THE FESTIVAL got under way in the immense Hall of Stahrvos Glen (also known as the Hall of Gathering). Every vampire in the mountain was present. Large as the Hall was, we were squeezed in like sardines. Looking around while we waited for sunset, I counted at least four hundred heads, possibly as many as five.
Everyone was dressed up in brightly colored clothes. The few female vampires in the Hall wore long, flowing dresses, and most of the men wore handsome (but dusty) capes. Mr. Crepsley and Seba Nile wore matching red costumes and looked like father and son as they stood side by side. Even Harkat had borrowed new bright blue robes for the occasion.
I was the only one who looked out of place. I was itching like mad from my cuts and scratches and was wearing the dull, thin shirt and pants that Vanez had given me in the Hall of Perta Vin-Grahl. Even that flimsy material irritated me - I kept reaching back and plucking it off my skin. Mr. Crepsley told me several times to stop fidgeting, but I couldn't.
"Come see me later," Seba whispered as I tugged at my shirt for the thousandth time. "I have something which will ease much of the itching."
I started to thank the old quartermaster, but a gong sounded loudly and cut me off. Every vampire in the Hall stopped talking at the ringing of the gong. Moments later the three Vampire Princes appeared at the head of the Hall and mounted a platform so that all could see them clearly. The Festival of the Undead and the Ceremony of Conclusion - which would come at the end of Council - were the only times that all the Princes left their impregnable Hall at the top of the mountain. At least one of them was always present the rest of the time.
"It is good to see you, my friends." Paris Skyle beamed.
"We welcome you all to Vampire Mountain," Mika Ver Leth said.
"And wish you well during your stay," Arrow added.
"I know all of you have heard the rumors of the vampaneze," Paris said. "These are troubling times, and there is much to discuss and plan. But not during these next three nights. Because this is the Festival of the Undead, where every vampire is equal, and all must enjoy themselves."
"I'm sure everyone's eager to get the festivities rolling," Mika said. "But first the roll call of those who've passed on to Paradise since last we met for Council."
Arrow called out the names of nine vampires who'd died during the past twelve years. As each name was announced, the vampires in the Hall made the death's touch sign and muttered in unison, "Even in death, may he be triumphant."
When the last name had been called, Paris clapped his hands and said, "That is the last piece of official business out of the way. There shall be no more until the close of the Festival. Luck to you, my friends."
"Luck!" the vampires shouted, and then they were tossing their capes off, roughly hugging each other, and hollering at the tops of their voices, "Luck! Luck! Luck!"
The next several hours were so exciting, I almost managed to forget about my cuts and the itching. I was swept along to the gaming Halls by a wave of vampires eager to test themselves against old friends and foes. Some couldn't wait to reach the Halls and began wrestling and boxing in the tunnels on the way. They were kept apart by more level-headed vampires and carried - often struggling and protesting - down to the Halls, where they could fight in comfort and for the benefit of an audience.
It was chaos in the three gaming Halls. Because none of the official games masters were on duty, there was nobody to bark commands or make sure everything proceeded in an orderly fashion. Vampires spilled around the Hall and over one another, challenging anyone who got in their way, lashing out joyfully.
Mr. Crepsley was no better than the rest. His usual dignity disappeared in the mad rush, and he ran around like a wild man, yelling, throwing punches, and leaping around. Even the Vampire Princes joined in the madness, including Paris Skyle, who was eight hundred years old.
I bobbed along as well as I could, trying to keep my head above the sea of writhing vampires. The initial burst of crazy activity had scared me a little - I hadn't been expecting it - but I was soon having great fun, dodging between the legs of tussling vampires and knocking them over.
At one point I found myself back-to-back with Harkat. He'd been caught up in the rush with the rest of us and was busy tossing vampires over his shoulders, left and right, as if they were bags of cotton. The vampires loved it - they couldn't understand how someone so little could be so strong - and were lining up to test themselves against him.
I had a chance to catch my breath while I was standing behind Harkat - nobody was interested in a half-vampire when there was a Little Person to challenge. Once I'd recovered some of my spent energy, I slid away and rejoined the throng of battling vampires.
Gradually the chaos died down. A lot of vampires had been injured in the fighting, and while they dragged themselves away to be patched up, those left standing paused to wipe the sweat from their brows and quench their thirst with a good long drink.
After a while the games started for real. Vampires took to the mats, wrestling rings, and bars, two or three at a time, the way they were meant to. Those too tired or too wounded to fight gathered around the sparring vampires and cheered them on.
I watched Mr. Crepsley fighting. It was some form of karate, and he was red-hot at it. His hands moved like lightning, fast even for a vampire, and he knocked down his opponents like flies, usually in a matter of seconds.
At another mat, Vanez was wrestling. The one-eyed games master was having the great time he'd predicted. While I was in attendance, he sent three vampires away with bloody noses and spinning heads, and was making short work of his fourth as I left.
I was passing a jousting ring when a laughing vampire grabbed me and pushed me forward to compete. I didn't protest - it was a law of the Festival that you never refused a challenge. "What are the rules?" I asked, shouting to be heard.
"See the two ropes hanging from the overhead bar?" the vampire who'd dragged me in asked. I nodded. "Grab one and stand on the platform on this side. Your opponent grabs the other and faces you. Then you swing out into the middle and kick and punch each other till one of you gets knocked off."
My opponent was a large, hairy vampire who looked like a monster out of a comic book. I didn't stand a chance against him, but I gave it a try. Taking a firm hold of the rope, I swung out to meet him and spent a few seconds avoiding his thrashing feet and fist. I managed to kick him in the ribs and slap him around the head, but my blows had no effect, and he soon hit me square in the jaw and swatted me to the floor.
The vampires around the ring rushed forward to help me up. "Are you OK?" the one who'd volunteered me for the contest asked.
"Fine," I said, checking my teeth with my tongue to see if any were broken. "Is it the best out of three or five?"
The vampires cheered and slapped me on the back - they loved a fighter. I was led back to the rope and went head to head with the gorilla again. I only lasted a few seconds, but nobody expected anything different. I was carried away like a champion and handed a mug of beer. I didn't like the taste, but it would have been rude to refuse, so I drained the glass, smiled as they cheered again, then wobbled away to look for a place to sit down and rest.
A lot of beer, wine, whiskey, and brandy was being consumed (as well as plenty of blood!), but hardly any vampires got drunk. This was because vampires have stronger metabolisms than humans. The average vampire has to drink a whole barrel of beer before he gets tipsy. As a half-vampire, I wasn't as immune to the effects of alcohol as the rest. I felt quite light-headed after my mug of beer and made up my mind not to drink any more - at least not tonight!
Kurda joined me while I was resting. He was flushed and smiling. "Crazy, isn't it?" he said. "All these vampires, acting like wild children. Think how embarrassing it would be if anyone saw us!"
"It's fun though, isn't it?" I laughed.
"Certainly," he agreed. "I'm just glad I only have to endure it once every twelve years."
"Kurda Smahlt!" someone yelled. Looking around, we spotted Arra Sails on her favorite set of bars, twirling a staff over her head. "How about it, Kurda - like your chances?"
Kurda grimaced. "I have a sore leg, Arra," he shouted.
The vampires around the bars jeered.
"Come on, Kurda," Arra called. "Not even a pacifist like you has the right to refuse a challenge during the Festival of the Undead."
Kurda sighed, took of his shoes, and advanced. The vampires gave a roar of delight, and word quickly spread that Kurda Smahlt was going into action against Arra Sails. Soon, a huge crowd had formed around the bars, most of them vampires who wanted to see Kurda end up flat on his back.
"She hasn't been beaten on the bars in eleven years," I murmured to Kurda as he chose his staff.
"I know," he groaned.
"Try not to get too close to her," I advised him (speaking as though I was an expert, when in fact I'd only been on the bars once before). "The more you stay away, the longer you can drag it out."
"I'll bear that in mind."
"And be careful," I warned him. "She'll crack your head right open if you give her the chance."
"Are you trying to encourage or discourage me?" he snapped.
"Encourage, of course." I grinned.
"Well, you're doing a lousy job of it!"
He tested a staff, liked the feel of it, and hopped onto the bars. The vampires cheered and moved back, so there'd be plenty of room for him to fall.
"I've been waiting for decades to get you up here." Arra smiled, twirling her staff and advancing.
"I hope it proves worth the wait," Kurda said, blocking her first blow and dancing away from her on the bar.
"You managed to avoid me last time, but there's no escape now. I'm going to -"
Kurda launched a few blows of his own, and Arra leapt backwards, surprised. "Are you here to talk or fight?" Kurda asked pleasantly.
"To fight!" Arra snarled, then concentrated.
The two sparred cautiously for a few minutes, testing each other. Then Arra's staff connected with one of Kurda's knees. It seemed like a mild enough blow, but he teetered on the bar and dropped his guard. Arra grinned and darted forward to finish him off. As she did, Kurda leapt across to a parallel bar and brought his staff around in a broad swing.
Arra was completely taken by surprise, and there was nothing she could do as the staff swept her legs out from under her. She fell to the floor with a thump - defeated! There was a stunned silence, then the vampires roared their approval and surged forward to shake Kurda's hand. He thrust through them to check on Arra and see if she was OK. The vampiress slapped his hands away as he bent to help her up. "Don't touch me!" she seethed. "I was only trying -," he began. "You cheated!" she interrupted. "You faked injury. I want to make it the best out of three."
"I beat you fair and square," Kurda said evenly. "There's no rule against faking injury. You shouldn't have leapt in for the kill like you did. If you hadn't been so eager to disgrace me, my trick wouldn't have worked."
Arra glared at the soon-to-be Vampire Prince, then dropped her gaze and muttered, "There is truth in your words." Lifting her eyes, she stared directly at Kurda. "I apologize for insulting you, Kurda Smahlt. I spoke in anger. Will you forgive me?"
"I will if you'll take my hand." Kurda smiled.
Arra shook her head shortly. "I cannot," she said miserably. "You beat me cleanly, and it shames me to refuse your hand - but I cannot bring myself to take it."
Kurda looked hurt, but forced a smile. "That's OK," he said. "I forgive you anyway."
"Thank you," Arra said, then turned and ran from the Hall, her features contorted with the pain of overwhelming shame.
Kurda was heavy-hearted when he sat down beside me. "I feel sorry for her," he sighed. "It must be cruel to be so set in one's ways. Her refusal to shake my hand will haunt her the rest of her life. In her eyes, and the eyes of those who think like her, she's committed an unpardonable act. It doesn't matter much to me whether she shakes my hand or not, but she'll feel she's disgraced herself."
"Nobody could believe it when you beat her," I said, trying to cheer him up. "I thought you weren't supposed to be any good when it came to fighting."
Kurda laughed lightly. "I choose not to fight - it doesn't mean I can't! I'm no heroic vampire, but I'm not the useless coward many think I am."
"If you fought more often, they wouldn't think that," I noted.
"True," he admitted. "But their opinion doesn't matter." Kurda put his fingers on my chest and pressed softly down on my heart. "In here is where a man should judge himself, not on bars or in a ring or on a battlefield. If you know in your heart that you're true and brave, that should be enough.
"Of the nine vampires who've died since last Council, five could have been here tonight, alive and well, had they not been determined to prove themselves to others. They drove themselves to early graves, just so their companions would admire them." He lowered his head and sighed deeply. "It's stupid," he mumbled. "Pointless and sad. And one night it may prove to be the end of us all."
Rising, he drifted away, sullen and depressed. I sat where I was for a long time after he'd gone, studying the bloodied, battling vampires and mulling over the peaceful Kurda's solemn, troubling words.