Home > The Vampire Prince (Cirque Du Freak #6)

The Vampire Prince (Cirque Du Freak #6)
Author: Darren Shan

PROLOGUE

Be careful who you trust.Even a supposedly close friend might be capable of betraying you. I found that out the hard way.

My name's Darren Shan. I'm a half-vampire. I was blooded when I was very young, and for eight years I toured the world with the Cirque Du Freak - a traveling circus of magically gifted performers. Then my mentor - Larten Crepsley - said I had to be presented to the Vampire Princes.

Most of the Princes and Vampire Generals gather in the remote Vampire Mountain once every twelve years, for the Council of Vampires. After a long, tiring trek to the mountain with Mr. Crepsley, Harkat Mulds (a Little Person who'd been brought back from the dead by a powerful man called Mr. Tiny), Gavner Purl (a General), and four wolves (including a male I called Streak and a cub I nicknamed Rudi), I faced the Princes, who said I had to prove myself worthy of joining the ranks of the undead. They gave me a series of harsh tests known as the Trials of Initiation. If I passed all five tests, I'd be accepted as one of them. If I failed, I'd be killed.

I passed the first three Trials, but the fourth ended disastrously - I would have been gouged to death by a wild boar if not for Harkat, who leapt into the pit and killed the boar. The problem was, his intervention broke all the rules. While the vampires debated my fate, one sneaked into my cell and led me away to safety. He was a blond, slender, peaceful, highly intelligent vampire called Kurda Smahlt, and he was shortly due to become a Prince. I believed he was my friend.

While we were escaping, Gavner caught up with us and tried talking me into going back to face the verdict of the Princes. Kurda persuaded him to let me go. But as we were closing in on freedom, we ran into a bunch of vampaneze - purple-skinned enemies of the vampires, who kill humans when they drink from them - hiding in a cave.

That's when Kurda showed his true colors. He stabbed and killed Gavner, and I realized he was in league with the vampaneze. He tried taking me alive, but I ran and fell into a mountain stream. Kurda would have saved me, but I ignored his helping hand and surrendered myself to the vicious flow of the stream, which swiftly swept me away underground, into the belly of the mountain and certain death...

Chapter ONE

Darkness-cold - churning water - roaring, like a thousand lions - spinning around and around - bashing into rocks - arms wrapped around my face to protect it - tucking up my legs to make myself smaller, less of a target.

Wash up against a clump of roots - grab hold - slippery - the wet roots feel like dead fingers clutching at me - a space between the water and the roof of the tunnel - I draw quick gasps of breath - current takes hold again - try fighting it - roots break off in my hands - swept away.

Tumbling over and over - hit my head hard on a rock - see stars - almost black out - struggle to keep head up - spit water out of my mouth, but more gushes in - feels like I'm swallowing half the stream.

The current drags me against a wall - sharp rocks cut deeply into my thighs and h*ps - freezing-cold water numbs the pain - stops the flow of blood - a sudden drop - plummet into a deep pool - down, down, down - held under by force of the falling water - panicking - can't find my way up - drowning - if I don't break free soon, I'll...

My feet strike a wall and propel me forward - drift slowly up and away from the pool - flow is gentle here - lots of space between water and the top of the tunnel - able to bob along and breathe - air's cold, and it stings my lungs, but I gulp it down thankfully.

The stream opens out into what sounds like a large cave. Roars from the opposite end: the water must drop sharply again there. I let myself drift to one side before facing the drop. I need to rest and fill my lungs with air. As I tread water near the wall in the dark, something clutches at my bald head. It feels like twigs. I grab at them to steady myself, then realize they're not twigs - they're bones!

Too exhausted to be scared, I grasp the bones as though they were part of a life buoy. Taking long, deep breaths, I explore the bones with my fingers. They connect to a wrist, an arm, a body, and a head: a full skeleton. This stream was used to dispose of dead vampires in the past. This one must have washed up here and rotted away over the decades. I search blindly for other skeletons but find none. I wonder who the vampire was, when he lived, how long he's been here. It must be horrible, trapped in a cave like this, no proper burial, no final resting place.

I shake the skeleton, hoping to free it. The cave erupts with high-pitched screeches and flapping sounds. Wings! Dozens or hundreds of pairs of wings! Something crashes into my face and catches on my left ear. It scratches and bites. I yelp, tear it loose, and slap it away.

I can't see anything, but I sense a flurry of objects flying over and around me. Another collides with me. This time I hold on and feel around it - a bat! The cave's full of bats. They must nest here, in the roof. The sound of me shaking the skeleton disturbed them, and they've taken flight.

I don't panic. They won't attack me. They're just frightened and will settle down soon. I release the one I've caught and let it join the rush above me. The noise dies down after a few minutes, and the bats return to their perches. Silence.

I wonder how they get in and out of the cave. There must be a crack in the roof. For a few seconds I dream about finding it and climbing to safety, but my numb fingers and toes quickly put an end to thoughts like that. I couldn't climb, even if I could find the crack and it was big enough for me to fit through.

I start thinking about the skeleton again. I don't want to leave it here. I tug at it, careful this time not to make too much noise. It doesn't budge at first - it's wedged firmly. I get a stronger grip and pull again. It comes loose, all at once, and falls on top of me, driving me under. Water gushes down my throat. Now I panic! The skeleton is heavy on top of me, weighing me down. I'm going to drown! I'm going to drown! I'm going to -

No! Stop panicking. Use my brain. I wrap my arms around the skeleton and slowly roll over. It works! Now the skeleton's underneath and I'm on top. The air tastes good. My heart stops pounding. A few of the bats are circling again, but most are still.

Releasing the skeleton, I guide it out toward the middle of the cave, using my feet. I feel the current take it, then it's gone. I hang on to the wall, treading water, giving the skeleton time to wash ahead of me. I begin thinking while I wait: was it a good idea to free the skeleton? A nice gesture, but if the bones catch on a rock further along and block my way...

Too late to worry now. Should have thought of that before.

My situation's as desperate as ever. Crazy to think I might get out of this alive. But I force myself to think positively: I've made it this far, and the stream must open up sooner or later. Who's to say I can't make it to the end? Believe, Darren, believe.

I'd like to hang here forever - easier to cling on and die of the cold - but I have to try for freedom. In the end, I force my fingers to unclench and let go of the bank. I drift out into the middle of the stream. The current bites at me and takes hold. Speeding up - the exit - roaring grows furiously - flowing fast - angling sharply downward - gone.

Chapter TWO

Even worse beyond the cave- makes the first half of the ride seem like a dip in a swimming pool - sickening drops and turns - walls studded with jagged stones - water gushes wildly, madly - tossed about as though made of putty - impossible to exert control - no time to pause for breath - lungs bursting - hold my arms tight over my head - tuck my legs up as far as they'll go - conserve oxygen - bash my head on rocks - my back - legs - belly - back - head - shoulders - head...

Lose count of the crashes - can't feel pain any longer - eyes playing tricks on me - looking up, it's as if the rocks are invisible - I believe I can see the sky, the stars, the moon - this is the beginning of the end - senses confused, brain shuts down - out of luck - out of hope - out of life.

I open my mouth to take one long, last drink of water - slam into a wall - air explodes out of me - force of crash pushes me upward - I break through to a small pocket of air between water and roof - lungs draw it in greedily, automatically.

I float here a few seconds, pressed against the wall, gasping in air - current takes me again and drags me under - through a narrow tunnel - incredible speed - like a bullet - tunnel getting narrower - speed increases - my back scrapes along the wall - the rock's smooth, otherwise I'd be cut to shreds - feels like a water slide - almost enjoying this part of the nightmarish ride.

Tunnel evens out - running low on oxygen again - try forcing head up to search for air - can't - don't have the energy to fight.

Water creeps up my nose - I cough - water pours down my throat - I'm losing the battle - roll over, facedown - this is the end - lungs are filling with water - I can't close my mouth - waiting for death - all of a sudden: no water - flying - (flying?) - whistling air surrounds me - looking down at land - stream cutting through it - floating, as though I'm a bird or a bat - closer to stream - closer - are my eyes playing tricks again?

Turn over in middle of flight - look up - sky, real sky, open and bright with stars - beautiful-

I'm out! - I'm really out - I made it! - I can breathe. I'm alive! I'm...

Flight ends - hit water hard - impact shakes my guts to pieces and knocks my brain out of order - blackness again, only this time inside my head.

Chapter THREE

Consciousness returns gradually.Sounds strike me first: the roar of the water, much softer than in the mountain, almost lyrical. Slowly, my eyes flutter open. I'm staring up at stars, drifting along on my back. Luck or my body's natural defenses? I don't know. I don't care. I'm alive!

The current isn't strong here. I could easily swim to the bank, pull myself to safety, and begin the trip back to Vampire Mountain, which I see in the distance. Except I don't have the strength. I try rolling over to swim - can't. My legs and arms are like dead blocks of wood. I've survived the ride through the mountain, but the cost has been high. I'm completely limp and helpless.

I study the landscape while the stream sweeps me further away from Vampire Mountain. It's rugged and unspectacular, but beautiful after the darkness. Anything would seem beautiful after the darkness. I'll never take the countryside for granted again.

Am I dying? I could be - no feeling, no control, at the mercy of the stream. Maybe I'm dead already and just haven't realized it. No! Not dead. Water splashes up my nose and I splutter: proof I'm still alive. I won't give up, not after all I've been through. I have to find strength to make it to the bank. I can't drift along like this forever: the longer it drags on, the harder it will be.

I try willing energy into my exhausted limbs. I think about dying young and what a waste it would be, but that doesn't give me strength. I think about the vampires and the threat they face from Kurda and the vampaneze, but that doesn't work either. Finally, an old vampire myth succeeds in spreading a burst of fire through my icy bones: I recall the myth that a vampire who dies in running water is doomed to stick around as a ghost - no journey to Paradise for those who die in rivers or streams.

Strangely (as I never believed the myth), the thought spurs me into action. I raise a weak arm and flap feebly for the bank. The action doesn't do much, apart from spin me around a little, but the fact that I'm able to move at all fills me with hope.

Gritting my teeth, I face the bank and force my legs up behind me. They respond sluggishly, but they do respond. I try to swim freestyle - can't. I roll over onto my back, kick weakly with my feet, and guide myself with gentle hand motions. I slowly pull toward the bank. It takes a long time, and I'm swept much further away from Vampire Mountain, but finally I'm in shallow water, out of the current.

I half rise to my knees, then collapse. Lying facedown, I turn my head sideways, splutter, then get back on my knees. I crawl out of the water onto the snowy bank, where I collapse again. My eyes close. I weep silently into the snow.

I want to lie here and freeze: simpler than moving. But my feet are still in the water and I don't like the feel of them drifting behind me, so I pull them out. The effort goads me into further action. Groaning, I brace myself, then rise slowly and painfully to my feet.

Standing, I stare around as if I'm on an alien planet. Everything looks different. Day is breaking, but stars and the moon still shine lightly in the sky. After so long inside the mountain, I'd forgotten what daylight looks like. It's wonderful. I could stand here all day and just stare, except that wouldn't get me anywhere, and soon I'd fall, into the stream or the snow, and freeze.

Sighing, obeying some insistent inner instinct, I drag my feet forward a few steps, pause, shake my head, straighten up, and lurch away from the stream, which froths and hisses angrily behind me - cheated of its victim.

Chapter FOUR

It didn't take me longto realize I couldn't make it very far if I continued in this state. I was soaked to the bone. My clothes were heavy with water, and the air around me was bitterly cold. Mr. Crepsley had told me what to do if this ever happened: get rid of the wet clothes quickly, or I'd freeze to death inside them.

It took a lot of effort to get out of my clothes. My fingers were numb, and I ended up having to use my teeth to tear my way out. But I felt better after I'd undressed. A great weight had been lifted from my body, and although the full force of the cold hit me immediately, I started at a brisker pace.

It didn't bother me that I was wandering around as na**d as the animals of the wild. There was nobody to see. Even if there had been, I wouldn't have cared - being so close to death, modesty was the last thing on my mind.

My brisk pace didn't last long. After a while, I began to understand just how serious a mess I was in. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere, no clothes to protect me from the cold, beaten to a pulp, physically and mentally drained, with nothing to eat. It was a struggle just to keep moving. In a matter of minutes, I would run out of energy and collapse. The cold would set in. Frostbite and hypothermia would finish me off.

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