WE'D STARTED back for the Halls when I remembered the old burial site Kurda had told me about not long after I'd arrived at Vampire Mountain. I asked if we could see it. Seba was game and so was Kurda. Gavner wasn't as interested but agreed to tag along. "Burial chambers make me feel gloomy," he said as we wound our way through the tunnels.

"That's an odd view for a vampire," I noted. "Don't you sleep in a coffin?"

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"Coffins are different," Gavner said. "I feel snug in a coffin. It's graveyards, morgues, and crematoriums I can't stand."

The Hall of Final Voyage was a large cave with a domed roof. Glowing moss grew thickly on the walls. A stream cut through the middle of the cave and exited via a tunnel that led it back underground. The stream was wide, fast, and loud. We had to raise our voices to be heard above its roar as we stood at its edge.

"The bodies of the dead used to be carried down here," Kurda said. "They were stripped, placed in the water, and let loose. The stream swept them away, through the mountain and out to the wilderness beyond."

"What happened to them then?" I asked.

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"They washed up on some far-off bank, where their bodies were devoured by animals and birds of prey." He chuckled when I turned pale. "Not a pretty way to go, is it?"

"It is as good as any," Seba disagreed. "When I die, this is how I want to be disposed of. Dead bodies are an essential part of the natural food chain. Feeding flesh to fires is a waste."

"Why did they stop using the stream?" I asked.

"Bodies got stuck," Seba cackled. "They piled up a short way down the tunnel. The stench was unbearable. A team of vampires had to tie ropes around themselves and swim down the tunnel to hack the bodies free. They were pulled back by their colleagues, since nobody could swim against so furious a current.

"I was on that work detail," Seba continued. "Thankfully I only had to pull on the rope and did not have to venture into the water. Those who went down the tunnel to free the bodies could never bring themselves to talk of what they found."

As I gazed down at the dark water of the stream, shivering at the idea of swimming down the tunnel to pry loose stuck corpses, a thought struck me, and I turned to Kurda. "You say the bodies washed up for animals and birds to feed on - but isn't vampire blood poisonous?"

"There wasn't any blood," Kurda said.

"Why not?" I frowned.

Kurda hesitated, and Seba answered for him. "It had been drained by the Guardians of the Blood, who also removed most of their internal organs."

"Who are the Guardians of the Blood?" I asked.

"Do you remember the people we saw in the Hall of Cremation and the Hall of Death when I took you on a tour of the mountain?" Kurda said.

I cast my mind back and recalled the strange, ultrapale people with the eerie white eyes, dressed in rags, sitting alone and quiet in the somber Halls. Kurda had been reluctant to discuss them and said he'd tell me about them later, but with all that had happened since, I'd forgotten to follow up on the mystery. "Who are they?" I asked. "What do they do?"

"They're the Guardians of the Blood," Kurda said. "They came to Vampire Mountain more than a thousand years ago - we don't know from where - and have lived here ever since, though small bands go off wandering every decade or so, sometimes returning with new members. They have separate living quarters beneath the Halls and rarely mix with us. They also have their own language, customs, and beliefs."

"Are they humans?" I asked.

"They're ghouls!" Gavner grunted.

"That is unfair," Seba tutted. "They are loyal servants, deserving of our gratitude. They are in charge of the cremation ceremonies and do a noble job of preparing the dead. Plus, they provide us with blood - that is where most of the human blood in our stores comes from. We could never ship in enough to supply the needs of all the vampires at Council, so we rely upon the Guardians. They do not let us feed directly from them, but they extract their blood themselves and pass it to us in jars."

"Why?" I asked, perplexed. "It can't be much fun, living inside a mountain and giving their blood away. What's in it for them?"

Kurda coughed uncomfortably. "Do you know what a saprotroph is?"

I shook my head.

"They're creatures - or small organisms - which feed on the waste or dead bodies of others. The Guardians are saprotrophs. They eat the internal organs - including the hearts and brains - of dead vampires."

I stared at Kurda, wondering if he was joking. But I saw by his grim expression that he wasn't. "Why do you let them?" I cried, my insides churning.

"We need them," Seba said plainly. "Their blood is necessary. Besides, they do us no harm."

"You don't think eating dead bodies is harmful?" I gasped.

"We haven't had any complaints from the dead yet," Gavner chortled, but his humor was forced - he looked as uncomfortable as I felt.

"They take great care with the bodies," Seba explained. "We are sacred to them. They drain the blood off first and store it in special casks of their own making - that is how they got their name - then delicately cut the torso open and remove the required organs. They also extract the brain, by inserting small hooks up the corpse's nose and pulling it out in little pieces."

"What?" Gavner roared. "I've never heard that before!"

"Most vampires are not aware of it," Seba said.

"But I have studied the Guardians in some detail over the centuries. The skulls of vampires are precious to them, and they never slice them apart."

"That's somewhat unsettling," Kurda murmured distastefully.

"It's disgraceful!" Gavner snorted.

"Cool! "I said.

"Once the organs and brains have been removed," Seba continued, "they cook them to make them safe - our blood is as deadly to the Guardians as it is to any creature."

"And that's what they live on?" I asked, revolted but fascinated.

"No," Seba replied. "They would not survive very long if that was their only intake. They eat normal food, preserving and reserving our organs for special occasions - they eat them at marriages, funerals, and other such events."

"That's disgusting!" I shouted, torn between ghoulish laughter and moral outrage. "Why do they do it?"

"We're not sure what the appeal is," Kurda admitted, "but part of it may be that it keeps them alive longer. The average Guardian lives a hundred and sixty years or more. Of course, if they became vampires, they'd live even longer, but none do - accepting a vampire's blood is taboo as far as the Guardians are concerned."

"How can you let them do it?" I asked. "Why not send these monsters away?"

"They are not monsters," Seba disagreed. "They are people with peculiar feeding habits - much like ourselves! Besides, we drink their blood. It is a fair arrangement - our organs for their blood."

"Fair isn't the word I'd use," I muttered. "It's cannibalism!"

"Not really," Kurda objected. "They don't eat the flesh of their own, so they're not really cannibals."

"You're nitpicking," I grunted.

"It is a thin line," Seba agreed, "but there is a difference. I would not want to be a Guardian, and I do not socialize with them, but they are just odd humans getting along as best they can. Do not forget that we feed off people too, Darren. It would be wrong to despise them, just as it is wrong for humans to hate vampires."

"I told you this would turn morbid." Gavner chuckled.

"You were right." Kurda smiled. "This is a realm of the dead, not the living, and we should leave them to it. Let's get back to the Festival."

"Have you seen enough, Darren?" Seba asked.

"Yes." I shivered. "And I heard enough too!"

"Then let us depart."

We set off, Seba in front, Gavner and Kurda fast on his heels. I hung back a moment, studying the stream, listening to the roar of the water as it entered and exited the cave, thinking about the Guardians of the Blood, imagining my dead, drained, hollowed body making the long descent down the mountain, tossed like a rag doll from rock to rock.

It was a horrible image. Shaking my head, I thrust it from my thoughts and hurried after my friends, unaware that within a frighteningly short time I would be back at this same gruesome spot, not to mourn the passing of somebody else's life - but to fight desperately for my own!

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