ACOUPLE OF LONG, quiet nights passed. Harkat had been kept in the Hall of Princes to answer questions. Gavner had General business to attend to, and we only saw him when he crawled back to his coffin to sleep. I hung out with Mr. Crepsley in the Hall of Khledon Lurt most of the time - he had a lot of catching up to do with old friends he hadn't seen in many years - or down in the stores with him and Seba Nile.
The elderly vampire was more disturbed than most of the others by Harkat's message. He was the second oldest vampire in the mountain - the oldest was a Prince, Paris Skyle, who was more than eight hundred - and the only one who'd been here when Mr. Tiny visited and made his announcement all those centuries ago.
"A lot of today's vampires do not believe the old stories," he said. "They think Mr. Tiny's warning was something we made up to frighten young vampires. But I remember how he looked. I recall the way his words echoed around the Hall of Princes, and the fear they instilled in everyone. The Vampaneze Lord is no mere figure of legend. He is real. And now, it seems, he is coming."
Seba lapsed into silence. He'd been drinking a mug of warm beer but had lost interest in it.
"He has not come yet," Mr. Crepsley said spiritedly. "Mr. Tiny is as old as time itself. When he says the night is at hand, he might mean hundreds or thousands of years from now."
Seba shook his head. "We have had our hundreds of years - seven centuries to make a stand and tackle the vampaneze. We should have finished them off, regardless of the consequences. Better to have been driven to the point of extinction by humans than wiped out entirely by the vampaneze."
"That is foolish talk," Mr. Crepsley snapped. "I would rather take my chances with a mythical Vampaneze Lord than a real, stake-wielding human. So would you."
Seba nodded glumly and sipped at his beer. "You are probably right. I am old. My brain does not work as sharply as it used to. Perhaps my worries are those of an old man who has lived too long. Still..."
Such pessimistic words were on everybody's lips. Even those who scoffed outright at the idea of a Vampaneze Lord always seemed to end with a "still..." or "however..." or "but..." The tension was clogging the dusty mountain air of the tunnels and Halls, constantly building, stifling everyone who was present.
The only one who didn't seem troubled by the rumors was Kurda Smahlt. He turned up outside our chambers, as upbeat as ever, the third night after Harkat had delivered his message.
"Greetings," he said. "I've had a hectic two nights, but things are calming down at last and I have a few free hours. I thought I'd take Darren on a tour of the Halls."
"Great!" I beamed. "Mr. Crepsley was going to take me but we never got around to it."
"You don't mind if I escort him, Larten?" Kurda asked.
"Not in the slightest," Mr. Crepsley said. "I am overwhelmed that one of your eminence has found the time to act as a guide so close to your investiture." He said it cuttingly, but Kurda ignored the elder vampire's sarcasm.
"You can tag along if you want," Kurda offered cheerfully.
"No thank you." Mr. Crepsley smiled thinly. "Okay," Kurda said. "Your loss. Ready, Darren?"
"Ready," I said, and off we went.
Kurda took me to see the kitchens first. They were huge caves, built deep beneath most of the Halls. Large fires burned brightly. The cooks worked in shifts around the clock during times of Council. They had to in order to feed all the visitors.
"It's quieter the rest of the time," Kurda said. "There are usually no more than thirty vampires in residence. You often have to cook for yourself if you don't eat with the rest at the set times."
From the kitchens we progressed to the breeding Halls, where sheep, goats, and cows were kept and bred. "We'd never be able to ship in enough milk and meat to feed all the vampires," Kurda explained when I asked why live animals were kept in the mountain. "This isn't a hotel, where you can call a supplier and restock anytime you want. Shipping in food is an enormous hassle. It's easier to rear the animals ourselves and butcher them when we need to."
"What about human blood?" I asked. "Where does that come from?"
"Generous donors." Kurda winked, and led me on. (I only realized much later that he'd sidestepped the question.)
The Hall of Cremation was our next stop. It was where vampires who died in the mountain were cremated. "What if they don't want to be cremated?" I asked.
"Oddly enough, hardly any vampires ask to be buried," he said. "Perhaps it has something to do with all the time they spend in coffins while they're alive. However, if someone requests a burial, their wishes are respected.
"Not so long ago, we'd lower the dead into an underground stream and let the water wash them away. There's a cave, far below the Halls, where one of the larger streams opens up. It's called the Hall of Final Voyage, although it's never used now. I'll show it to you if we're ever down that way."
"Why should we be down there?" I asked. "I thought those tunnels were only used to get in and out of the mountain."
"One of my hobbies is mapmaking," Kurda said. "I've been trying to make accurate maps of the mountain for decades. The Halls are easy but the tunnels are much more difficult. They've never been mapped, and a lot are in poor shape. I try to get down to them whenever I return, to map out a few more unknown regions, but I don't have as much time to work on them as I'd like. I'll have even less when I'm a Prince."
"It sounds like an interesting hobby," I said. "Could I come with you the next time you go mapping? I'd like to see how it's done."
"You're really interested?" He sounded surprised.
"Why shouldn't I be?"
He laughed. "I'm used to vampires falling asleep whenever I start talking about maps. Most have no interest in such mundane matters. There's a saying among vampires: 'Maps are for humans. Most vampires would rather discover new territory for themselves, regardless of the dangers, than follow directions on a map."
The Hall of Cremation was a large octagonal room with a high ceiling full of cracks. There was a pit in the middle - where the dead vampires were burned - and a couple of long, gnarly benches on the far side, made out of bones. Two women and a man were sitting on the benches, whispering to each other, and a young child was at their feet, playing with a scattering of animal bones. They didn't have the appearance of vampires - they were thin and ill-looking, with lank hair and rags for clothes; their skin was deathly pale and dry, and their eyes were an eerie white color. The adults stood when we entered, grabbed the child, and withdrew through a door at the back of the room.
"Who were they?" I asked.
"The Guardians of this chamber," Kurda replied.
"Are they vampires?" I pressed. "They didn't look like vampires. And I thought I was the only child vampire in the mountain."
"You are," Kurda said.
"Then who -"
"Ask me later!" Kurda snapped with unusual briskness. I blinked at his sharp tone, and he smiled an immediate apology. "I'll tell you about them when our tour is complete," he said softly. "It's bad luck to talk about them here. Though I'm not superstitious by nature, I prefer not to test the fates where the Guardians are concerned."
(Although he'd aroused my curiosity, I didn't learn more about the strange, so-called Guardians until much later, since by the end of our tour I was in no state to ask any questions, and had forgotten about them entirely.)
Letting the matter of the Guardians drop, I examined the cremation pit, which was just a hollow dip in the ground. There were leaves and sticks in the bottom, waiting to be lit. Large pots were set around the hole, a clublike stick in each. I asked what they were for.
"Those are pestles, for the bones," Kurda said.
"The bones of the vampires. Fire doesn't burn bones. Once a fire's burned out, the bones are extracted, put in the pots, and ground down to dust with the pestles."
"What happens to the dust?" I asked.
"We use it to thicken bat broth," Kurda said earnestly, then burst out laughing as my face turned green. "I'm joking! The dust is thrown to the winds around Vampire Mountain, setting the spirit of the dead vampire free."
"I'm not sure I'd like that," I commented.
"It's better than burying a person and leaving them to the worms," Kurda said. "Although, personally speaking, I want to be stuffed and mounted when my time comes." He paused for a second, then burst out laughing again.
Leaving the Hall of Cremation, we set out for the three Halls of Sport (individually they were called the Hall of Basker Wrent, the Hall of Rush Flon'x, and the Hall of Oceen Pird, although most vampires referred to them simply as the Halls of Sport). I was eager to see the gaming Halls, but as we made our way there, Kurda paused in front of a small door, bowed his head, closed his eyes, and touched his eyelids with his fingertips.
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
"It's the custom," he said, and moved on. I stayed, staring at the door.
"What's this Hall called?" I asked.
Kurda hesitated. "You don't want to go in there," he said.
"Why not?" I pressed.
"It's the Hall of Death," he said quietly.
"Another cremation Hall?"
He shook his head. "A place of execution."
"Execution?" I was really curious now. Kurda saw this and sighed.
"You want to go in?" he asked.
"Yes, but it's not a pretty sight. It would be better to proceed directly to the Halls of Sport."
A warning like that only made me more eager to see what lurked behind the door! Noting this, Kurda opened it and led me in. The Hall was poorly lit, and at first I thought it was deserted. Then I spotted one of the white-skinned Guardians, sitting in the shadows of the wall at the rear. He didn't rise or give any sign that he saw us. I started to ask Kurda about him, but the General shook his head instantly and hissed quietly, "I'm definitely not talking about them here!"
I could see nothing awful about the Hall. There was a pit in the center of the floor and light wooden cages set against the walls, but otherwise it was bare and unremarkable.
"What's so bad about this place?" I asked.
"I'll show you," Kurda said, and guided me toward the edge of the pit. Looking down into the gloom, I saw dozens of sharpened poles set in the floor, pointing menacingly toward the ceiling.
"Stakes!" I gasped.
"Yes," Kurda said softly. "This is where the legend of the stake through the heart originated. When a vampire's brought to the Hall of Death, he's placed in a cage - that's what the cages against the walls are for - which is attached to ropes and hoisted above the pit. He's then dropped from a height and impaled on the stakes. Death is often slow and painful, and it's not unusual for a vampire to have to be dropped three or four times before he dies."
"But why?" I was appalled. "Who do they kill here?"
"The old or crippled, along with mad and treacherous vampires," Kurda answered. "The old or crippled vampires ask to be killed. If they're strong enough, they prefer to fight to the death, or wander off into the wilderness to die hunting. But those who lack the strength or ability to die on their feet ask to come here, where they can meet death head-on and die bravely."
"That's horrible!" I cried. "The elderly shouldn't be killed off!"
"I agree," Kurda said. "I think the nobility of the vampires is misplaced. The old and infirm often have much to offer, and I personally hope to cling to life as long as possible. But most vampires hold to the ancient belief that they can only lead worthwhile lives as long as they're fit enough to fend for themselves.
"It's different with mad vampires," he went on. "Unlike the vampaneze, we choose not to let our insane members run loose in the world, free to torment and prey on humans. Since they're too difficult to imprison - a mad vampire will claw his way through a stone wall - execution is the most humane way to deal with them."
"You could put them in strait-jackets," I suggested.
Kurda smiled sourly. "There hasn't been a strait-jacket invented that could hold a vampire. Believe me, Darren, killing a mad vampire is a mercy, to the world in general and the vampire himself.
"The same goes for treacherous vampires," he added, "though there have been precious few of those - loyalty is something we excel at; one of the bonuses of sticking to the old ways so rigidly. Aside from the vampaneze - when they broke away, they were called traitors; many were captured and killed - there have been only six traitors executed in the fourteen hundred years that vampires have lived here."
I stared down at the stakes and shivered, imagining myself tied in a cage, hanging above the pit, waiting to fall.
"Do you give them blindfolds?" I asked.
"The mad vampires, yes, because it is merciful. Vampires who have chosen to die in the Hall of Death prefer to do without one - they like to look death in the eye, to show they're not afraid. Traitors, meanwhile, are placed in the cages faceup, so their backs are to the stakes. It's a great dishonor for a vampire to die from stab wounds in the back."
"I'd rather get it in the back than the front." I snorted.
Kurda smiled. "Hopefully, you'll never get it in either!" Then, clapping my shoulder, he said, "This is a gloomy place, best avoided. Let's go play some games." And he swiftly ushered me out of the Hall, eagerly leaving behind its mysterious Guardian, the cages, and the stakes.