THERE WAS A LONG, thoughtful silence. "Yes," Paris Skyle finally murmured. "A challenge for the boy."
"I said I did not want to bring Darren into this!" Mr. Crepsley objected.
"No," Mika contradicted him. "You said you didn't want him to be punished. Well, he won't be - a challenge is not a punishment."
"It is fair, Larten," Paris agreed. "If the boy proves himself in a test, your decision to blood him will be accepted and no more need be said about it."
"And the dishonor will be his if he fails," Arrow added.
Mr. Crepsley scratched his long facial scar. "It is an honest solution," he mused, "but the decision is Darren's, not mine. I will not force a challenge on him."
He turned to me. "Are you prepared to prove yourself to the clan and clear our names?"
I fidgeted uneasily on my chair. "Um... what sort of a challenge are we talking about exactly?" I asked.
"A good question," Paris said. "It would be unfair to pit him in battle against one of our warriors - a half-vampire is no match for a General."
"And a quest would take too long," Arrow said.
"That leaves the Trials," Mika muttered.
"No!" someone shouted behind us. Looking around, I spotted a red-faced Kurda striding toward the platform. "I won't stand for this!" he shouted. "The boy isn't ready for the Trials. If you insist on testing him, let him wait till he is older."
"There will be no waiting," Mika growled, rising to his feet and taking a few steps toward Kurda. "We wield the authority here, Kurda Smahlt - you're not a Prince yet, so don't act like one."
Kurda, stopped and glowered at Mika, then dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "My apologies for speaking out of turn, sire."
"Apology accepted," Mika grunted, returning to his seat.
"Have I the permission of the Princes to speak?" Kurda asked.
Paris checked with Mika, who shrugged curtly. "You have," he said.
"The Trials of Initiation are for experienced vampires," Kurda said. "They were not designed for children. It wouldn't be fair to subject him to them."
"Life for vampires has never been fair," Mr. Crepsley said. "But it can be just. I do not enjoy the idea of submitting Darren to the Trials, but it is a just decision and I shall stand by it if he agrees."
"Excuse me," I said, "but what are the Trials?"
Paris smiled kindly at me. "The Trials of Initiation are tests for vampires who wish to become Generals," he explained.
"What would I have to do?"
"Perform five acts of physical courage," he said. "The tests are picked at random and are different for each vampire. One involves diving to the bottom of a deep pool and retrieving a dropped medallion. In another you must dodge falling boulders. In another you must cross a hall filled with burning coals. Some tests are more difficult than others, but none are easy. The risk is great, and though most vampires survive, death by misadventure is not unheard-of."
"You mustn't agree to this, Darren," Kurda hissed. "The Trials are for full vampires. You aren't strong, quick, or experienced enough. You'll be signing your death warrant if you say yes."
"I disagree," Mr. Crepsley said. "Darren is capable of passing the Trials. It will not be easy, and he may struggle, but I would not let him step forward if I thought he would be completely out of his depth."
"Let's vote on it," Mika said. "I say it's the Trials. Arrow?"
"I agree - the Trials."
The oldest living vampire shook his head uncertainly. "Kurda has a point when he says the Trials are not for children. I trust your judgment, Larten, but fear your optimism is misplaced."
"Can you suggest another way?" Mika snapped.
"No, but..." Paris sighed deeply. "What do the Generals think?" he asked, addressing those in the Hall. "We have heard from Kurda and Mika. Does anyone else have anything to add?"
The Generals muttered among themselves, until a familiar figure stood and cleared her throat - Arra Sails. "I respect Darren Shan," she said. "I have shaken his hand, and those who know me know how much that means to me. I believe Gavner Purl and Larten Crepsley when they say he will be a valuable addition to our ranks.
"But I also agree with Mika Ver Leth - Darren must prove himself. All of us have had to endure the Trials. They help make us what we are. As a woman, the odds were stacked against me, but I overcame them and took my place in this Hall as an equal. There must be no exceptions. A vampire who cannot pull his own weight is of no use to us. We have no place for children who need to be wet-nursed and tucked into their coffins at daybreak.
"Having said that," she concluded, "I don't think Darren will let us down. I believe he will pass the Trials and prove himself. I have every confidence in him." She smiled at me, then glared at Kurda. "And those who say otherwise - those who'd wrap him in blankets - should not be heeded. To deny Darren the right of Trials would be to shame him."
"Noble words," Kurda sneered. "Will you repeat them at his funeral?"
"Better to die with pride than live in shame," Arra retorted.
Kurda cursed quietly to himself. "How about it, Darren?" he asked. "Will you face death just to prove yourself to these fools?"
"No," I said, and saw a pained look cross Mr. Crepsley's face. "But I'll face death to prove myself to me," I added. When the red-cloaked vampire heard that, he beamed proudly and raised a clenched fist in salute.
"Let us put it to the Hall," Paris said. "How many think Darren should undertake the Trials of Initiation?" Every arm went up. Kurda turned aside in disgust. "Darren? You are willing to proceed?"
I looked up at Mr. Crepsley and made a sign for him to bend down. In a whisper, I asked him what would happen if I said no. "You would be disgraced and sent from Vampire Mountain in shame," he said solemnly.
"Would you be shamed, too?" I asked, knowing how much his good name meant to him.
He sighed. "In the eyes of the Princes I would not be, but in my own eyes I would. Having chosen and blooded you, I feel any shame of yours would also be mine."
I gave that careful consideration. I'd learned a lot about Mr. Crepsley, how he thought and lived, during the eight years I'd served as his assistant. "You couldn't bear such shame, could you?" I asked.
His expression softened. "No," he said quietly.
"You'd go and chase an early death. Hunt wild animals and fight vampaneze, and push yourself until one of them killed you?"
"Something along those lines," he agreed with a quick nod.
I couldn't let that happen. Six years ago, when we'd gone after Murlough, the mad vampaneze had kidnapped Evra, and Mr. Crepsley had offered to trade his life for the snake-boy's. He'd have done the same for me if I'd fallen into the killer's hands. I didn't like the sound of these Trials, but if undertaking them meant Mr. Crepsley could carry on without shame, I owed it to him to place myself in the firing line.
Facing the Princes, I stood up straight and said solidly, "I agree to the Trials."
"Then it is decided," Paris Skyle said, smiling approvingly. "Return tomorrow and we shall draw the first Trial. You may leave now and rest."
That was the end of our meeting. I left the Hall with Gavner, Harkat, and Kurda. Mr. Crepsley stayed to discuss business with the Princes - I think it had to do with Mr. Tiny, Harkat's message, and the dead vampaneze and vampire we'd found on our way here.
"I'm glad... to leave at... last," Harkat said as we made our way back to the Halls. "I was... growing bored of... same old... scenery."
I smiled, then glanced at Gavner worriedly. "How tough are these Trials?" I asked.
"Very," he sighed.
"Try tough as the walls of the Hall of Princes," Kurda growled.
"They're not that difficult," Gavner said. "Don't exaggerate the dangers, Kurda - you'll frighten him."
"That's the last thing I want to do," Kurda said, smiling encouragingly at me. "But the Trials are meant for fully grown vampires. I spent six years preparing for them, like most vampires do, yet I only barely scraped through."
"Darren will be okay," Gavner insisted, though the doubt in his voice was only barely concealed.
"Besides," I said, trying to cheer Kurda up, "I can always drop out if I get in over my head."
Kurda stared hard at me. "Weren't you listening? Didn't you understand?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Nobody walks away from the Trials," Gavner said. "You might fail, but you can't quit - the Generals won't let you."
"So I'll fail." I shrugged. "I'll throw in the towel if things get hairy - pretend I've got a twisted ankle or something."
"He doesn't understand!" Gavner groaned. "We should have explained it fully before we let him agree.
He's given his word now, so there's no going back. Black blood of Harnon Oan!"
"What don't I understand?" I asked, confused.
"In the Trials, failure entails one fate only - death!" Kurda told me grimly. I stared at him wordlessly. "Most who fail, die in the attempt. But should you fail and not die, you will be taken to the Hall of Death, strapped into a cage, hoisted above the pit, and -" he gulped, averted his eyes, and finished in a terrible whisper, "dropped on the stakes until you are dead!"