THE HALLS OF SPORT were gigantic caverns, full of shouting, cheering, high-spirited vampires. They were exactly what I needed to perk me up after the disturbing visit to the Halls of Cremation and Death.
Various contests took place in each of the three Halls. They were mostly games of physical combat - wrestling, boxing, karate, weight lifting, and so on - though speed chess was also strongly favored, since it sharpened one's reactions and wits.
Kurda found seats for us near a wrestling circle, and we watched as vampires tried to pin their opponents down or toss them out of the ring. You needed a quick eye to keep up with the action - vampires move far faster than humans. It was like watching a fight on video while keeping the fast-forward button pressed.
The bouts weren't just faster than their human equivalents - they were more violent, too. Broken bones, bloody faces, and bruises were the order of the night. Sometimes, Kurda told me, the damage was even worse - vampires could be killed taking part in these games, or injured so badly that a trip to the Hall of Death was all they had to look forward to.
"Why don't they wear protective clothing?" I asked.
"They don't believe in it," Kurda said. "They'd rather have their skulls cracked than wear helmets." He sighed morosely. "There are times when I think I don't know my people at all. Maybe I'd have been better off if I'd remained human."
We moved to another ring. In this one, vampires jabbed at each other with spears. It was a little like fencing - you had to prick or cut an opponent three times to win - only a lot more dangerous and bloody.
"It's horrendous." I gasped as a vampire had half his upper arm sliced open, only to laugh and compliment his enemy for making a good strike.
"You should see it when they play for real," someone said behind us. "They're just warming up at the moment." Turning, I saw a ginger-haired vampire who had only one eye. He was clad in a dark blue leather tunic and pants. "They call this game the eyeballer," he informed me, "because so many people lose an eye or two playing it."
"Is that how you lost yours?" I asked, staring at his empty left eye socket and the scars around it.
"No." He chuckled. "I lost mine in a fight with a lion."
"Honest?" I gasped.
"Darren, this is Vanez Blane," Kurda said. "Vanez, this is -"
"Darren Shan." Vanez nodded, shaking my hand. "I know him from the gossip. It's been a long time since one his age trod the Halls of Vampire Mountain."
"Vanez is a games master," Kurda explained.
"You're in charge of the games?" I asked.
"Hardly in charge," Vanez said. "The games are beyond the control of even the Princes. Vampires fight - it's in our blood. If not here, where their injuries can be tended to, then in the open, where they might bleed to death unaided. I keep an eye on things, that's all." He grinned.
"He also trains vampires to fight," Kurda said. "Vanez is one of our most valued instructors. Most Generals of the last hundred years have studied under him. Myself included." He rubbed the back of his head and grimaced.
"Still sore about that time I knocked you unconscious with a mace, Kurda?" Vanez inquired politely.
"You wouldn't have had the chance if I'd known what it was in advance," Kurda sulked. "I thought it was a bowl of incense!"
Vanez bellowed with laughter and slapped his knees. "You always were a bright one, Kurda - except when it came to the tools of war. One of my worst pupils," he told me. "Fast as an eel, and wiry, but he hated getting his hands bloody. A shame, as he would have been a wonder with a spear if he'd set his mind to it."
"There's nothing wonderful about losing an eye in a fight," Kurda huffed.
"There is if you win," Vanez disagreed. "Any injury's acceptable as long as you emerge victorious."
We watched the vampires cutting each other to pieces for another half an hour - nobody lost an eye while we were there - then Vanez led us around the Halls, explaining the games to me and how they served to toughen vampires up and prepare them for life in the outside world.
All sorts of weapons hung from the walls of the Halls - some antiques, some for general use - and Vanez told me their names and how they were used; he even got a few down to demonstrate. They were fearsome instruments of destruction - jagged spears, sharp axes, long and glinting knives, heavy maces, blade-edged boomerangs that could kill from eighty yards, clubs with thick spikes sticking out of them, stone-head war hammers that could cave in a vampire's skull with one well-placed blow. After a while I noticed there were no guns or bows and arrows, and I asked about their absence.
"Vampires only fight hand to hand," Vanez informed me. "We do not use missile devices, such as guns, bows, or slings."
"Never?" I asked.
"Never!" he said firmly. "Our reliance on hand weapons is sacred to us - to the vampaneze as well. Any vampire who resorted to a gun or bow would be held in contempt for the rest of his life."
"Things used to be even more backward," Kurda chimed in. "Until two hundred years ago, a vampire was only supposed to use a weapon of his own making. Every vampire had to make his own knives, spears, and clubs. Now, thankfully, that's no longer the case, and we can use store-bought equipment; but many vampires still cling to the old ways, and most of the weapons used during Council are handmade."
Moving away from the weapons, we stopped beside a series of overlapping narrow planks. Vampires were balancing on the planks and crossing from one to another, trying to knock their opponents to the ground with long, round-ended staffs. There were six vampires in action when we arrived. A few minutes later, only one remained aloft - a woman.
"Well done, Arra." Vanez clapped. "Your sense of balance is as awesome as ever."
The female vampire leaped from the plank and landed beside us. She was dressed in a white shirt and beige pants. She had long, dark hair, tied behind her back. She wasn't especially pretty - she had a hard, weathered face - but after so much time spent staring at ugly, scarred vampires, she looked like a movie star to me.
"Kurda, Vanez," she greeted the vampires, then fixed her cool, gray eyes on me. "And you are Darren Shan." She sounded decidedly unimpressed.
"Darren, this is Arra Sails," Kurda said. I stuck out a hand but she ignored it.
"Arra doesn't shake the hands of those she doesn't respect," Vanez whispered.
"And she respects precious few of us," Kurda said aloud. "Still refusing to shake hands with me, Arra?"
"I will never shake the hand of one who does not fight," she said. "When you become a Prince, I will bow to you and do your bidding, but I will never shake your hand, even under threat of execution."
"I don't think Arra voted for me in the election," Kurda said humorously.
"I didn't vote for you either," Vanez said, with a wicked grin.
"See what an average day is like for me, Darren?" Kurda groaned. "Half the vampires here love to rub my nose in the fact that they didn't vote for me, while the half who did almost never admit it in public, for fear the others would look down their noses at them."
"Never mind." Vanez chuckled. "We'll all have to kowtow to you when you're a Prince. We're just getting our digs in while we can."
"Is it illegal to make fun of a Prince?" I asked.
"Not as such," Vanez said. "It just isn't done."
I examined Arra while she was picking a splinter off of one of the rounded ends of her staff. She seemed to be as tough as any male vampire, not as burly, but just as muscular. While I was studying her, I got to thinking about how few female vampires I'd seen, and asked about it.
There was a long silence. The two men looked embarrassed. I was going to let the matter drop when Arra glanced at me archly and said, "Women do not make good vampires. The entire clan's barren, so the life doesn't appeal to many of us."
"Barren?" I inquired.
"We can't have children," she said.
"What- none of you?"
"It's something to do with our blood," Kurda said. "No vampire can sire or bear a child. The only way we can add to our ranks is by blooding humans."
I was stunned. Of course, a long time ago I should have stopped to wonder why there were no vampire children, and why everyone was so surprised to meet a young half-vampire. But I had so much else on my mind, I never really stopped to consider it.
"Does that rule apply to half-vampires, too?" I asked.
"I'm afraid so," Kurda said, frowning. "Larten never mentioned it?"
I shook my head numbly. I couldn't have children! It wasn't something I'd thought about much - seeing as how I aged at a fifth the human rate, it would be a long time before I was ready to become a parent - but I had always assumed I'd have the choice. It was alarming to learn that I could never father a son or daughter.
"This is bad," Kurda muttered. "This is very, very bad."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Vampires are supposed to inform new recruits of such things before they blood them. It's one of the reasons we almost never blood children - we prefer new vampires to know what they're getting into and what they're giving up. To blood a boy your age was bad enough, but to do it without telling you all the facts..." Kurda shook his head glumly and shared an uncertain look with Arra and Vanez.
"You'll have to tell the Princes about this," Arra said.
"They must be informed," Kurda agreed, "but I'm sure Larten means to tell them himself. I'll wait and let him speak. It would be unfair to jump in before he has a chance to put his side of the story forward. Will you two keep this to yourselves?"
Vanez nodded and, moments later, Arra did, too. "But if he doesn't make mention of it soon...," Arra growled threateningly.
"I don't understand," I said. "Will Mr. Crepsley get into trouble for blooding me?"
Kurda shared another glance with Arra and Vanez. "Probably not," he said, trying to make light of it. "Larten's a sly, old vampire. He knows the ropes. I'm sure he'll be able to explain it away to the satisfaction of the Princes."
"Now," Vanez said before I could ask any more questions, "how would you like to try out the bars with Arra?"
"You mean have a go on the planks?" I asked, thrilled.
"I'm sure we can find a staff to suit you. How about it, Arra? Any objections to fighting a smaller opponent?"
"It will be a novel experience," the vampiress mused. "I'm accustomed to tackling men larger than myself. It will be interesting to fight one smaller."
She hopped up onto the planks and twirled her staff over her head and under her arms. It spun faster than my eyes could follow, and I began having second thoughts about getting up there with her; but I'd look like a coward if I backed out now.
Vanez found a staff small enough for me and spent a few minutes showing me how to use it. "Hold it in the middle," he instructed. "That way you can attack with either end. Don't swing too hard or you'll leave yourself open to a counterstrike. Jab at her legs and stomach. Forget about her head - you're too short to aim so high. Try tripping her. Go for her knees and toes - those are the soft points."
"What about defending himself?" Kurda interrupted. "I think that's more important. It's been eleven years since Arra was beaten on the bars. Show him how to stop her cracking his head open, Vanez, and forget the other stuff."
Vanez showed me how to block low jabs and sideswipes and overhead cuts. "The trick is keeping your balance," he said. "Fighting on the bars isn't like fighting on the ground. You can't just block a blow - you have to stay steady on your feet, so you're ready for the next. Sometimes it's better to take a strike than duck out of the way."
"Nonsense," Kurda snorted. "Duck all you like, Darren - I don't want to cart you back to Larten on a stretcher!"
"She won't really hurt me, will she?" I asked, alarmed.
Vanez laughed. "Of course not. Kurda's only winding you up. She won't go easy on you - Arra doesn't know how to take things easy - but I'm sure she won't set out to seriously harm you." He glanced up at Arra and muttered under his breath, "At least, I hope she won't!"