I WOKE UP A LITTLE before nightfall, stretched the stiffness out of my bones - what I would have given for a bed or hammock! - then left the inside of the cave to study the barren land we were journeying through. I didn't get much of a chance to study the countryside while we traveled at night. It was only during quiet moments like these that I could stop and take everything in.

We hadn't hit the snowlands yet, but already we had left most of civilization behind. Humans were few and far between out here where the ground was rocky and forbidding. Even animals were scarce, but some were strong enough to survive - mostly deer, wolves, and bears.


We'd been traveling for weeks, maybe a month - I lost track of time after the first couple of nights.

Whenever I asked Mr. Crepsley how many miles were left, he'd smile and say, "We are some way off yet."

My feet got cut up badly when we reached the hard ground. Mr. Crepsley applied the sap of herbal plants that he found along the way on my soles and carried me for a couple of nights while my skin grew back (I healed quicker than a human would). I'd been okay since then.

I said one night that it was too bad that the Little People were with us, or he could have carried me on his back and flitted. (Vampires can run at an extra-fast speed, a magic kind of running, where they slip through space like eels through a net. They call it "flitting.") He said our slow pace had nothing to do with the Little People. "Flitting is not permitted on the way to Vampire Mountain," he explained. "The journey is a way of weeding out the weak from the strong. Vampires are ruthless in certain aspects. We do not believe in supporting those who are incapable of supporting themselves."

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"That's not very nice," I observed. "What about somebody who's old or injured?"

Mr. Crepsley shrugged. "Either they do not attempt the journey, or they die trying."

"That's stupid," I said. "If I could flit, I would. No one would know."

The vampire sighed. "You still do not understand our ways," he said. "There is no nobility in pulling the wool over the eyes of one's comrades. We are proud beings, Darren, who live by exacting codes. From our point of view it is better to lose one's life than lose one's pride."

Mr. Crepsley spoke a lot about pride and nobility and being true to oneself. Vampires were a stern lot, he said, who lived as close to nature as they could. Their lives were rarely easy, and that was the way they liked it - "Life is a challenge," he once told me, "and only those who rise to the challenge truly know what it means to live."

I got used to the Little People, who trailed along behind us at night, silent, aloof, precise. They hunted for their own food during the day, while we slept. By the time we woke up, they'd eaten and grabbed a few hours' sleep and were ready to go. Their pace never changed. They marched behind us like robots, a few feet in the rear. I thought the one with the limp might struggle, but he hadn't yet shown any signs that he was feeling any strain.

Mr. Crepsley and me fed mostly on deer. Their blood was hot, salty, and good. We had bottles of human blood to keep us going - vampires need regular doses of human blood to keep healthy, and although they prefer to drink directly from the vein, they can bottle blood and store it - but we drank from them sparingly, saving them in case of an emergency.

Mr. Crepsley wouldn't let me light a fire in the open - it might attract attention - but it was allowed in way stations. Way stations were caves or underground caverns where bottles of human blood and coffins were stored. They were resting places, where vampires could hole up for a day or two. There weren't many of them - it took about a week to make it from one to the next - and some of them had been taken over or destroyed by animals since Mr. Crepsley had last been here.

"How come they allow way stations but no shoes or ropes?" I asked one day as we warmed our feet by a fire and dove into roast venison (we ate it raw most of the time).

"The way stations were introduced after our war with the vampaneze seven hundred years ago," he said. "We lost many of our clan in the fight with the vampaneze, and humans killed even more of us. Our numbers were dangerously low. The way stations were set up to make it easier to get to Vampire Mountain. Some vampires object to them and never use them, but most accept them."

"How many vampires are there?" I asked.

"Between two and three thousand," he answered. "Maybe a few hundred more or less."

I whistled. "That's a lot!"

"Three thousand is nothing," he said. "Think about the billions of humans."

"It's more than I expected," I said.

"Once, we numbered more than a hundred thousand," Mr. Crepsley said. "And this was long ago, when that was a huge amount."

"What happened to them?" I asked.

"They were killed." He sighed. "Humans with stakes; disease; fights - vampires love to fight. In the centuries before the vampaneze broke away and provided us with a real foe, we fought amongst ourselves, many dying in duels. We came close to extinction, but kept our heads above water, just about."

"How many Vampire Generals are there?" I asked curiously.

"Between three and four hundred."

"And vampaneze?"

"Maybe two hundred and fifty, or three hundred - I cannot say for sure."

As I was remembering this old conversation, Mr. Crepsley came out from the cave behind me and watched the sun sinking. It looked the same color as his cropped orange hair. The vampire was in great form - the nights were getting longer the closer to Vampire Mountain we got, so he could move around more than usual.

"It is always nice to see it go down," Mr. Crepsley said, referring to the sun.

"I thought it was going to snow earlier," I said.

"There will be snow aplenty soon," he replied. "We should reach the snowdrifts this week." He glanced down at my feet. "Will you be able to survive the harsh cold?"

"I've made it this far, haven't I?"

"This has been the easy part." He smiled, then slapped me on the back when he saw my discouraged frown. "Do not worry - you will be fine. But let me know if your feet get cut up again. There are rare bushes that grow along the trail, the sap of which can seal the pores of one's skin."

The Little People came out of the cave, hoods covering their faces. The one without a limp was carrying a dead fox.

"Ready?" Mr. Crepsley asked me.

I nodded and swung my knapsack onto my back. Looking ahead over the rocky terrain, I asked the usual question: "Is it much farther?"

Mr. Crepsley smiled, began walking, and said over his shoulder, "We are some way off yet."

Muttering darkly, I glanced back at the pretty comfortable cave, then faced front and followed the vampire. The Little People fell in behind, and after a while I heard brittle snapping sounds as they chewed on the bones of the fox.

Four nights later we ran into heavy snow. For a couple of nights we traveled over country that was one long, unbroken blanket of freezing white where nothing lived, but after that trees, plants, and animals appeared again.

My feet felt like two blocks of ice as we trudged through the belt of snow, but I gritted my teeth and walked off the effects of the cold. The worst part was getting up at dusk, having slept with my feet tucked underneath me all day. There was always an hour or two after waking when my toes tingled and I thought they'd fall off. Then the blood would circulate and everything would be fine - until the next night.

Sleeping outside was really uncomfortable. The two of us would lie down together in our clothes - which we hadn't changed out of since reaching the snow - and pull rough blankets we had made from deer skins over our bodies. But even with our shared warmth it was freezing. Madam Octa had it easy - she slept safe and snug in her cage, only waking to feed every few days. I wished I could change places with her.

If the Little People felt the cold, they didn't give any indication. They didn't bother with blankets, they just lay down underneath a bush or against a rock when they wanted to sleep.

Almost three weeks after we had last stopped at a way station, we came to another. I couldn't wait to sit beside a fire and eat cooked meat again. I was even looking forward to sleeping in a coffin - anything was better than hard, cold earth! This way station was a cave set low in a cliff, above a forest ring and a large stream. Mr. Crepsley and me aimed directly for it - a bright moon in the clear night sky lit the way - while the Little People went off to hunt. The climb only took ten minutes. I pushed ahead of Mr. Crepsley as we approached the mouth of the cave, eager to get the fire started, only for him to lay a hand on my shoulder. "Hold," he said softly.

"What?" I snapped. I was irritable after three weeks of sleeping rough.

"I smell blood," he said.

Pausing, I sniffed the air, and after a few seconds I got the whiff, too, strong and sickly.

"Stay close behind me," Mr. Crepsley whispered. "Be prepared to run the instant I give the order." I nodded obediently, then trailed after him as he crept to the opening and slid inside.

The cave was dark, especially after the brightness of the moonlit night, and we entered slowly, giving our eyes time to adjust. It was a deep cave,turning off to the left and going back sixty or more feet. Three coffins had been placed on stands in the middle, but one was lying on the floor, its lid hanging off, and another had been smashed to pieces against the wall to our right.

The wall and floor around the shattered coffin were dark with blood. It wasn't fresh, but by its smell I knew it wasn't more than a couple of nights old. Having checked the rest of the cave - to make sure we were alone - Mr. Crepsley edged over to the blood and crouched to examine it, dipping a finger into the dried pool and then tasting it.

"Well?" I hissed, as he stood, rubbing his finger and thumb together.

"It is the blood of a vampire," he said quietly.

My insides tightened - I had been hoping it was the blood of a wild animal. "What do you think -" I started to ask, when there was a sudden rushing sound behind me. A strong arm wrapped around my middle, a thick hand clutched my throat, and - as Mr. Crepsley shot forward to help - my attacker grunted triumphantly: "Hah!"

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