's great victory, nothing stands between your good selves and a futile war with the vampaneze. You've cleared the way for Mr. Tiny's prophecy to come to pass.
"Enjoy your celebrations. This may be the last chance you get to bang your drums and brag about your valor. As of tonight, the clock is ticking. When it stops, our time is finished. Every vampire in this Hall - in this world - is damned.?
Smiling bitterly, Kurda snapped loose the chains around his right hand, brought his fingers to his forehead and eyes, and made the death's touch sign at the Princes. Then he looked at me and repeated the gesture. "Even in death, may you be triumphant," he croaked sarcastically as angry, desolate tears glittered in the corners of his sad blue eyes.