Home > Trials of Death (Cirque Du Freak #5)

Trials of Death (Cirque Du Freak #5)
Author: Darren Shan

PROLOGUE

IF PEOPLE ever tell you vampires aren't real - don't believe them! The world's full of vampires. Not evil, shape-changing, cross-fearing creatures like in the legends, but honorable, long-living, extrastrong beings who need to drink blood to survive. They interfere as little as possible in the affairs of humans and never kill those they drink from.

Hidden away in some snowy, barely accessible corner of the world stands Vampire Mountain, where vampires meet every twelve years. The Council (as they call it) is controlled by the Vampire Princes - who are obeyed by all vampires - and most of those in attendance are Vampire Generals, whose job is to govern the walking undead.

In order to present me to the Princes, Mr. Crepsley had dragged me along to Vampire Mountain and the Council. Mr. Crepsley's a vampire. I'm his assistant, a half-vampire - my name's Darren Shan.

It was a long, hard journey. We traveled with a friend of ours, Gavner Purl, four wolves, and two Little People, strange creatures who work for a mysterious master by the name of Mr. Tiny. One of the Little People was killed on the way by a mad bear that had drunk the blood of a dead vampaneze (they're like vampires, except they have purple skin and red eyes, nails, and hair - and they always kill when they feed). The other then spoke - the first time ever that a Little Person had communicated with anyone - and told us his name was Harkat Mulds. He also delivered a chilling message from Mr. Tiny: a Vampaneze Lord would come into power soon and lead the purple-skinned killers into war against the vampires - and win!

Finally we arrived at Vampire Mountain, where the vampires lived in a network of tunnels and large caves. There I made friends with a bunch of vampires, including Seba Nile, who'd been Mr. Crepsley's teacher when he was younger; Arra Sails, one of the few female vampires; Vanez Blane, a one-eyed games master; and Kurda Smahlt, a General who was going to become a Prince soon.

The Princes and most of the Generals weren't impressed with me. They said I was too young to be a vampire and criticized Mr. Crepsley for blooding me. To prove myself worthy of being a half-vampire, I had to undertake the Trials of Initiation, a series of tough tests usually reserved for budding Generals. When I was making up my mind to accept the challenge, they told me that if I passed, I'd be accepted into the vampire ranks. What they neglected to tell me until afterward (when it was too late to back out) was that if I failed - I'd be killed!

Chapter ONE

THE HUGE CAVERN known as the Hall of Khledon Lurt was almost deserted. Except for those sitting at my table - Gavner, Kurda, and Harkat - there was only one other vampire present, a guard who sat by himself and sipped from a mug of beer, whistling tunelessly.

About four hours had passed since I learned I was going to be judged in the Trials of Initiation. I still didn't know very much about the Trials, but from the gloomy faces of my companions, and by what had been said in the Hall of Princes, I figured my chances of emerging victorious were, at best, slim.

While Kurda and Gavner muttered on about my Trials, I studied Harkat, who I hadn't seen much of recently (he'd been cooped up in the Hall of Princes, answering questions). He was dressed in his traditional blue robes, although he now wore his hood down, no longer bothering to hide his grey, scarred, stitched-together face. Harkat didn't have a nose, and his ears were sewn underneath the skin of his skull. He had a pair of large, round green eyes, set near the top of his head. His mouth was jagged and full of sharp teeth. Normal air was poisonous to him - ten or twelve hours of it would kill him - so he wore a special mask that kept him alive. He moved it down over his chin when he was talking or eating and back up to cover his mouth when he wasn't. Harkat had once been human but had died and come back in this body, after striking a deal with Mr. Tiny. He couldn't remember who he'd been or what sort of a deal he'd struck.

Harkat had carried a message to the Princes from Mr. Tiny, saying that the night of the Vampaneze Lord was coming. The Vampaneze Lord was a mythical figure whose arrival would supposedly signal the start of a war between the vampires and vampaneze, which - according to Mr. Tiny - the vampaneze would win, wiping out the vampire forces in the process.

Catching my eye, Harkat lowered his mask and said, "Have you... seen much of... the Halls?"

"A little of them," I replied.

"You must... take me... on a tour."

"Darren won't have much time for tours," Kurda sighed miserably. "Not with the Trials to prepare for."

"Tell me more about these Trials," I said.

"The Trials are part of our vampiric heritage, going back as long as any vampire can remember," Gavner told me. Gavner Purl was a Vampire General. He was very burly, with short brown hair, and he had a scarred, beaten face. Mr. Crepsley teased him a lot about his heavy breathing and snoring. "In the old nights they were held at every Council," Gavner continued, "and every vampire had to endure them, even if they'd passed a dozen times already.

"About a thousand years ago, the Trials were restructured. This was about the time that the Generals came into being. Before that, there were just Princes and ordinary vampires. Under the new terms, only those who wished to be Generals needed to undertake the Trials. A lot of ordinary vampires take the Trials even if they don't want to be a General - a vampire usually has to pass the Trials of Initiation to earn the respect of his peers - but they aren't required to."

"I don't understand," I said. "I thought if you passed the Trials, you automatically became a General."

"No," Kurda answered ahead of Gavner, running a hand through his blond hair. Kurda Smahlt wasn't as muscular as most vampires - he believed in brains over brawn - and he had less scar tissue than most, although he had three small red permanent scratches on his left cheek, marks of the vampaneze. (Kurda's dream was to reunite the vampires and vampaneze, and he'd spent many decades discussing peace treaties with the murderous outcasts.) "The Trials are only the first test for would-be Generals. There are other tests of strength, endurance, and wisdom, which come later. Passing the Trials just means you're a vampire of good standing."

Good standing was a phrase I'd heard many times. Respect and honor were extremely important to vampires. If you were a vampire of good standing, it meant you were respected by your colleagues. "What happens in the Trials?" I asked. "There are many different tests," Gavner said, taking over again from Kurda. "You have to complete five of them. They'll be picked at random, one at a time. The challenges range from fighting wild boars to climbing perilous mountains to crawling through a pit filled with snakes."

"Snakes?" I asked, alarmed. My best friend at the Cirque Du Freak - Evra Von - kept a huge snake, which I'd grown accustomed to but never learned to like. Snakes gave me the creeps.

"There won't be any snakes in Darren's Trials," Kurda said. "Our last snake keeper died nine years ago and hasn't been replaced. We still have a few snakes but not enough to fill a tub, never mind a pit."

"The Trials take place one night after another," Gavner said. "A day's rest is all you're allowed in between. So you have to be especially careful at the start - if you get injured early on, you won't have much time to recover."

"Actually, he might get lucky there," Kurda mused. "The Festival of the Undead is almost upon us."

"What's that?" I asked.

"We celebrate with a huge feast when every vampire who's coming to Council has arrived," Kurda explained. "We used the Stone of Blood to search for latecomers a couple of nights ago, and only three more are on their way. When the last arrives, the Festival starts, and no official business may take place for three nights and days."

"That's right," Gavner said. "If the Festival starts during your Trials, you'll have a three-night break. That would be a great bonus."

"If the latecomers arrive in time," Kurda noted gloomily.

Kurda seemed to think I didn't stand a chance in the Trials. "Why are you so sure I'll fail?" I asked.

"It's not that I think poorly of you," Kurda said. "You're just too young and inexperienced. Apart from the fact that you're physically unprepared, you haven't had time to assess the different tasks and practice for them. You're being thrown in at the deep end, and it isn't fair."

"Still whining about fairness?" someone commented behind us - Mr. Crepsley. Seba Nile, the quartermaster of Vampire Mountain, was with him. The pair sat and greeted us with silent nods.

"You were very quick to agree to the Trials, Larten," Kurda said disapprovingly. "Don't you think you should have explained the rules to Darren more thoroughly? He didn't even know that failure to complete the Trials means certain death!"

"Is that true?" Mr. Crepsley asked me.

I nodded. "I thought I could quit if things weren't working out."

"Ah, I should have made it clearer. My apologies."

"A little late for those now." Kurda sniffed.

"All the same," Mr. Crepsley said, "I stand by my decision. It was a delicate situation. I did wrong to blood Darren - there was no hiding from that. It is important for both our sakes that one of us clears our names. If I had the choice, I would face the challenge, but the Princes elected Darren. Their word, as far as I am concerned, is law."

"Besides," Seba Nile added, "all is far from lost. When I heard the news, I hurried to the Hall of Princes and used the old and almost forgotten Period of Preparation clause."

"The what?" Gavner asked.

"Before the time of the Generals," Seba explained, "vampires did not spend years preparing for the Trials. They would draw a Trial at random - as they do now - but rather than tackle it immediately, they had a night and a day to prepare. This was to give them time to practice. Many chose to ignore the Period of Preparation - usually those who had undertaken the Trials before - but there was no dishonor in taking advantage of it."

"I never heard of that rule," Gavner said.

"I did," Kurda noted, "but I'd never have thought of it. Does it still apply? It hasn't been used in more than a thousand years."

"Just because it is unfashionable does not mean it is invalid," Seba chuckled. "The Period of Preparation was never formally abolished. Given that Darren is a special case, I went to the Princes and asked that he be allowed to take advantage of it. Mika objected, of course - that vampire was born to object - but Paris talked him into it."

"So Darren has twenty-four hours to prepare for each Trial," Mr. Crepsley said. "And twenty-four hours to rest afterwards - which adds up to a forty-eight-hour break between each test."

"That is good news," Gavner agreed, brightening up.

"There is more," Mr. Crepsley said. "We also persuaded the Princes to rule out some of the more difficult Trials, those which are clearly beyond Darren's ability."

"I thought you said you weren't going to ask for favors," Gavner noted with a grin.

"And I did not." Mr. Crepsley replied. "I merely asked that the Princes use their common sense. It would be illogical to ask a blind man to paint, or a mute man to sing. So it would be senseless to expect a half-vampire to compete on even terms with a full-vampire. Many of the Trials remain, but those which are clearly impossible for one in Darren's position have been eliminated."

"I still say it's unfair," Kurda complained. He faced the ancient Seba Nile. "Are there any other old laws we could use? Anything about children not being allowed to compete, or that they can't be killed if they fail?"

"None that I am aware of," Seba said. "The only vampires who cannot be killed for failing the Trials of Initiation are the Princes. All others are judged equally."

"Why would Princes be taking the Trials?" I asked.

"Long ago they had to participate in the Trials at every Council, like everybody else," Seba said. "Some still undertake them from time to time, if they feel they need to prove themselves. However, it is forbidden for a vampire to kill a Prince, so if a Prince fails and does not die during the Trial, nobody can execute him."

"What happens in cases like that?" I asked.

"There have not been many," Seba said. "Of the few that I know of, the Princes elected to leave Vampire Mountain and die in the wilds. Only one - Fredor Morsh - resumed his place in the Hall of Princes. That was when the vampaneze broke away, when we needed all of our leaders. Once the crisis had passed, he left to meet his fate."

"Come," Mr. Crepsley said, rising and yawning. "I am tired. It is time to turn in for the day."

"I don't think I'll be able to sleep," I said.

"You must," he grunted. "Rest is vital if you are going to complete the Trials. You will need to be fully alert, with all your wits about you."

"OK," I sighed, joining him. Harkat stood too. "See you all tomorrow," I said to the other vampires, and they nodded gloomily in reply.

Back in my cell, I made myself as comfortable as possible in my hammock - most vampires slept in coffins, but I couldn't stand them - while Harkat climbed into his. It took a long time to drift off, but finally I did, and though I didn't manage a full day's sleep, I was reasonably clear-headed when night rolled around, and I had to report to the Hall of Princes to learn about my first deathly Trial.

Chapter TWO

ARRA SAILS was waiting for Mr. Crepsley and me outside the Hall of Princes. Arra was one of the rare female vampires at Vampire Mountain. She was a fierce fighter, the equal - or better - of most males. We'd fought a contest earlier during my stay, and I'd won her hard-to-earn respect.

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