TIME PASSED slowly while I was confined to my recovery hammock. Medics fussed over me, rubbing lotions into my charred flesh, changing bandages, cleaning the wounds, making sure infection didn't set in. They often commented on how fortunate I was. None of the damage was permanent, except maybe the hair loss. My feet would heal, my lungs were OK, most of my skin would grow back. All things considered, I was in great shape and should thank my lucky stars.

But I didn't feel like I was in great shape. I was in pain the whole time. It was bad enough when I lay still but grew unbearable when I moved. I cried into my pillow a lot, wishing I could fall asleep and not wake until the pain had passed, but even in sleep I was tortured by the aftereffects of the fire, terrorized by nightmares, never more than a sharp twinge away from wakefulness.

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I had plenty of visitors, who helped distract me from the pain. Seba and Gavner spent hours by my side, telling me stories and jokes. Gavner had started calling me Toastie, because he said I looked like a slice of burnt toast. And he offered to find a charred torch stub and draw fake ashen eyebrows on my forehead, since my own had been burnt off along with my head of hair. I told him where he could stick his torch stub - and the rest of the torch as well!

I asked Seba if he had any special cures for burns, hoping the old vampire would know of some traditional remedy that the medics were ignorant of. "Alas, no," he said, "but when your wounds have healed, we shall make another trip to the caves of Ba'Halen's spiders and find cobwebs to prevent further itching."

Arra often came to see me, though she spent more time talking with Mr. Crepsley than to me. The two spent a lot of time talking about the old nights and their life together when they were mates.

After a while I fell to wondering if the pair might be planning to mate again and how that would affect my relationship with the vampire. When I asked Mr. Crepsley about it, he coughed with embarrassment and snapped that I shouldn't bother him with such nonsense - Arra and he were just good friends.

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"Of course you are." I chuckled, giving him a knowing wink.

Kurda could only get down to see me a couple of times. Now that the Festival of the Undead was out of the way, there was a lot of business for the vampires to discuss, much of it connected to the vampaneze. As a senior General and vampaneze expert, he had to spend most of his waking hours in meetings and conferences.

Arra was with me on one of the rare occasions when Kurda came. She stiffened when she saw him, and he started to withdraw, to avoid a confrontation. "Wait," she called him back. "I want to thank you for what you did for Darren."

"It was nothing." He smiled.

"It wasn't," she disagreed. "Many of us care about Darren, but only you had sense enough to steer him to safety in his hour of need. The rest of us would have stood by and watched him die. I don't agree with your ways - there's a thin line between diplomacy and cowardice - but sometimes they do work better than our own."

Arra left, and Kurda smiled lightly. "Do you know," he remarked, "that's the closest she'll ever get to saying she likes me."

Kurda fed me some water - I was on a liquids-only diet - and told me what had been happening while I was out of action. A committee had been established to discuss the workings of the vampaneze and what to do in the event of the emergence of a Vampaneze Lord. "For the first time, they're seriously talking about making peace with the vampaneze," he said.

"That must make you happy."

He sighed. "If this had happened a few years ago, I'd have been whooping with glee. But time's running out. I think it's going to take more than a mere committee to unite the tribes and combat the threat of the Vampaneze Lord."

"I thought you didn't believe in the Vampaneze Lord," I said.

He shrugged. "Officially, I don't. Between you and me..." - He lowered his voice - "The thought of him scares me silly."

"You think he's real?" I asked.

"If Mr. Tiny says so - yes. Whatever else I believe or don't believe in, there's no doubting the powers of Mr. Tiny. Unless we act quickly to prevent the possibility of a Vampaneze Lord arising, I'm sure he'll come. Stopping him before he gets started may involve a terrible sacrifice, but if that's the price of averting a war, so be it."

It was odd to hear Kurda making such a confession. If he - friend to the vampaneze - was worried, the other vampires must be terrified. I hadn't been paying a lot of attention to talk of the Vampaneze Lord, but I made up my mind to listen more closely in the future.

The next night - the last before the start of my fourth Trial - Mr. Crepsley came to see me after a meeting with Vanez Blane. Harkat was already by my hammock. The Little Person had spent more time with me than anyone else.

"I have discussed things with Vanez," Mr. Crepsley said, "and we both agree that you would be better served in preparing for your next Trial by rest rather than practice. There are no special skills required in the Trial of the Blooded Boars. You simply have to face and kill two boars that have been infected with vampire blood. It is a straightforward fight to the death."

"If I can beat a wild bear, I can beat a couple of boars." I grinned, trying to sound upbeat - I'd killed a savage bear during our trek to Vampire Mountain.

"Most certainly you can," Mr. Crepsley agreed. "Were it not for your wounds, I would even hazard a guess that you could do it with one arm tied behind your back."

I smiled, then coughed. I'd been coughing a lot since the Hall of Flames. It was a natural reaction to all the smoke I'd inhaled. My lungs hadn't suffered any serious damage, so the coughing should stop in another couple of days. Mr. Crepsley handed me a glass of water, and I sipped from it slowly. I was able to feed myself now and had enjoyed my first meal since the Hall of Flames earlier in the night. I was still in pretty bad shape, but thanks to my vampire blood, I was recovering quickly.

"Do you feel ready for the Trial?" Mr. Crepsley asked.

"I'd like another twenty-four hours," I sighed, "but I think I'll be OK. I walked around for fifteen minutes after breakfast and I felt good. As long as my legs and feet hold, I should be fine - fingers crossed."

"I have been talking to Seba Nile," Mr. Crepsley said, switching subjects. "He tells me he is thinking of retiring once Council has ended. He feels he has served long enough as the quartermaster of Vampire Mountain. He wants to see the world one last time before he dies."

"Maybe he can come with us to the Cirque Du Freak," I suggested.

"Actually," Mr. Crepsley said, watching closely for my reaction, "we might not be returning to the Cirque Du Freak."

"Oh? "I frowned.

"Seba has offered me the job of quartermaster. I am thinking of accepting it."

"I thought nobody liked becoming quartermaster," I said.

"It is not much sought after," Mr. Crepsley agreed, "but quartermasters are widely respected. The running of Vampire Mountain is a great responsibility. It can also be richly rewarding - for hundreds of years you are capable of influencing the lives of every new Vampire General."

"Why did he offer the job to you?" I asked. "Why not one of his assistants?"

"His assistants are young. They dream of being Generals or going out into the world and making a mark of their own. It would be unfair to tear one of them away from his dreams when I am at hand, ready and able to step into the position."

"You want to do this, don't you?" I asked, reading his desire in his expression.

He nodded. "A decade or two ago, it would have been the furthest thing from my wishes. But life has been aimless since I quit the Generals. I had not realized how much I missed being part of the clan until I attended this Council. This would be the ideal way for me to reestablish myself."

"If you want it that much, go for it," I encouraged him.

"But what about you?" he asked. "As my assistant, you would have to remain here with me until you are old enough to leave by yourself. Do you like the idea of spending the next thirty years of your life walled up inside this mountain?"

"Not really," I said. "I've enjoyed my stay - apart from the Trials - but I imagine it could grow boring after a couple of years." I ran a hand over my bald head and thought at length about it. "And there's Harkat to consider. How will he get back if we stay here?"

"I will... stay with you... if you decide... to remain," he said.

"You will?" I asked, surprised.

"Part of... my memory... has come back. Much is... still blank, but I... recall Mr. Tiny... telling me the only... way I could... find out who I... was before I died... was by... sticking with you."

"How can I help you find out who you were?" I asked.

Harkat shrugged. "I do not... know. But I will... stay by your... side, as long... as you will... have me."

"You don't mind being cooped up inside a mountain?" I asked.

Harkat smiled. "Little People... are easily... pleased."

I lay back and considered the proposal. If I stayed, I could learn more about the ways of the vampires, perhaps even train to be a Vampire General. The idea of being a General appealed to me - I could picture myself leading a troop of vampires into battle with the vampaneze, like a pirate captain or an officer in the army.

On the other hand, I'd maybe never see Evra Von or Mr. Tall or my other friends at the Cirque Du Freak again. No more traveling around the world, performing for audiences, or luxury comforts like going to the movies or ordering Chinese take-out - not for thirty-odd years at least!

"It's a huge decision," I mused aloud. "Can I have some time to think it over?"

"Of course," Mr. Crepsley said. "There is no rush. Seba expects no answer until after Council. We will discuss it in further detail when you have concluded your Trials."

" If I conclude them." I grinned nervously.

"When," Mr. Crepsley insisted, and smiled reassuringly.

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