The long wait betweenthe cremations and my trial was awful. Though Mr. Crepsley kept saying I would be pardoned for failing my Trials of Initiation and forgiven for running away, I wasn't so sure. Working on my diary kept my mind off the upcoming trial, but once I'd brought it up-to-date and checked to make sure I hadn't left anything out, there was nothing to do but sit back and twiddle my thumbs.
Finally, two guards appeared and told me the Princes were ready to receive me. I asked for a few minutes to compose myself. They stood outside the door of my cell while I faced Harkat. "Here," I said, handing him a bag (which used to belong to a friend of mine - Sam Grest) with my diary and some personal items. "If they decide to execute me, I want you to have these."
Harkat nodded solemnly, then followed as I exited the cell and let the guards guide me to the Hall of Princes. Mr. Crepsley also fell in behind, having been notified by a third mountain guard.
We paused outside the doors of the Hall. My belly was rumbling with fear, and I was trembling all over. "Be brave," Mr. Crepsley whispered. "The Princes will treat you fairly. In the event that they do not, I shall come to your aid."
"Me too," Harkat said. "I won't let... them do anything... crazy to you."
"Thanks," I said with a smile, "but I don't want either of you to get involved. Things are bad enough as they are. No point all three of us winding up in the Hall of Death!"
The doors opened and we entered.
The vampires within looked solemn and their heavy gazes did nothing to ease my discomfort. Nobody spoke as we marched to the platform where the Princes sat waiting, stern, arms crossed. The air seemed thin, and I had to gasp deeply for breath.
Mr. Crepsley and Harkat sat at the base of the platform, next to Seba Nile and Vanez Blane. I was led up onto it, where I stood facing the Vampire Princes. After a short period of silence, Paris Skyle spoke. "These are strange times," he sighed. "For centuries, we vampires have stuck by our old ways and traditions and looked on, amused, as humanity changed and evolved, growing ever more fractured. While the humans of this planet have lost their sense of direction and purpose, our belief in ourselves has never wavered - until recently.
"It is a sign of the times that one vampire would raise his hand against his brothers, regardless of his good intentions. Treachery is nothing new to mankind, but this is our first real taste of it, and it has left a sour taste in our mouths. It would be easy to turn a blind eye to the traitors and dismiss them from our thoughts. But that would be to ignore the root of our problem and leave the way open for further acts of treason. The truth is that the changing world has made its mark upon us at last, and we must change if we are to survive within it.
"While we have no plans to abandon our ways outright, we must face the future and adapt as required. We have been living in a world of absolutes, but this is no longer the case. We must open our eyes, ears, and hearts to new ways of thinking and living.
"That is why we have gathered here tonight. In the normal course of things, there would have been no call for a meeting to decide Darren Shan's fate. He failed the Trials of Initiation - the penalty for which is death. He then fled from sentencing, a crime punishable in only one way - death. In the past, he would have been put to the stakes, and none would have intervened on his behalf.
"But times have changed, and Darren has played an instrumental part in opening our eyes to the need for change. He has endured great pain and sacrificed his freedom for the good of the clan. He has fought bravely and proven his worth. Previously, his reward would have been a noble death. Now, however, pleas have been submitted, arguing for his right to live."
Paris cleared his throat and sipped from a glass of blood. The air in the Hall was alive with tension. I couldn't see the faces of the vampires behind me, but I could feel their eyes boring into my back.
"We have argued your case at great length," Paris continued. "In the world of humans, I imagine it would have been easy to reach a conclusion, and you would have been openly pardoned. But we view justice differently. To clear your name and free you would mean altering the very fabric of our laws.
"Some have claimed that it is time to fine-tune the laws. They put forward a convincing case on your behalf. They said laws were made to be broken, a sentiment I do not agree with, but which I am beginning to understand. Others wanted the laws pertaining to the Trials of Initiation temporarily waived. In that case, you would have been cleared, then the laws would have been reinstated. A few called for permanent, outright changes. They felt the laws were unfair and - keeping in mind the threat posed by the coming of the Vampaneze Lord - senseless, in that they might work to rob us of new recruits and weaken our hand."
Paris hesitated and ran his fingers through his long grey beard. "After lengthy debate, much of it heated, we decided against altering our laws. There may come a time when we will have to, but -?
"Charna's guts!" Mr. Crepsley roared, and the next thing I knew, he'd jumped onto the platform and was standing in front of me, fists raised. Moments later, Harkat had joined him, and the two faced the Princes and glared. "I will not stand for this!" Mr. Crepsley shouted. "Darren risked his life for you, and now you would sentence him to death? Never! I will not tolerate such bloody-minded ingratitude. Anyone wishing to lay hands on my assistant will first have to lay hands on me, and I swear by all that is sacred, I will fight them to my last savage breath!"
"The same goes... for me," Harkat growled, tearing loose the mask from around his mouth, his scarred grey face even more fearsome-looking than usual.
"I expected more self-control, Larten," Paris tutted, not in the least disturbed. "This is most unlike you."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," Mr. Crepsley retorted. "There is a time for tradition, and there is a time to exercise common sense. I will not let you -?
"Larten," Seba called from the crowd. Mr. Crepsley half-turned at the sound of his mentor's voice. "You should hear Paris out," Seba suggested.
"You agree with them?" Mr. Crepsley howled.
"Actually," Seba replied, "I argued for change. But when the motion was defeated, I accepted it, as any loyal vampire would."
"The hell with loyalty!" Mr. Crepsley barked. "If this is the price of loyalty, perhaps Kurda was right. Maybe it would have been for the best to turn this place over to the vampaneze!"
"You do not mean that." Seba smiled. "Step down, take your seat, and let Paris finish. You are making a fool of yourself."
"But -" Mr. Crepsley began.
"Larten," Seba snapped impatiently. "Down!"
Mr. Crepsley's head dropped. "Very well," he sighed. "I shall bow to your will and hear Paris out. But I am not leaving Darren's side, and anyone who tries to force me from this platform shall live to regret it."
"It is all right, Seba," Paris said as the quartermaster opened his mouth to argue. "Larten and the Little Person may remain." Once that had been settled, Paris continued with his speech. "As I said, we opted not to alter our laws. There may come a time when we have to, but we would rather not rush headlong into such a course of action. Change should be gradual. We must avoid panic and anarchy.
"Having agreed upon the need to be true to our laws, we searched for a loophole that Darren could take advantage of. Nobody in this Hall wished for his death. Even those most strenuously opposed to changes in the laws racked their brains in the hope that an escape clause would present itself.
"We considered the possibility of letting Darren 'escape' a second time, of relaxing the guard and allowing him to slip away with our unofficial blessing. But there would have been no honor in such a strategy. Darren would have been shamed; you, Larten, would have been shamed; and we who agreed to the compromise would also have been shamed.
"We decided against it."
Mr. Crepsley bristled, then addressed the Princes in a whisper. "Arra made me promise, on her deathbed, that I would not let Darren die. I beg you - do not force me to choose between loyalty to you and my vow to her."
"There will be no need to choose," Paris said. "There is no conflict of interests, as will become apparent as soon as you shut up and let me finish." He smiled as he said this. Then, raising his voice, he again addressed the Hall. "As those who were present during the debate know, Arrow was the first to suggest an honorable way out of our dilemma."
"I don't know how I thought of it," Arrow grunted, running a hand over his bald head, grimacing. "I've never been known as a great thinker. Normally, I act first and think later - if at all! - but a thought was swimming like a fish, deep within the ocean of my brain, and eventually it surfaced."
"The solution," Paris said, "is simplicity itself. We do not need to bend or change the laws to suit Darren's purposes. Instead, we need only place him above them."
"I do not understand." Mr. Crepsley frowned.
"Think, Larten," Paris urged. "Who among us are immune to punishment? Who could fail the Trials of Initiation a dozen times and walk away untouched?"
Mr. Crepsley's eyes widened. "You cannot mean...?" he gasped.
"We do," Paris smirked.
"But... it is incomprehensible! He is too young! He is not a General! He is not even a full-vampire!"
"Who cares?" Mika Ver Leth chipped in, making a wry face. "We're not interested in the fine print. He's earned the right to bear the title. More than any of us here, perhaps, he is worthy."
"This is insane," Mr. Crepsley said, but he was beginning to smile.
"Possibly," Paris agreed. "But it was put to a vote, and all voted in favor of it."
"All?" Mr. Crepsley blinked.
"Every single vampire in the Hall." Mika nodded.
"Excuse me," I whispered to Mr. Crepsley, "but what's going on? What are you talking about?"
"Be quiet," he hushed me. "I will explain presently." He thought over the Princes' proposition - whatever it was - and his smile grew wider. "It makes sense, in a mad sort of way," he muttered. "But surely the title would be honorary? He knows so little of our ways, and he is so young and inexperienced."
"We would not expect him to engage in regular duties," Paris said. "He has much to learn, and we will not rush his development. We will not even make a full-vampire of him - though we must share our blood, we will limit the amount, so he remains a half-vampire. But the appointment will be valid. He will not be a figurehead. He will hold all the responsibilities and powers of the post."
"Look," I grumbled, "tell me what's going on, or -" Mr. Crepsley bent and whispered something in my ear. "What?" I snapped, and he whispered some more. "You can't be serious!" I yelped, feeling the blood rush from my face. "You're pulling my leg!"
"It is the only honorable way," he said.
"But... I couldn't... I'm not... I never..." I shook my head and stared around at the vampires packing the Hall of Princes. They were all smiling now and nodding at me. Seba looked especially pleased. "That group agreed to it?" I asked weakly.
"Every one of them," Paris said. "They respect you, Darren. They also admire you. What you have done for us shall never be forgotten as long as vampires walk the Earth. We wish to show our appreciation, and this is the only way we know."
"I'm amazed," I mumbled. "I don't know what to say."
"Say yes," Arrow laughed, "or we'll have to take you down to the Hall of Death and punch a few holes in you!"
Looking up at Mr. Crepsley, I squinted, then smiled. "You'd have to obey me if I went along with this, wouldn't you?" I asked.
"Of course." He grinned. "I and all others."
"You'd have to do whatever I said?"
"Yes." He lowered his voice. "But do not think you could push me around. I will respect your standing, but I will not let your head swell unchecked. You will still be my assistant, and I will keep you in your rightful place!"
"I bet you will," I chuckled, then faced Paris and drew myself up straight. I stood on the verge of a monumental decision that would change my life forever. I'd have liked a few nights to think about it, but there was no time. It was this or the Hall of Death - and anything was preferable to being dropped on the vicious stakes! "What do I have to do?" I asked.
"There is a lengthy, involved ceremony," Paris said, "but that can be postponed until later. Right now all you need to do is accept our blood and offer some of your own to the Stone of Blood. Once you have been recognized by the Stone, the deed is done, and it can never be reversed."
"OK," I said nervously.
"Step forward then," Paris said, "and let the pact be sealed."
As I advanced, Mr. Crepsley told Harkat what was going on, and I heard him exclaim, "No way!" I found it impossible to hide my grin during the ceremony, even though everybody else in the Hall remained solemn-faced.
First, I removed my shirt. Then Arrow, Mika, and I gathered around the Stone of Blood (only two Princes were required for the ceremony). Using my sharp nails, I cut into the fleshy tips of my ten fingers, drawing blood. Arrow and Mika did the same. When we were ready, Arrow pressed the bloody fingertips of one of his hands to mine, and Mika did the same on the other side. Then the pair laid their free hands on the Stone of Blood, which glowed red and emitted a low thrumming noise.
I could feel the blood of the Princes flowing into me and mine into them. It was an unpleasant sensation, but it wasn't as painful as it had been when Mr. Crepsley first blooded me all those years ago.
The Stone of Blood glowed brighter the longer we remained joined to it, and the outer rim became transparent, so that I was able to see inside it and watch as my blood was added to that of thousands of other creatures of the night.
Stray thoughts zipped frenziedly through my mind. I remembered the night when Mr. Crepsley blooded me. My first real drink of blood, when Sam Grest lay dying in my arms. The vampaneze I'd killed in the cave. The mad vampaneze - Murlough. Steve Leopard - my best friend when I was a human, who'd sworn to track me down and kill me when he grew up. Debbie Hemlock and the softness of her lips when we kissed. Gavner - laughing. Mr. Tall directing his performers at the Cirque Du Freak. Harkat telling me his name after we'd killed the rabid bear. Truska (the bearded lady) dressing me up in a pirate costume. Arra - winking. Mr. Tiny with his heart-shaped watch and loveless eyes. Kurda facing the hall of vampires. Annie and how she used to tease me. Sticking stamps into albums with Mom. Pulling weeds in the garden with Dad. Gavner, Arra, Sam Grest - dying.
I grew faint and would have fallen, but Paris darted behind me and propped me up. The blood was flowing rapidly now, and so were the images. Faces from the past, friends and enemies, moving as fast as the frames of a movie, then faster. Just when I thought I couldn't stand it anymore, Arrow and Mika removed their hands from the Stone of Blood, then broke contact with me, signaling the end of the ceremony. As I slumped backward, Paris quickly rubbed spit onto the tips of my fingers to stop the bleeding. "How do you feel?" he asked, checking my eyes.
"Weak," I muttered.
"Give it a few hours," he said. "Once the blood kicks in, you will feel like a panther!"
The sound of cheering reached my ears, and I realized all the vampires in the hall were hollering their heads off. "What are they shouting about?" I asked.
"They want to see you," Paris said, smiling. "They wish to grant their approval."
"Can't they wait?" I asked. "I'm exhausted."
"We shall carry you," Paris said. "It would not do to keep your subjects waiting... sire."
"'Sire," I repeated and grinned, liking the sound of it.
The three Princes lifted me up and placed me on their shoulders. I laughed and stared at the ceiling as they carried me forward, marveling at this bizarre twist of fate, wondering what the future would hold and if anything could ever compare with this.
As they put me down so that I could take the applause of the vampires on my feet, I gazed around and noted the beaming faces of Mr. Crepsley, Harkat, Seba Nile, Vanez Blane, and the others. At the back of the hall, I thought I spotted the ghostly shades of Gavner and Arra and - just behind them - Kurda, applauding silently. But that must have been an effect of the dizziness caused by the addition of the Princes' blood.
Then the faces blurred, and I was staring out at a sea of yelling vampires, one the same as the next. Letting my eyes close, I stood there, shaky on my feet, rocking from the vibrations of their roars, proud as a peacock, listening numbly as they chanted my name and cheered for me - me...