AS THE NEW DAY DAWNED most vampires retired to their coffins. They'd have happily continued fighting and drinking, but the first of the formal balls was at sunset, and they had to prepare for it. There'd be three balls during the Festival of the Undead, one at the end of each day. Two large Halls were used for the balls, so all the vampires could fit.
The ball was a strange event. Most of the vampires were dressed in their colorful clothes, as they had been earlier, but now their shirts, pants, and capes were torn, ripped, and blood-stained, while their bodies and faces were scratched and bruised. Many had broken arms and legs, but every single one of them took to the dance floor, even those on crutches.
At the stroke of sunset, the vampires all raised their faces to the ceiling and howled like wild wolves. The howling went on for several minutes, each vampire holding his or her howl as long as possible. They called this the howl of the night, and it was performed at the first ball of each Festival. The aim was to outlast the others - the vampire who held the howl the longest would win the title "of the Howl" and carry it until the following Council. So, if I'd won, I'd have had to be addressed as Darren Shan of the Howl for the next twelve years.
Of course, I didn't come close to winning - since I was only a half-vampire, my voice was one of the weakest, and I was among the first to fall silent. Gradually, as the voices of the others cracked, they fell silent too, one by one, until in the end only a handful were howling, their faces red with the strain of such a fierce bellow. While the last few vampires howled themselves hoarse, the rest urged on their favorites - "Keep it up, Butra!" "Howl like a demon, Yebba!" - and pounded the floor with their feet and hands.
In the end the contest was won by a huge vampire called Yebba. He'd won it twice before - though not at the last Council - and was a popular victor. There was a short ceremony, in which he had to drink a tub of blood straight down without pause, then Paris Skyle dubbed him Yebba of the Howl. Almost as soon as the words had left the Prince's lips, the band began to play, and the vampires started to dance.
The band consisted entirely of drummers, who kept up a slow, heavy beat. As the vampires danced stiffly - short steps, in time with the funereal music - they chanted the words of ancient songs, telling of great battles and vampire champions, praising those who'd died nobly, and cursing those who'd betrayed or shamed the clan (though they didn't name them - it was a custom never to mention the names of traitors or vampires of poor standing).
I tried dancing - everybody had a turn - but I wasn't very good. I could have jumped around to something fast and loud, but this was too precise. If you didn't know how to do it right, you looked stupid. Not knowing any of the words to the somber songs was another drawback. Besides, the dancing made my itching worse than ever, and I kept having to stop to scratch my back.
After a few minutes, I excused myself and slipped away. I went looking for Seba Nile, who'd said he had something that would cure the itching. I found the quartermaster in the second chamber. He was dancing and leading the singing, so I took a seat and waited for him to finish.
Gavner Purl was in the Hall; he spotted me after a while and sat down beside me. He looked exhausted and was breathing heavier than usual. "I only got to my coffin an hour or so ago," he explained. "I was trapped by a couple of my old tutors and had to spend the entire day listening to their stories."
There was a break in the music, while the band drank blood and lined up their next song. Seba bowed to his companions and left the dance floor during the pause. I waved a hand in the air to grab his attention. He stopped to grab a mug of beer, then ambled over. "Gavner. Darren. Enjoying yourselves?"
"I would be if I had the energy," Gavner wheezed.
"How about you, Darren?" Seba asked. "What do you think of our Festival of the Undead?"
"It's weird," I answered honestly. "First you all howl like wild animals - then dance around like robots!"
Seba stifled a laugh. "You should not say such things out loud," he gently chided me. "You will hurt our feelings. Most vampires are proud of their dancing - they think they dance with great style."
"Seba," I said, scratching my legs, "do you remember saying you had something that would stop my itching?"
"Would you mind giving it to me now?"
"It is not so easily fetched," Seba said. "We must take a short trip, down to the tunnels beneath the Halls."
"Will you take me when you have the time?" I asked.
"I have the time," he said. "But first find Kurda Smahlt. I promised I would let him accompany me when I next made the trip - he wants to map the region."
"Where should I tell him we're going?" I inquired.
"Tell him we go where the arachnids roam. He will know where I mean. Also, grab that beautiful spider of yours - Madam Octa. I would like to bring her with us."
I found Kurda listening to vampires telling legendary stories from the past. Storytellers were in great demand at the Festival. Vampires didn't bother much with books. They preferred to keep the past alive orally. I don't think the full history of the vampires had ever been written down. I tugged on Kurda's elbow and whispered Seba's message to him. He said he'd accompany us, but asked me to give him a few minutes while he went and collected his mapmaking equipment. He said he'd meet us outside Seba's quarters, low in the mountain, close to the stores that the quartermaster was in charge of.
When I arrived back with Madam Octa, I learned that Gavner had also decided to join us. He thought he'd fall asleep if he stayed where he was, listening to the music, warmed by the glow of the torchers and the press of vampires. "A stroll below decks is just what the captain ordered," he said, imitating a sailor's salty tones.
I looked around for Harkat - I thought he might like to see what the lower tunnels of Vampire Mountain were like - but he was surrounded by admiring vampires. Harkat's metabolism was even stronger than a vampire's, and he could drink alcohol all day and night without being affected. The vampires were astonished by his capacity for drink and were cheering him on as he drank one mug of beer after another. I didn't like to take him away from his newfound friends, so I left him.
When we were ready, we gathered together outside Seba's rooms and set off for the tunnels. The guards at the gate connecting the tunnels to the Halls weren't regular guards - no vampire could carry out his normal duties during the Festival. They weren't dressed as neatly as the regular guards, and some had been drinking, which they'd never do while on duty any other time. Seba told them where we were going, and they waved us through, warning us not to get lost.
"We'd better not." Kurda smirked. "By the smell of you, you'd have trouble finding an apple at the bottom of a barrel of cider!"
The guards laughed and made mock threats not to let us back in. One of the more sober guards asked if we wanted torches, but Seba said we'd be OK - the walls were coated with glowing moss where we were going.
Kurda got his mapmaking equipment out when we reached tunnels where he'd never been before. It was just a sheet of gridded paper and a pencil. He paused every so often to add a tiny piece of line to the page, signifying the length of tunnel we'd traversed.
"Is that all there is to mapmaking?" I asked. "It looks easy."
"Tunnels aren't difficult to map," he agreed. "It's different if you're trying to map open land or a stretch of seacoast."
"Don't listen to him," Gavner said. "Even tunnels are difficult. I tried it once and made a mess of it. You have to work to scale and make sure you mark the length exactly right. If you're off by even the tiniest fraction, it throws the rest of the map off."
"It's just a skill," Kurda said. "You'd pick it up quickly if you gave it a try."
"No, thanks," Gavner said. "I have no intention of spending my spare time trapped down a maze of tunnels, trying to map them out. I don't know what the appeal is."
"It's fascinating," Kurda said. "It gives you a dearer understanding of your environment, not to mention a great sense of achievement when you're finished. Apart from which, there's the practical aspect."
"Practical aspect!" Gavner snorted. "Nobody uses your maps except you!"
"Not so," Kurda corrected him. "Nobody's interested in helping me make maps, but plenty make use of them. Did you know we'll be building a new Hall, lower than any of the other levels, over the next few years?"
"A Hall of storage." Gavner nodded.
"That's being constructed out of a cave I discovered, which will connect to the rest of the Halls via a tunnel nobody knew about until I went snooping Around."
"There are also the breach points," Seba noted.
"What are those?" I asked.
"Tunnels which open into the Halls," Seba explained. "There are many ways into the Halls besides the main gates of entry. Kurda has unearthed many of these and brought them to our attention, so that we might seal them off against attack."
"Who'd attack you up here?" I frowned.
"He's referring to animal attacks," Kurda said. "Stray wolves, rats, and bats often crept in by breach points and went foraging for food. They were getting to be a nuisance. My maps helped put an end to most of their advances."
"OK." Gavner smiled. "I was wrong - your maps do serve a purpose. You still wouldn't get me down here helping you make them though."
We proceeded in silence for a while. The tunnels were narrow and the roofs were low-hanging, so it was hard going for the grown vampires. They enjoyed a few minutes of relief when the tunnels opened up briefly, but then they constricted again, and it was back to crouching and shuffling along. It was dark too. We had just enough light to see by, but there wasn't enough for Kurda to make maps. He dug out a candle and started to light it, but Seba stopped him.
"No candles," the quartermaster said.
"But I can't see," Kurda complained.
"I am sorry, but you will have to do the best you can."
Kurda grumbled, bent his head low over the sheet of paper so his nose was almost touching it, and drew carefully as we progressed, stumbling often because he wasn't watching where he was going.
Finally, after crawling through an especially small tunnel, we found ourselves in a moderately large cave that was coated from floor to ceiling with spiderwebs. "Quiet now," Seba whispered as we stood. "We do not want to disturb the residents."
The ?residents" were spiders. Thousands - possibly hundreds of thousands - of them. They filled the cave, dangling from the ceiling, hanging on cobwebs, scuttling across the floor. They were like the spider I'd spotted when I first arrived at Vampire Mountain, hairy and yellow. None was quite as large as Madam Octa, but they were bigger than most ordinary spiders.
A number of the spiders scurried toward us. Seba dropped cautiously to one knee and whistled. The spiders hesitated, then returned to their corners. "Those were sentries," Seba said. "They would have defended the others if we had come to cause trouble."
"How?" I asked. "I thought they weren't poisonous."
"Singly, they are harmless," Seba explained. "But if they attack in groups, they can be dangerous. Death is unlikely - for a human, maybe, but not a vampire - but certainly severe discomfort occurs, possibly even partial paralysis."
"I see why you wouldn't allow any candles," Kurda said. "One stray spark and this place would go up like dry paper."
"Precisely." Seba wandered into the center of the cave. The rest of us followed slowly. Madam Octa had crept forward to the bars of her cage and was making a careful study of the spiders. "They have been here for thousands of years," Seba whispered, reaching up and letting some of the spiders crawl over his hands and up his arms. "We call them Ba'Halen's spiders, after the vampire who - if the legends are to be believed - first brought them here. No human knows of their existence."
I took no notice as the spiders crept up my legs - I was used to handling Madam Octa, and before her I'd studied spiders as a hobby - but Gavner and Kurda looked uneasy. "Are you sure they won't bite?" Gavner asked.
"I would be surprised if they did," Seba said. "They are gentle and usually only attack when threatened."
"I think I'm going to sneeze," Kurda said as a spider crawled over his nose.
"I would not advise it," Seba warned him. "They might interpret that as an act of aggression."
Kurda held his breath and shook from the effort of controlling the sneeze. His face had turned a bright shade of red by the time the spider moved on. "Let's beat it," he wheezed, letting out a long, shaky breath.
"Best suggestion I've heard all night," Gavner agreed.
"Not so fast, my friends," Seba said with a smile. "I did not bring you here for fun. We are on a mission. Darren - take off your shirt."
"Here?" I asked.
"You want to put a stop to the itching, don't you?"
"Well, yes, but..." Sighing, I did as Seba ordered.
When my back was bare, Seba found some old cobwebs that had been abandoned. "Bend over," he commanded, then held the cobwebs over my back and rubbed them between his fingers, so that they crumbled and sprinkled over my flesh.
"What are you doing?" Gavner asked.
"Curing an itch," Seba replied.
"With cobwebs?" Kurda said skeptically. "Really, Seba, I didn't think you believed in old wives' tales."
"It is no tale," Seba insisted, rubbing the webby ash into my broken skin. "There are chemicals in these cobwebs which aid the healing process and work against irritation. Within an hour, the itching will stop."
When I was covered in ash, Seba tied some thick, whole webs around the worst-infected areas, including my hands. "We will take the webs off before we leave the tunnels," he said, "although I advise against washing for a night or two - the itching may return if you do."
"This is crazy," Gavner muttered. "It'll never work."
"Actually, I think it's working already," I contradicted him. "The backs of my legs were killing me when we came in, but now the itching is barely noticeable."
"If it's so effective," Kurda said, "why haven't we heard about it before?"
"I do not broadcast," Seba said. "If the curative powers of the webs were widely known, vampires would come down here to the caves all the time. They would disturb the natural routines of the spiders, forcing them farther down into the mountain, and within years the supplies would dry up. I only bring people here when they truly need help and always ask them to keep the secret to themselves. I trust none of you will betray my confidence?"
We all said we wouldn't.
Once I'd been taken care of, Seba took Madam Octa out of her cage and set her down on the floor. She squatted uncertainly while a crowd of inquisitive spiders gathered around her. One with light grey spots on its back ducked forward in a testing attack. She swatted it away with ease, and the rest withdrew. Once she'd familiarized herself with the terrain, she explored the cave. She climbed up the walls and onto the cobwebs, disturbing other spiders in the process. They reacted angrily to her intrusion, but calmed down once they saw how large she was and that she meant them no harm.
"They recognize majesty when they see it," Seba noted, pointing to lines of spiders following Madam Octa around. The one with grey spots was in the front. "If we left her here, they would make her a queen."
"Could she breed with them?" Kurda asked.
"Probably not," Seba mused. "But it would be interesting if she could. There has been no new blood introduced to the colony for thousands of years. I would be fascinated to study the offspring of such a union."
"Forget it." Gavner shivered. "What if the babies turned out to be as poisonous as their mother? We'd have thousands of them roaming the tunnels, killing at will!"
"Hardly." Seba smiled. "Spiders tend not to pick on those bigger than themselves, not while smaller and more vulnerable prey exists. Still, she is not my spider. It is for Darren to decide."
I watched her carefully for a couple of minutes. She looked happy out in the open, among those of her own kind. But I knew better than anyone the awful consequences of her bite. Better not to risk it. "I don't think we should leave her," I said.
"Very well," Seba agreed, pursing his lips and whistling softly. Madam Octa returned to her cage immediately in response, though once inside she kept close to the bars, as though lonely. I felt sorry for her, but reminded myself that she was just a spider and didn't have any real feelings.
Seba played for a while with the spiders, whistling and inviting them to crawl over him. I grabbed the flute - it was really just a fancy tin whistle - from Madam Octa's cage and joined him. It took a few minutes to tune my thoughts into the spiders' - they weren't as easy to make mental contact with as Madam Octa - but Seba and I had fun once I was in control, letting them jump between our bodies and spin adjoining webs that connected us from head to foot.
Gavner and Kurda watched, bemused. "Could I control them too?" Gavner asked.
"I doubt it," Seba said. "It is more difficult than it looks. Darren is naturally gifted with spiders. Very few people have the ability to bond with spiders. You are a fortunate young man, Darren."
I'd lost enthusiasm for spiders since that nasty business between Madam Octa and my best friend, Steve Leopard, all those years ago, but at Seba's words I felt some of my old love for the eight-legged creatures resurfacing and made myself a promise to take more of an interest in the webby world of spiders in the future.
When we were finished playing, Seba and I brushed off the cobwebs - being careful not to remove the curing webs he'd attached to my body - then the four of us crawled out to the tunnels. Some of the spiders followed us, but turned back when they realized we were leaving, all except the grey-spotted one, which trailed behind us almost to the end of the tunnel, as though in love with Madam Octa and unwilling to see her leave.