I kept close to the ground as the vampires passed, hidden behind the bushes, downwind so they couldn't smell me. Once they were out of immediate range, I turned to Streak. "We have to follow them," I whispered. Streak studied me in silence with his large yellow eyes, then got to his feet. He slipped farther back through the bushes. I trailed after him, trusting him not to lead me astray. A few minutes later, we circled around and caught sight of the vampires. We fell in behind them and matched their pace, careful not to get too close.
I examined the four vampires with Mr. Crepsley and Kurda. Three were unfamiliar, but the fourth was Arra Sails. Her right arm had been in a sling the last time I saw her, but it was now hanging freely by her side. After a while, I noticed that two of the unfamiliar vampires were carrying swords like Kurda's and were lagging a bit behind Arra and the other unarmed vampire.
It became clear what was happening. Mr. Crepsley had decided to come looking for me. Arra and the other vampire had agreed to accompany him. Kurda, worried that I might have somehow survived, must have offered to assist and brought the armed vampires with him. If they discovered me alive, the swords would flash, and that would be the end of me, Mr. Crepsley, Arra, and the other vampire. Kurda was making sure word of his betrayal never made it back to the Generals and Princes.
I wasn't surprised by Kurda's devious plotting, but I was upset by the realization that he wasn't the only traitor. The two vampires with swords must have known the truth about him and the vampaneze, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to rely on them. I suspected the Guardians of the Blood (weird humans who live inside Vampire Mountain and donate their blood in exchange for the internal organs of dead vampires) of being part of the conspiracy, but I'd thought Kurda was the only vampire traitor - it looked like I was wrong.
If Mr. Crepsley and Arra hadn't been concentrating so hard on the search, they'd have realized something was amiss - the sword-bearing vampires were edgy, all nervous glances and itchy fingers. I'd love to have jumped out and shocked Kurda - he was the edgiest of all - but common sense prevailed. If I was spotted alive, he and his men would kill me and the three true vampires. As long as they believed I was dead, they wouldn't do anything to give themselves away.
I spent a long time studying the faces of Kurda's companions, committing them to memory. I wondered how many more were in on the plot to destroy the clan. Not many, I bet. The vampires with him were very young. Kurda most likely recruited them himself and talked them into his way of thinking before they learned the ways of the vampires. More experienced vampires, who valued honor and loyalty, would never dream of being in cahoots with a traitor.
After a while, the group came to a halt in a small clearing, where they sat and rested, except Mr. Crepsley, who spent the period anxiously pacing. I tapped Streak's shoulder, then pointed toward the clearing - I wanted to get closer. The wolf hesitated, sniffed the air, then led the way forward. We carefully crawled to within seven or eight yards of the clearing, where we stopped, hidden by a dead tree trunk. With my developed sense of hearing, I could eavesdrop perfectly from there.
Nothing was said for several minutes. The vampires were blowing into their cupped hands and tugging their jackets closer to themselves, shivering from the cold. I smiled as I thought how uncomfortable they'd feel if they were in my compromising position.
After a while, Kurda got up and walked over to Mr. Crepsley. "Think we'll find him?" the traitor asked, feigning concern.
Mr. Crepsley sighed. "Probably not. But I would like to keep searching. I wish to locate his body and cremate him fittingly."
"He might still be alive," Kurda said.
Mr. Crepsley laughed bleakly. "We traced his path through the tunnels. We know he fell into the stream and did not emerge. You truly think he may have survived?"
Kurda shook his head, as though deeply depressed. The dirty swine! He might not think I was alive, but he wasn't taking any chances either. If not for that sword of his, I'd have-
I calmed down and tuned back in to the conversation. Arra had joined the pair and was saying, "... saw wolf tracks farther back. They might have discovered his body and devoured him. We should check."
"I doubt if they would have eaten him," Mr. Crepsley said. "Wolves respect vampires, as we respect them. Besides, his blood would have poisoned them, and we would have heard their mad howling."
There was a brief moment of silence, then Arra muttered, "I'd love to know what happened in those tunnels. If Darren had been by himself and fallen in, I could understand it, but Gavner has disappeared too."
My insides froze at the mention of Gavner.
"Either he fell into the stream trying to save Darren," Kurda said lightly, "or Darren fell in trying to save him. That's the only answer I can think of."
"But how did they fall in?" Arra asked. "The stream wasn't wide where they fell. They should have been able to clear it. Even if it was too wide for them, why didn't they just jump where it was narrower? It makes no sense."
Kurda shrugged and pretended to be as baffled as the others.
"At least we know that Gavner is dead," Mr. Crepsley remarked. "Although we have not found his body, the absence of his mental signal means he breathes no longer. His death distresses me, but the uncertainty regarding Darren unsettles me more. The odds are stacked against his being alive, but until we have proof that he is dead, I shall not be able to accept it."
It was oddly comforting to know that even in the midst of worry, Mr. Crepsley had lost none of his elaborate ways of talking.
"We'll go on searching," Kurda said. "If he can be found, we'll find him."
Mr. Crepsley shook his head and sighed again.
"No," he said. "If we do not locate his body tonight, we must abandon the search. There is your investiture to prepare for."
"Forget the investiture," Kurda snorted.
"No," Mr. Crepsley said. "The night after next, you become a Prince. That takes precedence above all else."
"But-," Kurda began.
"No," Mr. Crepsley growled. "Your investiture as a Prince is more important than the loss of Gavner and Darren. You have bucked tradition already by leaving the confines of the mountain so close to the ceremony. You must stop thinking about Darren. As a Prince, it is your duty to put the will and wishes of others before your own. Your people expect you to spend tomorrow fasting and preparing for the investiture. You must not disappoint them."
"Very well," Kurda groaned. "But this isn't the end of it. I'm as upset by what's happened as you are. I won't rest until we know for sure if Darren is alive or dead."
The hypocrite! Standing there, acting innocent, pretending to be upset. If only I'd had a gun or a crossbow, I'd have shot him dead where he stood, the laws of the vampires - which forbid the use of weapons such as guns and bows - be damned!
When the vampires moved on, I stayed where I was, thinking hard. Talk of Kurda's investiture had disturbed me. It had slipped my mind that he was due to be made a Vampire Prince. But now that I thought about it, things took ominous shape. I'd thought the vampaneze just meant to kill as many vampires as they could and take over the mountain, but the more I considered it, the less sense that made. Why go to all that risk just to take over a bunch of caves they couldn't have cared less about? And even if they killed every vampire present, there were plenty more who could hurry to the mountain and fight to reclaim it.
There must be a logical reason for them being here, and I thought I knew what it was - the Stone of Blood. The Stone of Blood was a magical stone with which a vampire or vampaneze could locate almost every vampire on the face of the planet. With the Stone, the vampaneze could track down and destroy vampires at will.
The Stone was also rumored to be the only object that could save the vampires from being wiped out by the legendary Lord of the Vampaneze, who was supposed to arise one night and lead the vampaneze into a victorious fight with the vampires. If the dreaded Lord was coming - as Mr. Tiny said - the vampaneze would naturally be eager to get their hands on the one thing that stood between them and total victory.
But the Stone of Blood was magically protected in the Hall of Princes. No matter how many vampires the vampaneze killed, or how much of the mountain they claimed, they'd never be able to enter the Hall of Princes and get at the Stone of Blood, because only a Vampire Prince was capable of opening the doors to the Hall.
Only. A. Vampire. Prince.
Like Paris Skyle, Mika Ver Leth, Arrow, or Vancha March. Or - the night after next - Kurda Smahlt.
That was the plan! Once Kurda was invested, he'd be able to open the doors to the Hall of Princes whenever he wanted. When he was ready, he'd sneak the vampaneze up from the caves and tunnels - he knew ways into the Halls that no one else knew - lead them to the Hall of Princes, kill everyone there, and take control of the Stone of Blood. Once that was in his hands, vampires everywhere would have to do what he said - or perish disobeying him.
In less than forty-eight hours Kurda would be invested and the Hall would be his for the taking. Nobody knew of his treachery, so nobody could stop him - except me. Reluctant as I was to face the vampires who'd condemned me to death, it was time to return to Vampire Mountain. I had to warn the Generals and Princes before Kurda could betray them. Even if they killed me for it.