THE FOURTH Trial - the Blooded Boars.

It seemed as if half the vampires in the mountain had turned out to watch me take on the two wild boars. I learned, as I waited for the Trial to start, that interest in me was at an all-time high. Many vampires had expected me to fail long before this. They were amazed that I'd survived the Hall of Flames. Already the storytellers of Vampire Mountain were busy turning my exploits into the stuff of modern legend. I heard one of them describing my Trial on the Path of Needles, and to listen to him tell it, I'd endured ten avalanches and been pierced clean through the stomach by a falling stalactite, which had to be cut out of me after the Trial!

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It was fun listening to the murmured stories spreading through the crowds of vampires, even if most was nonsense. They made me feel like King Arthur or Alexander the Great.

"Don't go getting a swelled head," Gavner laughed, noting the way I was listening intently to the tales. He was keeping me company while Vanez chose my weapons. "Exaggeration is the key to every legend. If you fail in this or the final Trial, they'll make out that you were a lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing and hold you up as an example for future vampires. 'Work hard, my boy, they'll say, 'or you'll end up like that wastrel Darren Shan.?

"At least they won't be able to say I snored like a bear," I retorted.

Gavner grimaced. "You've been spending too much time around Larten," he growled.

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Vanez returned and handed me a small spiked wooden club and a short spear. "These are the best I could do," he said, scratching the skin beneath his missing left eye with the tip of the spear. "They aren't much, but they'll have to do."

"These will be fine," I said, though I'd been hoping for something more deadly.

"You know what will happen?" he asked.

"The boars will be released into the ring at the same time. They might scrap with each other at the start, but as soon as they smell me, they'll focus on me."

Vanez nodded. "That's how the bear tracked you down on your way here, and why he attacked you. Vampiric blood heightens an animal's senses, especially its sense of smell. They go for whatever smells the strongest.

"You'll have to get close to the boars to kill them. Use your spear to stab at their eyes. Save your club for their snouts and skulls. Don't bother with their bodies - you'd be wasting your energy.

"The boars probably won't coordinate their attacks. Usually, when one moves in for the kill, the other hangs back. If they do come at you together, they might get in each other's way. Use their confusion if you can.

"Avoid their tusks. If you get stuck on a set, get off them quickly, even if you have to drop your weapons to free yourself. There's only so much damage they can do if you steer clear of their tusks."

A bugle call announced the arrival of Mika Ver Leth, who would be presiding over the Trial. The black-garbed Prince bade me good evening and asked if I was ready to begin. I told him I was. He wished me luck and made the death's touch sign, checked to make sure I was carrying no concealed weapons, then swept away to take his position, while I was led into the arena.

The arena was a big round pit in the ground. A sturdy wooden fence had been built around it to make sure the boars couldn't escape. Vampires stood around the fence, cheering like a crowd of Romans at the Colosseum.

I stretched my arms above my head and winced at the pain. Much of my flesh was tender, and some of my wounds were already seeping beneath my bandages. My feet weren't too painful - a lot of the nerve endings had been burnt out, and it would be weeks, maybe months, before they grew back - but I stung piercingly everywhere else.

The doors to the pit swung open, and two caged boars were dragged in by guards. A hush settled over the observing vampires. Once the guards had retreated and shut the doors, the locks of the cages were undone by overhead wires, and the cages were lifted out of the pit by ropes. The boars grunted angrily when they found themselves in the open. They immediately headbutted each other, locking tusks. They were fierce creatures, five feet long, maybe three feet high.

When my scent reached the pair, they stopped fighting and backed away from each other. One spotted me and squealed. The other followed the gaze of the first, set its sights on me, and charged. I raised my spear defensively. The boar turned about ten feet away from where I was standing and wheeled off to one side, snorting savagely.

The far-off boar trotted towards me, slowly, purposefully. It stopped several feet away, eyed me evilly, pawed the ground with its hooves, then darted. I easily avoided its lunge and managed to strike one of its ears with the head of my club as it sped past. It roared, made a quick turn, and came at me again. I jumped over it this time, jabbing at its eyes with my spear, missing narrowly. When I landed, the second boar attacked. It threw itself at me, opening and shutting its jaws like a shark, twirling its tusks wildly.

I dodged the assault but stumbled as I did. Because of the destroyed nerve endings in my feet, I realized I couldn't rely on them as much as I used to. Numbness in my soles meant I could trip at any time, without warning. I'd have to tread carefully.

One of the boars saw me stumbling and rammed me hard from the side. Luckily, its tusks didn't catch, and though the blow knocked the wind out of me, I was able to roll away and regain my balance.

I didn't have much time to get ready for the next attack. Almost before I knew it, a huge hunk of heaving flesh was coming straight at me. Acting on instinct, I stepped aside and thrust with my spear. There was a loud yelp, and when I raised the tip of the spear it was red with blood.

There was a brief respite while the boars circled me. It was easy to spot the one I'd injured - there was a long gash down one side of its snout, from which blood was dripping - but it wasn't a serious injury and would do little to prevent more attacks.

The bloodied boar half lunged at me. I waved my club at it, and it spun away, snorting. The other made a serious run, but lowered its head too soon, so I was able to avoid it by stepping quickly aside.

The vampires overhead were yelling advice and encouragement, but I drowned out the sound of their cries and focused on the boars. They were circling me again, raking up dust with their hooves, taking deep determined breaths.

The unharmed boar suddenly stopped circling and charged. I edged aside, but it kept its head up and followed me. Tensing the muscles in my legs, I jumped and tried braining it with my club. But I'd mistimed my jump, and instead of connecting with the boar, the boar connected with me.

Its head and shoulders knocked my legs out from under me, and I fell heavily to the floor. The boar turned quickly and was over me before I could get up, its hot breath clouding my face, its tusks flashing dangerously in the dim light of the pit.

I slapped at the boar with my club, but was in no position to make the blows count. It shrugged them off and poked at me with its tusks. I felt one tusk cut through the bandages around my belly and slice shallowly into the burnt flesh beneath. If I didn't get moving soon, the boar would do real damage.

Taking hold of the round ball at the end of the club, I jammed it into the boar's mouth, muffling its eager snuffles. The boar retreated, grunting angrily. I scrambled to my feet. As I did, the second boar slammed into me from behind. I went tumbling over the first boar, rolled head over heels like a ball, and collided with the fence.

As I sat up, dazed, I heard the sound of a boar running straight at me. With no time to get a fix on it, I dived blindly to my left. The boar missed me, and there was a ferocious clattering as it struck the fence at full speed with its head.

I'd dropped my spear, but had time to retrieve it while the boar tottered away, shaking its head, confused. I was hoping it would collapse, but after a few seconds it had recovered and looked as mean and purposeful as ever.

My club was still stuck in the mouth of the other boar. There was no way to get it back, not unless it fell out.

Taking a firm grip on my spear, I decided I'd conceded enough ground to the boars. It was time to take the fight to them. Crouching low, holding my spear out in front of me, I advanced. The boars didn't know what to make of my behavior. They made a couple of halfhearted lunges at me, then fell back warily. They obviously hadn't been infected with a large quantity of vampire blood, or they'd have attacked continuously, madly, regardless of safety.

As I herded them towards the far side of the pit, I focused on the boar with the bloody snout. It seemed to be the less secure of the two and retreated more quickly. There was a hint of cowardice about it.

I faked an attack on the braver boar with the club in its mouth, waving my spear in the air, so it turned and fled. As the other relaxed slightly, I changed course and leapt on it. I grabbed the boar by the neck and held on as it roared and bucked. It dragged me almost all the way around the pit before it ran out of steam and came to a stop. While it tried to snag with its tusks, I dug at its eyes with my spear. I missed, cut its snout, sliced its ear, missed again - then struck true and gouged its right eye out.

The roaring when the boar lost its eye almost deafened me. It tossed its head about wilder than ever and scratched my belly and chest with its tusks, but not seriously. I held on firmly, ignoring the pain in my hands and arms as burn wounds were torn open and blood flowed freely.

The vampires above me were very excited and cries of "Kill it! Kill it!" filled the air. I felt sorry for the boar - it only attacked me because it had been provoked - but it was him or me. This was no time for mercy.

I edged in front of the boar - a dangerous move - and readied myself for a frontal attack. I kept to the right, so it couldn't see me, held my spear high above my head, and waited for the right moment to strike. After a few frenzied seconds, the boar caught sight of me through its left eye and paused uncertainly, presenting a steady target. Bringing my arm down sharply, I drove the tip of the spear through the gap where the right eye had been, deep into the boar's crazed brain.

There was a horrible squishing sound, then the boar went mad. Rearing up on its hind legs, it let out an ear-piercing scream and dropped heavily downwards. I ducked out of its way, but as soon as it touched the ground, the boar thrashed around like a bucking bronco.

I hurried backwards, but the boar followed. It couldn't see me - it was past seeing anything - or hear me over the sound of its roars, but somehow it followed. Turning to flee, I saw the second boar preparing itself for a charge.

I halted, momentarily unsure of myself, and the dying boar crashed into me. I fell beneath it, losing my grip on the spear. As I tried to roll over, the boar collapsed on top of me, shuddered, then went still. It was dead - and I was trapped beneath it!

I strained to push the boar off, but its weight was too much. If I'd been in good physical condition, I could have done it, but I was bruised, burnt, and bloody. I simply didn't have the strength to shift the massive animal.

As I relaxed, attempting to draw a decent breath before trying again, the second boar drew up beside me and butted my head with its own. I yelped and tried scrambling away, but couldn't. The boar seemed to grin, but that might just have been the effect of the club, which was still stuck in its mouth. It lowered its head and tried to bite me, but wasn't able, because of the club. Growling, it took a few steps back, shook its head, retreated a few more steps, then pawed the ground, lowered its tusks... and charged right at me.

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