THE VAMPANEZE took their time hunting me down. They knew I couldn't escape. I was injured and tired, so all they had to do was stay close and slowly reel me in. As I scurried and twisted through the tunnels, the roar of the mountain stream increased, and I realized my feet were guiding me to the old burial chamber. I thought about changing direction, to outwit Kurda, but I'd lose my way if I did and never make it back to the Halls. My only chance was to take the paths I was familiar with and hope I could block one off by bringing down the ceiling behind me.

I burst into the Hall of Final Voyage and paused to catch my breath. I could hear the sounds of the vampaneze behind. They were far too close for comfort. I needed to rest but there was no time. Struggling to my feet, I looked for the way out.

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At first the cave seemed unfamiliar, and I wondered if I'd possibly wandered into the wrong one by mistake. Then it struck me that I was simply on the side of the stream opposite where I'd been before. Advancing to the edge of the bank, I looked across and saw the tunnel I needed to leave by. I also saw a very pale-skinned person with white eyes and rags for clothes, sitting on a rock close to the wall - a Guardian of the Blood!

"Help," I shouted, startling the thin man, who leapt to his feet and squinted at me. "Vampaneze!" I croaked. "They've invaded the mountain. You've got to warn the Generals!"

The Guardian's eyes narrowed, and he shook his head, then said something in a language I didn't understand. I opened my mouth to repeat the warning, but before I could, he made a sign with his fingers, shook his head again, and slipped out of the cave, disappearing swiftly into the shadows of the tunnel beyond.

I cursed - the Guardians of the Blood must also be in league with the vampaneze! - then glanced down into the dark water at my feet and shivered. The stream wasn't particularly wide, and I could have jumped it with ease any other time. But I was exhausted, aching, and desperate. All I wanted to do was lie down and let the vampaneze have me. Going on seemed pointless. They were sure to catch me. It would be a lot easier to surrender now and...

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"No!" I shouted aloud. They killed Gavner, and they'd kill the rest of the vampires - including Mr. Crepsley - if I couldn't get to the Halls first and stop them. I had to go on. I took a few steps back, preparing for the jump. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the first of the vampaneze enter the cave. I backed up a few more steps, then raced to the edge of the bank and leapt.

I knew immediately that I wasn't going to make it. There hadn't been enough pace or spring in my step. I flailed out with my arms, in the hope of catching hold of the ledge, but fell several feet shy of safety and dropped into the freezing water of the stream.

The current caught me instantly. By the time I bobbed to the surface, the mouth of the tunnel leading out of the cave and back underground was almost upon me. I threw out my arms, terrified, and caught hold of a rock jutting out of the bank. Using the last of my strength, I clawed my way to partial safety. Defying the flow of the water, I half-flopped onto the rock and grabbed hold of some deep-rooted weeds.

It was a perilous position, but I might have been able to scrape my way out of it - if not for the dozen or so vampaneze who'd crossed the stream and were standing overhead, arms folded, waiting patiently. One lit a cigarette, then flicked his match at my face. It missed, hit the water, quenched with a hiss, and disappeared at a frightening speed down the dark tunnel into the mountain.

As I clung to the rock, frozen and soaking, wondering what to do, Kurda pushed his way through the vampaneze and dropped to his knees. He extended a hand to help me up, but couldn't reach. "Somebody grab my ankles and lower me," he said.

"Why?" the vampaneze named Glalda asked. "Let him drown. It'll be easier."

"No!" Kurda barked. "His death serves no purpose. He's young and open to new ideas. We'll need vampires like him if we're going to -"

"OK, OK," Glalda sighed, and signaled two of his men to take Kurda's legs and lower him over the edge, so that he could rescue me.

I stared at Kurda's hands as they stretched towards my own, then at his face, mere inches away. "You killed Gavner," I snarled.

"We'll discuss that later," he said, snatching at my wrists.

I pulled my hands out of his way and spat on his fingers, even though I nearly fell back into the water. I couldn't bear the thought of him touching me. "Why did you do it?" I moaned.

Kurda shook his head. "It's too complicated. Come with me and I'll explain later. When you're safe, dry, and fed, I'll sit you down and -"

"Don't touch me!" I screeched as he reached for me again.

"Don't be stupid," he said. "You're in no position to argue. Take my hand and let me pull you to safety. You won't be harmed, I promise."

"You promise," I sneered. "Your word means nothing. You're a liar and a traitor. I wouldn't believe you if you said the world was round."

"Believe what you want," he snapped, "but I'm all that stands between you and a watery grave, so you can't afford to be picky. Take my hand and stop acting like an idiot."

"You have no clue," I said, shaking my head in disgust. "You don't know a thing about honor or loyalty. I'd rather die than give myself up to scum like you."

"Don't be -," Kurda started to say, but before he could finish, I released my grip on the rock, pushed backwards with my legs, and let the water have me. "Darren - no!" Kurda screamed, making one last grab for me. But he was too late - his fingers clutched at thin air.

I drifted out into the middle of the stream, beyond the reach of Kurda and his vampaneze allies. There was a moment of strange peace, during which I bobbed up and down in the center of the stream. Locking gazes with Kurda as I hung there, I smiled thinly and pressed the middle fingers of my right hand to my forehead and eyelids, making the death's touch sign. "Even in death, may I be triumphant!" I howled, adding a quick silent prayer that my curse would ring true, and that my sacrifice would encourage the gods of the vampires to extract a terrible revenge on this traitor and his allies.

Then, before Kurda could respond, the current took hold and swept me away in a brutal instant, out of his sight, into darkness, churning madness, and the hungry belly of the mountain.

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