It didn't take me longto realize I couldn't make it very far if I continued in this state. I was soaked to the bone. My clothes were heavy with water, and the air around me was bitterly cold. Mr. Crepsley had told me what to do if this ever happened: get rid of the wet clothes quickly, or I'd freeze to death inside them.

It took a lot of effort to get out of my clothes. My fingers were numb, and I ended up having to use my teeth to tear my way out. But I felt better after I'd undressed. A great weight had been lifted from my body, and although the full force of the cold hit me immediately, I started at a brisker pace.

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It didn't bother me that I was wandering around as naked as the animals of the wild. There was nobody to see. Even if there had been, I wouldn't have cared - being so close to death, modesty was the last thing on my mind.

My brisk pace didn't last long. After a while, I began to understand just how serious a mess I was in. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere, no clothes to protect me from the cold, beaten to a pulp, physically and mentally drained, with nothing to eat. It was a struggle just to keep moving. In a matter of minutes, I would run out of energy and collapse. The cold would set in. Frostbite and hypothermia would finish me off.

I tried jogging, to warm myself up, but couldn't. My legs simply wouldn't work. It was a miracle they were able to support me at all. Anything faster than a slow crawl was beyond them.

I stopped and turned in a full circle, hoping to see something familiar. If I was close to one of the resting places known as way stations, used by vampires in their travels to and from Council, there might be hope. I could hole up, catch a day or two of sleep, and recover my strength. A good plan, with just one major flaw - I had no clue where I was or if there were any way stations nearby.

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I weighed my options. Standing still would get me nowhere. And scouting for a way station was out of the question - I didn't have the strength or time. The first order of the day was to find somewhere sheltered to rest. Food, warmth, and working my way back to Vampire Mountain could come later - if I survived.

There was a forest about half a mile to my left.

That was the best place to head. I could curl up at the base of a tree and cover myself with leaves. Maybe find some insects or small animals to eat. It wasn't ideal, but it made more sense than standing here in the open, or climbing slippery rocks in search of caves.

I fell many times on my way to the forest. That wasn't surprising - I was amazed I'd made it this far. Each time I lay in the snow a few minutes, gathering my strength, then hauled myself to my feet and staggered on again.

The forest had become a magical beacon. I was convinced that if I could make it to the trees, everything would be fine. Deep inside, I knew that was nonsense, but the belief kept me going. Without it, I'd have been unable to continue.

I finally ran out of steam a hundred yards or less from the first trees of the forest. I knew in my heart, as I lay panting in the snow, that I'd reached the end of my strength. All the same, I rested a few minutes, as I had before, then tried to rise - no good. I made it as far as my knees, then dropped. Another long rest. Again I tried to rise. Again I fell, this time face first into the snow, where I lay, shivering, unable to roll over.

The cold was unbearable. A human would have died from it long ago. Only the vampire blood in my veins had kept me going. But even the powerful blood of the vampires had its limits. I'd pushed to the very end of mine. I had no strength left, not even the tiniest morsel.

I was finished.

I wept pitifully as I lay there, tears turning to ice on my cheeks. Snowflakes drifted onto my eyelashes. I tried lifting a hand to brush them away, but couldn't. Even that small gesture was beyond me. "What an awful way to die," I moaned. Another hundred yards and I would have been safe. To collapse and die this close to the end was a shame. Maybe if I'd rested more in the cave in the mountain, I'd have had the energy to continue. Or if I'd-

A sharp, yapping sound jolted me out of my reverie. I'd closed my eyes and been drifting off to sleep/death. At the sound, I cracked them open. I couldn't move my head, and the flakes of snow clouded my vision, but I was staring in the general direction of the forest and could see a vague shape making its way toward me, tumbling through the snow. Oh, great, I thought. As if things weren't bad enough - now something's going to come along and eat me before I'm dead! Could things get any worse? Judging by what had happened to me recently - yes!

I shut my eyes as the creature came nearer and hoped I'd be too numb to feel its teeth and claws as it devoured me. Fighting back was out of the question - a squirrel could have knocked me out, in my condition.

Hot breath clouded my face. A long tongue licked around my nose. I shivered. It licked again, this time my cheeks and ears. Then it licked the snowflakes from my eyelashes.

I opened my eyes and blinked. What was going on? Was it cleaning me up before it killed me? That seemed unlikely. Yet what other explanation could there be? As I adjusted my vision, the animal nudged back a bit and came into focus. My jaw dropped. My lips quivered. And in a pained, shaky voice, I mumbled incredulously, "Rudi?"

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