WE HURRIED through the deserted corridors, down to the storerooms. Kurda led me to the back of one, where we moved aside a couple of large sacks, revealing a small hole in the wall. Kurda began to squeeze through, but I pulled him back and asked if we could rest for a couple of minutes - I was in a lot of pain.
"Will you be able to continue?" he asked.
"Yes, but only if we stop for regular breaks. I know time is precious, but I'm too exhausted to keep going without resting."
When I felt ready, I followed Kurda through the hole and found myself in a cramped tunnel that dropped sharply. I suggested we slide to the bottom, but Kurda rejected the idea. "We're not going all the way down," he said. "There's a shelf halfway down this hole that leads to another tunnel."
Sure enough, after several minutes we came to a ledge, left the hole, and were soon back on level ground. "How did you find this place?" I asked.
"I followed a bat," he said, and winked.
We came to a fork, and Kurda stopped to get out a map. He studied it silently for a few seconds, then took the turn to the left.
"Are you sure you know where you're going?" I asked.
"Not entirely." He laughed. "That's why I brought my maps. I haven't been down some of these tunnels in decades."
I tried keeping track of the route we were taking, in case anything happened to Kurda, and I had to find my way back on my own, but it was impossible. We twisted and turned so many times, only a genius could have memorized the way.
We passed over a couple of small streams. Kurda told me that they joined up with others farther ahead, to form the wide stream that had been used for burying the dead in the past. "We could always swim to safety," I suggested jokingly.
"Why not flap our arms and fly away while we're at it?" Kurda replied.
Some of the tunnels were pitch black, but Kurda didn't light any candles - he said the wax droppings would mark our trail and make it easy for pursuing vampires to track us.
The farther we progressed, the harder it became for me to keep up, and we had to stop often so I could catch my breath and work up the energy to continue.
"I'd carry you if there was room," Kurda said during one of our rest periods, wiping sweat and blood from my neck and shoulders with his shirt. "We'll be entering larger tunnels shortly. I can give you a boost then if you'd like."
"That'd be great," I wheezed.
"What about when we get out of the tunnels?" he asked. "Do you want me to come with you some of the way, to make sure you're OK?"
I shook my head. "You'd be discovered by the Generals if you did. I'll be fine once I get outside. The fresh air will perk me up. I'll find somewhere to sleep, rest for a few hours, then -"
I stopped. Loose pebbles had clattered to the floor in one of the tunnels behind us. Kurda heard them too. He ran to the mouth of the tunnel and squatted by the opening, listening intently. After a few seconds, he raced back to my side. "Someone's coming!" he hissed, dragging me to my feet. "Hurry! We must get out of here!"
"No," I sighed, sitting down again.
"Darren!" he screeched softly. "You can't stay. We've got to make a break for it before -"
"I can't," I told him. "Shuffling was hard enough - there's no way I can take part in a full-speed chase. If we've been found, that's the end. Go on ahead and hide. I'll pretend I acted alone."
"You know I wouldn't leave you," he said, squatting beside me.
We waited in silence as the footsteps came closer. By the sound, there was only one person following us. I hoped it wasn't Mr. Crepsley - I dreaded the thought of facing him after what I'd done.
The tracking vampire reached the mouth of the tunnel, studied us from the shadows a moment, then ducked forward and hurried over. It was Gavner Purl! "You two are in so much trouble," he snarled. "Whose dumb idea was it to run?"
"Mine!" Kurda and I said at the exact same time.
Gavner shook his head, exasperated. "You're as bad as each other," he snapped. "Come on - the truth."
"It was my idea," Kurda answered, squeezing my arm to silence my protestations. "I persuaded Darren to come. The blame is mine."
"You're an idiot," Gavner reprimanded him. "This will destroy you if word gets out. You won't just have to forget about becoming a Vampire Prince - chances are you'll be carted off to the Hall of Death to suffer the same fate as Darren."
"Only if you tell on me," Kurda said quietly.
"You think I won't?" Gavner challenged him.
"If it was your intention to punish us, you wouldn't have come alone."
Gavner stared at the senior vampire, then cursed shortly. "You're right," he groaned. "I don't want to see you killed. If the two of you come back with me, I'll keep your name out of it. In fact, nobody ever need know it happened. Harkat and I are the only ones who know at the moment. We can get Darren back before judgment is passed."
"Why?" Kurda asked. "So he can be taken to the Hall of Death and impaled?"
"If that's the judgment of the Princes - yes," Gavner said.
Kurda shook his head. "That's what we're escaping from. I won't let him go back to be killed. It's wrong to take a boy's life in such a heartless fashion."
"Wrong or right," Gavner snapped, "the judgment of the Princes is final!"
Kurda narrowed his eyes. "You agree with me," he whispered. "You think his life should be spared."
Gavner nodded reluctantly. "But that's my own opinion. I'm not going to ignore the ruling of the Princes."
"Why not?" Kurda asked. "Do we have to obey them even when they're wrong, even when they rule unjustly?"
"It's our way," Gavner growled.
"Ways can be changed," Kurda insisted. "The Princes are too inflexible. They ignore the fact that the world is moving forward. In a few weeks, I'll be a Prince. I can change things. Let Darren go, and I'll get the ruling against him overturned. I'll clear his name and allow him to return and complete his Trials. Turn a blind eye just this once and I swear you won't regret it."
Gavner was troubled by Kurda's words. "It's wrong to plot against the Princes," he muttered.
"Nobody will know," Kurda promised. "They'll think Darren got away by himself. We'll never be investigated."
"It goes against everything we believe in," Gavner sighed.
"Sometimes we have to abandon old beliefs in favor of new ones," Kurda said.
While Gavner agonized over his decision, I spoke up. "I'll go back if you want me to. I'm afraid of dying, which is why I let Kurda talk me into fleeing. But if you say I should return, I will."
"I don't want you to die," Gavner cried. "But running away never solved anything."
"Nonsense!" Kurda snorted. "Vampires would be a lot better off if more of us had the good sense to run from a fight when the odds are stacked against us. If we take Darren back, we take him back to die. Where's the sense in that?"
Gavner thought it over in silence, then nodded morosely. "I don't like it, but it's the lesser of two evils. I won't turn you in. But," he added, "only if you agree to present the truth to the others once you become a Prince. We'll come clean, clear Darren's name if we can, accept our punishment if we can't. OK?"
"That's fine by me," Kurda said.
"Your word on it?"
Kurda nodded. "My word."
Gavner let out a long breath and studied me in the gloom of the tunnel. "How are you anyway?" he asked.
"Not so bad," I lied.
"You look like you're about to drop," he noted skeptically.
"I'll make it," I vowed. Then I asked how he'd found us.
"I went looking for Kurda," he explained. "I was hoping we could put our heads together and figure a way out of this mess. His map cabinet was open. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but when I dropped by your cell and found Harkat there by himself, I put two and two together."
"How did you track us through the tunnels?" Kurda asked.
Gavner pointed to a drop of blood on the floor beneath me. "He's been dripping the whole way," he said. "He's left a trail even a fool could follow."
Kurda closed his eyes and grimaced. "Charna's guts! Espionage never was my strong suit."
"You're right!" Gavner snorted. "If we're going to pull this off, we'd better move quickly. As soon as Darren's discovered missing, there'll be a team of trackers on his trail, and it won't take them long to find him. Our only chance is to get him outside and hope the sun prevents them from continuing."
"My thoughts exactly," Kurda said, and started ahead. I followed as well as I could, Gavner puffing along behind.
At the end of the tunnel, Kurda turned left. I headed after him, but Gavner grabbed my arm and stopped me, then studied the tunnel to his right. When Kurda realized we weren't at his heels, he paused and looked back. "What's the delay?" he asked.
"I've been in this part of the mountain before,"
Gavner said. "It was during my Trials of Initiation. I had to find a hidden jewel."
"I can find the way out," Gavner said. "I know the path to the nearest exit."
"So do I," Kurda said, "and it's this way."
Gavner shook his head. "We can get out that way," he agreed, "but it'll be quicker if we take this other tunnel."
"No!" Kurda snapped. "This was my idea. I'm in charge. We don't have time to go wandering around. If you're wrong, it'll cost us. My way is certain."
"So's mine," Gavner insisted, and before Kurda could object, he ducked down the tunnel to the right, dragging me along after him. Kurda cursed loudly and called us back, but when Gavner ignored him, he had no choice other than to hurry after us.
"This is stupid," Kurda panted when he caught up. He tried to squeeze past me to deal with Gavner face-to-face, but the tunnel was too narrow. "We should stick to the route on the maps. I know more about these tunnels than you. There's nothing the way you're going except dead ends."
"No," Gavner contradicted him. "We can save almost forty minutes this way."
"But what if -," Kurda began.
"Stop arguing," Gavner interrupted. "The more we talk, the slower we progress."
Kurda muttered something, but said no more about it. I could tell he wasn't happy though.
We passed through a small tunnel that cut beneath a roaring mountain stream. The water sounded so close, I was afraid it might break through the walls of the tunnel and flood us. I couldn't hear anything over the noise of the stream, and it was so dark, I couldn't see anything either. It felt as if I was all alone.
I was delighted to finally see light at the end, and hurried towards it as fast as I could. Gavner and Kurda also moved quickly, so they must have been anxious to escape the tunnel too. As we brushed the dirt from the tunnel off ourselves, Kurda moved ahead and took the lead. We were in a small cave. There were three tunnels leading out of it. Kurda went to the tunnel on the far left. "We're taking this one," he said, re-exerting his authority.
Gavner grinned. "That's the one I planned to take anyway."
"Then hurry up," Kurda snapped.
"What's wrong with you?" Gavner asked. "You're acting oddly."
"No, I'm not!" Kurda glared, then smiled weakly. "Sorry. It's that tunnel under the stream. I knew we'd have to pass through it. That's why I wanted to go the other way - to avoid it."
"Afraid the water would break through?" Gavner laughed.
"Yes," Kurda answered stiffly.
"I was afraid too," I said. "I wouldn't like to crawl through a place like that too often."
"Cowards." Gavner chuckled. He started towards Kurda, smiling, then stopped and turned his head sideways.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I thought I heard something," he said.
"It sounded like someone coughing. It came from the tunnel to the right."
"A search party?" I asked worriedly.
Gavner frowned. "I doubt it - they'd be coming from behind."
"What's going on?" Kurda asked impatiently.
"Gavner thinks he heard something," I said as the General crept across to explore the tunnel.
"It's just the sound of the stream," Kurda said. "We don't have time to -"
But it was too late. Gavner had already entered the tunnel. Kurda hurried over to where I was standing and peered into the darkness of the tunnel after Gavner. "We'd be better off on our own," he grumbled. "He's done nothing but slow us down."
"What if somebody's in there?" I asked.
"There's nobody down here besides us," Kurda snorted. "We should head on without that fool and leave him to catch up."
"No," I said, "I'd rather wait."
Kurda rolled his eyes but stood sullenly beside me. Gavner was gone no more than a couple of minutes, but when he returned he looked years older. His legs were shaking, and he sank to his bottom as soon as he emerged from the tunnel.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
He shook his head wordlessly.
"You found something?" Kurda asked.
"There's..." Gavner cleared his throat. "Go look," he whispered. "But be careful. Don't be seen."
"Seen by who?" I asked, but he didn't answer.
Curious, I crept along the tunnel, Kurda right behind me. It was short, and as I approached the end, I noticed the flicker of torches in a large cave beyond. I dropped to my stomach, then edged forward so that I had a clear view of the cave. What I saw froze my guts inside me.
Twenty or thirty people were lounging around. Some were sitting, some lying on mats, some playing cards. They had the general appearance of vampires - bulky, rough features, crude haircuts. But I could see their purplish skin and reddish hair and eyes, and I identified them immediately - our blood foes, the vampaneze!