TWO NIGHTS AFTER my encounter with Arra Sails, Mr. Crepsley and me were called before the Vampire Princes. I was still stiff from my fight, and Mr. Crepsley had to help me dress. I groaned as I raised my arms over my head - they were black-and-blue from where I'd taken Arra's blows.

"I cannot believe you were foolish enough to challenge Arra Sails," Mr. Crepsley tutted. He'd been teasing me about my fight with the vampiress since learning about it, although underneath his mocking front I could tell he was proud of me. "Even I would hesitate at going one-on-one with her on the bars."


"Guess that means I'm braver than you." I smirked.

"Stupidity and bravery are not the same thing," he chided me. "You could have been seriously injured."

"You sound like Kurda," I sulked.

"I do not agree with Kurda's views on the righting ways of vampires - he is a pacifist, which runs contrary to our nature - but he is correct when he says that sometimes it is better not to fight. When a situation is hopeless, and there is nothing at stake, only a fool battles on."

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"But it wasn't hopeless!" I exclaimed. "I almost beat her!"

Mr. Crepsley smiled. "You are impossible to talk to. But so are most vampires. It is a sign that you are learning. Now finish dressing and make yourself presentable. We must not keep the Princes waiting."

The Hall of Princes was situated at the highest internal point of Vampire Mountain. There was only one entrance to it, a long, wide tunnel guarded by a host of Mountain Guards. I hadn't been up here before - nobody could use the tunnel unless they had business in the Hall.

The green-garbed guards watched us every step of the way. You weren't allowed to take weapons into the Hall of Princes, or carry anything that might be used as a weapon. Shoes weren't permitted - too easy to hide a small dagger in the soles - and we were searched from head to foot at three different parts of the tunnel. The guards even ran combs through our hair, in case we had thin wires hidden inside!

"Why all the security?" I whispered to Mr. Crepsley. "I thought the Princes were respected and obeyed by all vampires."

"They are," he said. "This is for tradition's sake more than anything else."

At the end of the tunnel we emerged into a huge cavern, in which a strange, white dome stood gleaming. It was like no other building I'd ever seen - the walls pulsed, as though alive, and there were no joints or cracks that I could make out.

"What is it? "I asked.

"The Hall of Princes," Mr. Crepsley said.

"What's it made of - rock, marble, iron?"

Mr. Crepsley shrugged. "Nobody knows." He led me to the dome - the only guards on this side of the tunnel were grouped around the doors to the Hall - and told me to place my hands on it.

"It's warm!" I gasped. "And it throbs! What is it?"

"Long ago, the Hall of Princes was like any other," Mr. Crepsley answered in his usual roundabout way. "Then, one night, Mr. Tiny arrived and said he had gifts for us. This was shortly after the vampaneze had split from the vampires. The 'gifts' were the dome - which his Little People constructed, unseen by any vampires - and the Stone of Blood. The dome and Stone are magical artifacts. They -"

One of the guards at the doors hailed us. "Larten Crepsley! Darren Shan!" We hurried over. "You may be admitted now," the guard said, and struck the doors four times with the large spear he was carrying. The doors slid open - like electronic doors - and we entered.

Though no torches burned inside the Hall of Princes, it was as bright as day, far brighter than anywhere else in the mountain. The light originated in the walls of the dome itself, by means unknown to all but Mr. Tiny. Long seats - like pews - ran in circles around the dome. There was a large space at the center, where four wooden thrones stood mounted on a platform. Three of the thrones were occupied by Vampire Princes. Mr. Crepsley had told me that at least one Prince always skipped Council, in case anything happened to the others. Nothing hung from the walls, no paintings, portraits, or flags. There were no statues either. This was a place for business, not pomp or ceremony.

Most of the seats were filled. Ordinary vampires sat at the rear; the middle sections were reserved for mountain personnel, guards and people like them. Vampire Generals occupied the front seats. Mr. Crepsley and me made our way to the third row of seats from the front and slid in beside Kurda Smahlt, Gavner Purl, and Harkat Mulds, who were waiting for us. I was glad to see the Little Person again, and asked what he'd been up to.

"Answering... questions," he replied. "Saying same thing... over and over... and over... again."

"Did any more of your memory come back?" I asked.


"But it's not for want of trying." Gavner laughed, leaning forward to squeeze my shoulder. "We've been practically torturing Harkat with questions, trying to get him to remember. And he hasn't complained once. If I was in his place, I'd have raised hell ages ago. He hasn't even been allowed to sleep!"

"Don't need... much sleep," Harkat said shyly.

"Recovered from your bout with Arra yet?" Kurda asked.

Before I could answer, Gavner piped up. "I heard about that! What in heaven were you thinking? I'd rather face a pit full of scorpions than hop on the bars with Arra Sails. I saw her make mincemeat of twenty seasoned vampires one night."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," I said with a grin.

Gavner had to leave us to discuss something with a bunch of other Generals - vampires were forever debating serious issues in the Hall of Princes - and while we were waiting, Mr. Crepsley explained a little more about the dome.

"The dome is magical. There is no way in except through the single set of doors. Nothing can penetrate its walls, no tool, explosive, or acid. It is the toughest material known to man or vampire."

"Where did it come from?" I asked.

"We do not know. The Little People brought it in covered wagons. It took them months to haul it up, one sheet at a time. We were not allowed to watch as they assembled it. Our finest architects have been over it many times since, but not one can unravel its mysteries.

"The doors can only be opened by a Vampire Prince," he went on. "They can open them by laying their palms directly on the panels of the doors, or from their thrones, by pressing their palms down on the armrests."

"They must be electronic," I said. "The panels 'read' their fingerprints, right?"

Mr. Crepsley shook his head. "The Hall was built centuries ago, long before electricity was even a thought in the minds of man. It operates by paranormal means, or by a form of technology far advanced of anything we know.

"You see the red stone behind the Princes?" he asked. It was set on a pedestal fifteen feet behind the platform, an oval stone, about twice the size of a football. "That is the Stone of Blood. That is the key, not only to the dome, but to the longevity of the vampire race itself."

"Long - what?" I asked.

"Longevity. It means long life."

"How can a stone have anything to do with a long life?" I asked, puzzled.

"The Stone serves several purposes," he said. "Every vampire, when accepted into the fold, must stand before the Stone and place his hands on it. The Stone looks as smooth as a ball of glass, but is ultra-sharp to the touch. It draws blood, which is absorbed by the Stone - hence its name - linking the vampire to the mental collective of the clan forever."

"Mental collective?" I repeated, wishing for the millionth time since I'd met Mr. Crepsley that he'd use simple words.

"You know how vampires can mentally search for those they have bonded with?"


"Well, using the method of triangulation, we can also search for and find those we have not bonded with, via the Stone."

"Triangu - what?" I groaned, exasperated.

"Let us say you are a full vampire whose blood has been absorbed by the Stone," he said. "When a vampire gives his blood, he also gives his name, by which the Stone and other vampires will thenceforth recognize him. If I want to search for you after you have been blooded, I merely place my hands on the Stone of Blood and think your name. Within seconds the Stone allows me to pinpoint your exact location anywhere on Earth."

"You could do this even if I didn't want to be found?" I asked.

"Yes. But pinpointing your location would be no good - by the time I got to where you had been when I made the search, you would have moved on. Hence the need for triangulation, which simply means three people are involved. If I wanted to find you, I could contact someone I was bonded with - Gavner, for instance - and mentally transmit your whereabouts to him. With me guiding him via the Stone of Blood, he could track you down."

I thought that over in silence for a while. It was an ingenious system, but I could see a few drawbacks. "Can anyone use the Stone of Blood to find a vampire?" I asked.

"Anyone with the ability to search mentally," Mr. Crepsley said.

"Even a human or a vampaneze?"

"Very few humans have minds advanced enough to use the Stone," he said, "but the vampaneze can."

"Isn't the Stone dangerous then?" I asked. "If a vampaneze got his hands on it, couldn't he track every vampire down - at least all the ones he knew the names of - and guide his colleagues to them?"

Mr. Crepsley smiled grimly. "Your battering at the hands of Arra Sails has not affected your powers of reasoning. You are correct - the Stone of Blood would mean the end of the vampire race if it fell into the wrong hands. The vampaneze would be able to hunt all of us down. They can also find those they do not know the names of - the Stone lets its user search for vampires by location as well as name, so they could scan for every vampire in England or America or wherever, then send out others to track them down. That is why we guard the Stone carefully and never let it leave the safety of the dome."

"Wouldn't it be simpler just to break it?" I asked.

Kurda, who'd been eavesdropping, laughed. "I put that proposal to the Princes several decades ago," he said. "The Stone could resist normal tools and explosives, the same as the walls of the dome, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to get rid of safely. 'Throw the damn thing down a volcano, I pleaded, 'or toss it in the deepest sea. They wouldn't hear of such a thing."

"Why not?" I asked.

"There are a number of reasons," Mr. Crepsley answered before Kurda could reply. "First, the Stone can be used to locate vampires who are missing or in trouble, or those who are mad and on the loose. It is healthy to know that we are joined to the clan by more than tradition, that we can always rely on aid if we lead good lives, and punishment if we do not. The Stone keeps us in line.

"Second, the Stone of Blood is necessary to operate the doors of the dome. When a vampire becomes a Prince, the Stone is a vital part of the ceremony. He forms a circle around it with two other Princes. They each use a hand to pump blood into him, while laying their other hand on the Stone. Blood flows from the old Princes to the new Prince, then to the Stone, and back again. By the end of the ceremony, the new Prince can control the doors of the Hall. Without the Stone, he would be a Prince in name only.

"There is a third reason why we do not destroy the Stone - the Lord of the Vampaneze." His face was dark. "The myth says that the Vampaneze Lord will wipe the vampire race from the face of the Earth when he comes to power, but through the Stone of Blood we might one night rise again."

"How's that possible?" I asked.

"We do not know," Mr. Crepsley said. "But those were the words of Mr. Tiny, and since the power of the Stone is also his, it makes sense to pay heed. Now more than ever, we must protect the Stone. Harkat's message concerning the Vampaneze Lord has struck at the hearts and spirits of many vampires. With the Stone, there is hope. To dispose of it now would be to surrender to fear."

"Charna's guts!" Kurda snorted. "I've no time for those old myths. We should get rid of the Stone, shut down the dome, and build a new Hall of Princes. Apart from anything else, it's one of the main reasons the vampaneze are loath to make a deal with us. They don't want to be hooked up to a magical tool of Mr. Tiny's, and who can blame them? They're afraid of bonding with the Stone - they could never split from the vampire clan if they did, because we'd be able to use the Stone to hunt them down. If we removed the Stone, they might return to us, and then the vampaneze would be no more - there'd be one big family of vampires - and the threat of the Vampaneze Lord would evaporate."

"Does that mean you will be seeking to destroy the Stone when you are a Prince?" Mr. Crepsley inquired.

"I'll mention the possibility." Kurda nodded. "It's a sensitive issue, and I don't expect the Generals to agree to it, but in time, as negotiations between ourselves and the vampaneze develop, I hope they'll come around to my way of thinking."

"Did you make this clear when you were seeking election?" Mr. Crepsley asked.

Kurda shifted uncomfortably. "Well, no, but that's politics. Sometimes you have to hold things back. I didn't lie about it. If anyone had asked me for my views on the Stone, I'd have told them. They just... didn't... ask," he finished lamely.

"Politics!" Mr. Crepsley huffed. "It is a sad day for vampires when our Princes voluntarily ensnare themselves in the despicable webs of politics." Sticking his nose in the air, he turned his back on Kurda and stared straight ahead at the platform.

"I've upset him," Kurda whispered to me.

"He's easily upset," I said with a grin. Then I asked if I'd have to bond with the Stone of Blood.

"Probably not until you become a full vampire,"

Kurda said. "Half-vampires have been allowed to bond with it in the past, but not in the normal run of things."

I was going to ask more about the mysterious Stone of Blood and the dome, but then a serious-looking General banged the floor of the platform with a heavy staff and announced my name, along with Mr. Crepsley's.

It was time to meet the Princes.

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