KURDA AND I retreated slowly and joined Gavner in the smaller cave. We sat next to him and nobody said anything for a while. Finally Gavner spoke in a dull, distracted tone. "I counted thirty-four of them."

"There were thirty-five when we looked," Kurda said.

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"There are two adjoining caves of similar size," Gavner noted. "There might be more in those."

"What are they doing here?" I asked in a whisper.

The vampires trained their sights on me.

"Why do you think they're here?" Gavner asked.

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I licked my lips nervously. "To attack us?" I guessed.

"You got it," Gavner said grimly.

"Not necessarily," Kurda said. "They might have come to discuss a treaty."

"You think so?" Gavner sneered.

"No," Kurda sighed. "Not really."

"We have to warn the vampires," I said.

Kurda nodded. "But what about your escape? One of us can lead you to -"

"Forget it," I interrupted. "I'm not running away from something like this."

"Come on then," Kurda said, getting to his feet and making for the tunnel under the stream. "The quicker we tell the others, the quicker we can return and -" He was bending down to enter the tunnel, but stopped suddenly and spun to the side. Signaling us to stay where we were, he peered cautiously into the tunnel, then raced back. "Somebody's coming!" he hissed.

"Vampires or vampaneze?" Gavner asked.

"Too dark to tell. Think we can afford to wait and find out?"

"No," Gavner said. "We've got to get out of here." He studied the three exit tunnels. "We can get back to the Halls by the middle tunnel, but it'll take a lot of time. If they spot Darren's trail of blood and come after us..."

"We'll take the left tunnel," Kurda said.

"That doesn't lead up." Gavner frowned.

"According to my maps, it does," Kurda contradicted him. "There's a very small connecting tunnel, easy to miss. I only found it by chance."

"You're sure?" Gavner asked.

"Maps don't lie," Kurda said.

"Then let's go," Gavner decided, and off we dashed.

I forgot about my pain as we sped through the tunnels. There was no time to worry about myself. The entire vampire clan was under threat, and all I thought about was getting back to the Hall of Princes and tipping them off.

When we reached Kurda's connecting tunnel, we discovered a cave-in. We stared at the pile of rocks, dismayed, then Kurda swore and kicked angrily at the blockage.

"I'm sorry," he sighed.

"It's not your fault," Gavner told him. "You couldn't have known."

"Where do we go now?" I asked.

"Back through the cave?" Gavner suggested.

Kurda shook his head. "If we've been discovered, they'll come after us that way. There's another tunnel we can use. It'll take us back in the same direction, and it links up with tunnels leading to the Halls."

"Let's go then," Gavner barked, and we followed after Kurda as he led the way through the dark.

We spoke as little as possible, pausing occasionally to listen for sounds of pursuit. There weren't any, but that didn't mean we weren't being hunted - vampaneze can move as silently as vampires when they wish.

After a while, Kurda came to a stop and pressed his head close to ours. "We're right behind the cave where the vampaneze are," he whispered. "Move slowly and carefully. If they spot us, fight for your lives - then run like hell!"

"Wait," I said. "I don't have a weapon. I'll need one if we're attacked."

"I only have one knife," Kurda said. "Gavner?"

"I have two, but I'll need both of them."

"So what will I fight with?" I hissed. "Bad breath?"

Gavner grinned grimly. "No offense, Darren, but if Kurda and I can't fend them off, I don't think you can make much of a difference. If we run into trouble, grab Kurda's maps and head for the Halls while we stay and fight."

"I couldn't do that," I gasped.

"You'll do as you're told," Gavner growled, leaving no room for argument.

We started forward again, softer than ever. Sounds from the cave reached our ears - vampaneze laughing and talking quietly. If I'd been alone, I might have panicked and bolted, but Kurda and Gavner were made of sterner stuff, and their calm presence held me in check.

Our luck held until we turned into a long tunnel and ran into a lone vampaneze, walking towards us, fiddling with his belt. He glanced up casually as we froze, saw in an instant that we weren't vampaneze, and opened his mouth to roar.

Gavner darted forward, knives flashing. He stuck one deep into the vampaneze's belly and slashed the other across his throat before he could make a sound and alert his companions. It had been a close call, and we were all smiling weakly with relief as Gavner laid the dead body on the ground. But as we were about to move on, another vampaneze appeared at the far end of the tunnel, saw us, and yelled for help.

Gavner groaned desolately. "So much for stealth," he muttered as vampaneze poured in from the cavern. He took a firm stand in the middle of the tunnel, checked the walls on each side, then spoke over his shoulder. "You two get out of here. I'll delay them as long as I can."

"I won't leave you to face them alone," Kurda said.

"You will if you have any brains," Gavner snarled.

"This tunnel's narrow. One person can hold them off as easily as two. Take Darren and break for the Halls, as fast as you can."

"But -," Kurda started to say.

"You're arguing our chances away!" Gavner roared, flicking a knife at one of the nearest vampaneze, forcing him back. "Move that dead vampaneze from behind me, so I don't trip over him - and run!"

Kurda nodded sadly. "Luck, Gavner Purl," he said.

"Luck," Gavner grunted, and made another attack.

We dragged the dead body out of Gavner's way and retreated to the mouth of the tunnel. Kurda paused there and studied Gavner in silence as he sliced at the vampaneze with his pair of knives. He was keeping them at arm's length, but it would be only a matter of minutes before they swarmed over him, took his weapons, and killed him.

Kurda turned to lead me away, then stopped and dug out a map. "Do you remember the old burial chamber we visited?" he asked. "The Hall of Final Voyage?"

"Yes," I said.

"Do you think you could find your way back to the Halls from it?"

"Probably."

He stuck the map away and pointed down the tunnel we were in. "Go to the end of this," he said. "Take a right, another right, then four lefts. That'll bring you to the chamber. Wait a few minutes in case one of us comes. Get your breath back. Try rebandaging yourself so that you stop dripping blood. Then go."

"What are you going to do?" I asked.

"Help Gavner."

"But he said -"

"I know what he said!" Kurda snapped. "I don't care. Two of us working together stand a better chance of holding them." Kurda gripped my shoulders and squeezed tightly. "Luck, Darren Shan."

"Luck," I replied miserably.

"Don't stay and watch," he said. "Leave immediately."

"OK," I agreed, and slipped away.

I got as far as the second right turn before I stopped. I knew I should do as Kurda said and flee for the Halls, but I couldn't bear the thought of leaving my friends behind. They were in this mess because of me. It would have been unfair to leave them to face death while I waltzed away scot-free. Somebody had to warn the vampires, but I didn't think it should be me. If I told Kurda I'd forgotten the way back, he'd have to go himself, meaning I could stay and fight beside Gavner.

I backtracked to the tunnel where the fighting was raging. When I got there, I saw that Gavner was still holding the vampaneze off single-handedly. Kurda hadn't been able to move forward. The two were arguing. "I told you to leave!" Gavner roared.

"And I'm telling you I won't!" Kurda shrieked back.

"What about Darren?"

"I gave him directions to get back."

"You're a fool, Kurda," Gavner shouted.

"I know," Kurda laughed. "Now, are you going to let me in for a piece of this, or do I have to fight you as well as the vampaneze?"

Gavner stabbed at a vampaneze who had a round, dark red birthmark on his left cheek, then dropped back a few steps. "OK," he grunted. "The next time there's a break in the fighting, move up to my right."

"Agreed," Kurda said, and held his knife tightly by his side while he waited.

I crept forward. I didn't want to yell and distract them. I was almost upon them when the vampaneze fell back several feet and Gavner shouted, "Now!"

Gavner edged to his left, and Kurda moved forward, filling the space beside him. I realized it was too late for me to take Kurda's place, so I started to turn away reluctantly. As I did, something crazy happened that stopped me dead in my tracks and held me rooted to the spot.

As Kurda stepped up beside Gavner, he raised his knife high and swung it down in a vicious arc. It cut deep into the belly of its intended target, slicing open the flesh, ensuring death. It would have been a lovely stroke to behold if it had been directed at one of the vampaneze. But Kurda hadn't stuck the blade into any of the purple-skinned invaders - he'd stuck it into Gavner Purl!

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