HARKAT AND I sat on our hammocks and waited. The neighboring cells were deserted, as were the tunnels. Most of the vampires had gathered in the Hall of Princes or were waiting outside for the verdict - vampires loved intrigue almost as much as they loved fighting, and all were anxious to hear the news firsthand.

"How come you leapt to my rescue?" I asked Harkat after a while, to break the nerve-racking silence. "You might have been killed trying to save me."

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"To be honest," Harkat replied sheepishly, "I acted... for my own sake... not yours. If you die, I might... never find out... who I used... to be."

I laughed. "You'd better not tell the vampires that. The only reason they've gone lightly on you is that they respect bravery and self-sacrifice. If they learn you did it to save your own skin, there's no telling what they'd do!"

"You do not... mind?" Harkat asked.

"No." I smiled.

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"If they decide... to kill you, will you... let them?"

"I won't be able to stop them," I answered.

"But will you... go quietly?"

"I'm not sure," I sighed. "If they'd taken me right after the fight, I'd have gone without a murmur - I was pumped up with adrenaline and wasn't scared of dying. Now that I've calmed down, I'm dreading it. I hope I'll go with my head held high, but I'm afraid I'll cry and beg for mercy."

"Not you," Harkat said. "You're too... tough."

"You think?" I laughed dryly.

"You fought... boars and faced... fire and water. You didn't... show fear before. Why should... you now?"

"That was different," I said. "I had a fighting chance. If they decide to kill me, I'll have to walk to the Hall of Death knowing it's all over."

"Don't worry," Harkat said. "If you do... die, maybe you... will come back... as a Little... Person."

I stared at Harkat's misshapen body, his scarred, disfigured face, his green eyes, and the mask he couldn't survive without. "Oh, that's a great comfort," I said sarcastically.

"Just trying... to cheer you up."

"Well, don't!"

Minutes trickled by agonizingly. I wished the vampires would reach their decision quickly, even if it meant death - anything would be better than sitting here, not knowing. Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, there came the sound of feet in the tunnel outside. Harkat and I tensed, rolled off our hammocks, and jumped to attention by the door of the cell. We glanced nervously at each other. Harkat grinned weakly. My grin was even weaker.

"Here we go," I whispered.

"Good luck," he replied.

The footsteps slowed, stopped, then came again, softly. A vampire emerged from the gloom of the tunnel and slid into the cell - Kurda.

"What's happening?" I asked.

"I came to see how you were doing," he said, smiling crookedly.

"Fine!" I snapped. "Just dandy. Couldn't be better."

"I thought as much." He looked around twitchily.

"Have they... decided yet?" Harkat asked.

"No. But it won't be long. They..." - He cleared his throat - "They're going to demand your death, Darren."

I'd been expecting it, but it hit me hard all the same. I took a step backwards, and my knees buckled. If Harkat hadn't caught and steadied me, I would have fallen.

"I've tried arguing them out of it," Kurda said. "Others have too - Gavner and Vanez put their careers on the line to plead for you. But there aren't any precedents. The laws are clear - failure to complete the Trials must be punished with death. We tried convincing the Princes to let you take the Trial again, but they turned a deaf ear to our pleas."

"So why haven't they come for me?" I asked.

"They're still debating. Larten's been calling older vampires forward and asking if they ever heard of something like this happening before. He's trying hard for you. If there's the slightest legal loophole, he'll find it."

"But there isn't, is there?" I asked glumly.

Kurda shook his head. "If Paris Skyle knows of no way to save you, I'm sure none of the others do either. If he can't help you, I doubt that anyone can."

"So it's over. I'm finished."

"Not necessarily," Kurda said, averting his eyes, strangely embarrassed.

"I don't understand." I frowned. "You just said -"

"The verdict's inevitable," he interrupted. "That doesn't mean you have to stay and face it."

"Kurda!" I gasped, appalled by what he was saying.

"You can get out," he whispered. "I know a way past the guards, a breach point I never informed anybody about. We can take rarely used tunnels down through the mountain, to save time. Dawn isn't far off. Once you get out in the open, you'll have a free run until dusk. Even then, I don't think anybody will come after you. Since you don't pose a threat, they'll let you go. They might kill you if they run into you later, but for the time being -"

"I couldn't do that," I interrupted. "Mr. Crepsley would be ashamed of me. I'm his assistant. He'd have to answer for it."

"No," Kurda said. "You're not his responsibility, not since you embarked on the Trials. People might say things behind his back, but nobody would question his good name out in the open."

"I couldn't," I said again, with less conviction this time. "What about you? If they found out you'd helped me escape..."

"They won't," Kurda said. "I'll cover my tracks. As long as you aren't caught, I'll be fine."

"And if I am caught, and they worm the truth out of me?"

Kurda shrugged. "I'll take that chance."

I hesitated, torn by uncertainty. The vampire part of me wanted to stay and take what I had coming. The human part said not to be a fool, grab my opportunity and run.

"You're young, Darren," Kurda said. "It's crazy to throw your life away. Leave Vampire Mountain. Make a fresh start. You're experienced enough to survive on your own. You don't need Larten to look after you anymore. Lots of vampires lead their own lives, having nothing to do with the rest of us. Be your own person. Don't let the foolish pride of others cloud your judgment."

"What do you think?" I asked Harkat.

"I think... Kurda's right," he said. "No point... letting them kill... you. Go. Live. Be free. I will... come with you... and help. Later, maybe you... can help me."

"Harkat won't be able to come," Kurda said. "He's too broad to fit through some of the tunnels I plan to use. You can arrange to meet somewhere else, when Council is over and he's free to leave without drawing suspicion to himself."

"The Cirque... Du Freak," Harkat said. "You'll be able... to find it?"

I nodded. I'd gotten to know a lot of people around the world during my years with the Cirque, people who assisted Mr. Tall and his colleagues when they came to town. They'd be able to point me in the direction of the traveling circus.

"Have you decided?" Kurda asked. "There's no time to stand and debate the issue. Come with me now, or stay to face your death."

I gulped deeply, stared at my feet, came to a decision, then locked gazes with Kurda and said, "I'll come." I wasn't proud of myself, but shame was a lot sweeter than the sharpened stakes in the Hall of Death.

    

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