Home > Trials of Death (Cirque Du Freak #5)(10)

Trials of Death (Cirque Du Freak #5)(10)
Author: Darren Shan

The gurgling of pipes behind me brought me to a halt. Flames burst out of the floor, scorching my back. I grimaced but didn't move - there was nowhere to move to. The air was very poor in this region of the room. I waved my hands in front of my face, trying to create a draft to suck some fresh air in, but it didn't work.

The pillars of flames in front of me had formed a wall of fire, at least seven or eight feet thick. I could barely see the rest of the room through the flickering flames. As I stood, waiting for a path to open, the mouths of the pipes at my feet hissed, several of them all at once. A huge ball of fire was on its way, about to explode directly underneath me! I had a split second to think and act.

Couldn't stand still - I'd burn.

Couldn't retreat - I'd burn.

Couldn't duck to the sides - I'd burn.

Forward, through the thick banks of fire? I'd probably burn, but there was open ground and air beyond - if I made it through. It was a lousy choice, but there was no time to complain. Closing my eyes and mouth, I covered my face with my arms and darted forward into the wall of crackling flames.

Chapter TWELVE

FIRE ENGULFED and billowed around me. I'd never in my worst nightmare imagined such heat. I almost opened my mouth to scream. If I had, fire would have gushed down my throat and torched me to a crisp from the inside out.

When I burst through the other side of the fiery wall, my hair was a burning bush, and flames sprouted from my body like mushrooms. I dropped to the floor and rolled around, beating at my hair with my hands, extinguishing the flames. I paid no attention to the hisses and whistlings of the pipes. If flames had struck in those seconds of madness, they'd have devoured me. But I got lucky... lucky Darren Shan... the luck of the vampires.

Once I'd slapped out the worst of the flames, I got to my knees, groaning weakly. Sucking in hot, thin air, I prodded gently at the smoldering mess on top of my head, making sure there were no sparks waiting to flare back to life.

My entire body was black and red. Black from the soot, red where the burns had eaten through my flesh. I was in bad shape, but I had to go on. Sore as I was, and painful as it was to move, I had to. The ravenous demons of the fire would devour me if I didn't.

Standing, I tuned out the roars of the flames and listened for the sounds of the pipes. It wasn't easy - my ears had been savagely burnt, affecting my sense of hearing - but I was able to detect the faintest hints of hissing and whistling, and after a few shaky steps I was back on course, anticipating the bursts of flames and moving to avoid them.

The one good thing about wading through the wall of fire was that it had burnt out much of the feelings in my feet. There was almost no pain now beneath my knees. That meant I was dangerously singed, and part of me worried about what would happen after the Trial - if my feet were burnt beyond repair, they might have to be amputated! - but that was a worry for another time. Right now I was glad for the relief and took comfort from it.

My ears were seriously troubling me. I tried to rub some spit on them, but my mouth had dried up completely. I caressed them gently between my fingers, but that made them worse. In the end I left them alone and just did my best to ignore them.

The flames were forcing me into another corner. Rather than let myself get trapped again, I ducked through a roaring bank of fire and back to open ground, enduring the ensuing pain.

I closed my eyes as often as possible, every time there was the slightest lull. The heat was dreadful for them. They'd dried up the same way my mouth had, and I was afraid of losing my sight.

As I rolled away from yet another nasty burst of fire, the flames in the Hall began to die away. I paused suspiciously. Was this the start of an even worse assault? Could I expect a huge ball of fire to burst through the pipes and blow me away?

While I twitched and strained my ears, the door to the Hall swung open, and vampires in heavy capes entered. I stared at them as though they were aliens. What were they doing? Were they firemen who'd lost their way? Someone should tell them they shouldn't be here. It was dangerous.

I backed away from the vampires as they converged on me. I'd have warned them to get out before the next big ball of fire hit, except I had no voice. I couldn't even manage a squeak. "Darren, it is over," one of the vampires said. He sounded like Mr. Crepsley, but it couldn't be - Mr. Crepsley wouldn't wander into a Hall during the middle of a Trial.

I waved a singed hand at the vampires and mouthed the words, "Go away! Get out of here!"

"Darren," the lead vampire said again, "it is over. You won!"

I couldn't make sense of his words. All I knew was that a huge ball of fire was due, and if these fools were blocking my way, I'd be incapable of dodging it. Hitting out at them, I tried weaving my way through their arms to safety. I ducked the grasp of the lead vampire, but the next caught me by the scruff of the neck. His touch was painful and I dropped to the floor, screaming silently.

"Be careful!" the lead vampire snapped, then bent over me - it was Mr. Crepsley! "Darren," he said softly, "it is all right. You did it. You are safe."

Shaking my head, unable to think clearly, I mouthed the same word over and over: "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

I was still mouthing it when they lifted me onto a stretcher and carted me from the Hall. And even when we were outside, clear of the flames, and medics were tending to my wounds, I couldn't stop my lips from forming the word of warning, or my eyes from rolling to the left and right, fearfully searching for the telltale signs of red and yellow terror.

Chapter THIRTEEN

MY CELL. Lying on my belly. Medics examining my back, rubbing cool lotions into my skin. Somebody lifting my charred feet, gasping, calling for help.

Gazing at the ceiling. Someone holding a torch up to my eyes, peering into my pupils. A razor running over my head, scalping me, removing the remains of my burnt hair. Gavner Purl stepping forward, worried. "I think he's -" he starts to say. Darkness.

Nightmares. The world on fire. Running. Burning. Screaming. Calling for help. Everybody else on fire too.

Jolt awake. Vampires around me. Nightmare still playing at the back of my mind. Convinced the cell's on fire. I try to break free. They hold me down. I curse them. Struggle. Pain gushes through me. Wince. Relax. Return to fire-plagued dreams.

Finally I drifted back from the lands of delirium. I was lying facedown. I moved my head slightly to gaze around the cell. Mr. Crepsley and Harkat Mulds were sitting nearby, monitoring me.

"Thought... I saw... Gavner," I wheezed.

Mr. Crepsley and Harkat sprang forward, smiling worriedly. "He was here earlier," Mr. Crepsley said. "So were Kurda, Vanez, and Arra. The medics told them to leave."

"I... made it?" I asked.

"Yes."

"How bad... am I... burnt?"

"Very bad," Mr. Crepsley said.

"You look... like an over-... cooked sausage," Harkat joked.

I laughed weakly. "I sound... like you... now," I told him.

"Yes," he agreed. "But you... will get... better."

"Will I?" I addressed the question to Mr. Crepsley.

"Yes," he said, nodding firmly. "You have suffered a terrible ordeal, but the damage is not permanent. Your feet suffered the worst of the punishment, but the medics have saved them. It will take time to heal, and your hair might never grow back, but you are in no immediate danger."

"I feel... terrible," I told him.

"Be glad you can feel at all," he replied bluntly.

"What about... next Trial?"

"Do not think of such things now."

"I... must," I gasped. "Will I... have time... to get ready... for it?"

Mr. Crepsley didn't say anything.

"Tell me... the truth," I insisted.

"There will be no extra time," he sighed. "Kurda is in the Hall of Princes as we speak, arguing your case, but he will not be able to persuade them to postpone. There is no precedent for a delay between Trials. Those unfit to continue must..." He came to a stop.

"... be taken to... the Hall of... Death," I finished for him.

While he sat there, trying to think of something comforting to say, Kurda returned, looking flushed with excitement. "Is he awake?" he asked.

"I am," I answered.

Crouching beside me, he said, "It's almost sunset. You must choose your next Trial or admit failure and be carted away for execution. If we carry you to the Hall of Princes, do you think you'll be able to stand upright for a couple of minutes?"

"I'm not... sure," I answered honestly. "My feet... hurt."

"I know," he said. "But it's important. I've found a way to buy us some time, but only if you can act as if you're fine."

"What way?" Mr. Crepsley asked, astonished.

"No time for explanations," Kurda snapped. "Are you willing to give it a try, Darren?"

I nodded weakly.

"Good. Let's get him on a stretcher and up to the Hall of Princes. We can't be late."

Hurrying through the tunnels, we made it to the Hall just in time for sunset. Vanez Blane was outside, waiting with his purple flag. "What's going on, Kurda?" he asked. "There's no way Darren will be ready to face a Trial tomorrow."

"Trust me," Kurda said. "It was Paris's idea, but we can't let on. We have to act as if we're ready to continue. It all hinges on Darren standing up and drawing his Trial. Come on. And remember - we have to act like there's nothing wrong."

We were all mystified by Kurda's behavior, but we had no choice except to do what he said. Entering the Hall of Princes, I heard the voices of the vampires within drop, as all eyes fixed upon us. Kurda and Mr. Crepsley carried me to the platform of the Princes, Harkat and Vanez just behind.

"Is this young Master Shan?" Paris asked.

"It is, sire," Kurda answered.

"He looks terrible," Mika Ver Leth noted. "Are you sure he's fit to continue with the Trials?"

"He is merely resting, sire," Kurda said lightly. "He likes to pretend to be injured, so that he can be carried around like a lord."

"Really?" Mika replied, smiling tightly. "If that is the case, let the boy step forward and choose his next Trial. You understand," he added ominously, "what we must do if he is unable?"

"We understand," Kurda said as he laid his end of the stretcher down. Mr. Crepsley followed suit. The two vampires helped me to my feet, then slowly let go of me. I teetered dangerously and almost fell. I probably would have, if there hadn't been so many vampires present - but I didn't want to look frail in front of them.

Fighting the pain, I stumbled forward to the platform. It took a long time to make it up the steps, but I didn't falter. Nobody said anything while I was climbing, and when I got there the bag of numbered stones was produced and checked as normal. "Number four," the vampire clutching the bag announced once I'd drawn my stone. "The Blooded Boars."

"A tricky Trial," Paris Skyle mused as the stone was passed to the Princes to be certified. "Are you ready for it, Darren?"

"I don't... know what it... is," I said. "But... I will be... there to face it... tomorrow, as... scheduled."

Paris smiled warmly. "That is good to hear." He cleared his throat and widened his eyes innocently. "I, however, cannot make it. I have pressing business to attend to and regretfully must miss this Trial. My good colleague Mika will take my place."

Mika imitated Paris's innocent look. "Actually, I can't get away from the Hall tomorrow either. This Vampaneze Lord business takes up all my time. How about you, Arrow?"

The bald Prince shook his head glumly. "Alas, I also must make my excuses. My schedule is full."

"Sires," Kurda said, quickly stepping forward. "You have already skipped one of Darren's Trials. We allowed for your absence on that occasion, but to neglect your post twice in the course of one set of Trials is unpardonable and does Darren a grave disservice. I must protest most strongly."

Paris started to smile, caught himself, and forced a scowl. "There is truth in your words," he muttered.

"We cannot miss another of the boy's Trials," Mika agreed.

"One way or another, one of us must be present," Arrow finished.

The three Princes huddled close together and discussed it quietly. By the way they smirked and winked at Kurda, I knew they had something up their sleeves.

"Very well," Paris said out loud. "Darren has reported that he is fit for his next Trial. Since we cannot be there to oversee it, we have decided to postpone it. We apologize for the inconvenience, Darren. Will you pardon us?"

"I'll let... it pass... this time." I grinned.

"How long must we wait, sires?" Kurda asked, acting impatient. "Darren is anxious to finish his Trials."

"Not long," Paris said. "One of us will be there for the Trial at sunset, seventy-two hours from now. Is that agreeable?"

"It is annoying, sire," - Kurda sighed theatrically - "but if we have to wait, we will."

Bowing, Kurda led me from the platform, helped me back onto the stretcher, and carried me from the Hall with Mr. Crepsley. Once outside, the vampires set me down and laughed loudly.

"You scoundrel, Kurda Smahlt!" Mr. Crepsley roared. "How did you dream that one up?"

"It was Paris's idea," Kurda replied humbly. "The Princes wanted to help Darren, but they couldn't turn around and say they were giving him time to recover from his injuries. They needed an excuse to save face. This way, it looks as though Darren was ready and willing to proceed, so there's no shame in postponing it."

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