Title: Vampire Mountain.
Author: Darren Shan.
Genre: Fiction, fantasy, horror, YA, vampire fiction.
Publication Date: 2001.
Summary: Darren Shan and Mr. Crepsley embark on a dangerous trek to the very heart of the vampire world. But they face more than the cold on Vampire Mountain—the vampaneze have been there before them.. Will a meeting with the Vampire Princes restore Darren's human side, or turn him further towards the darkness? Only one thing is certain—Darren's initiation into the vampire clan is more deadly than he can ever have imagined.
My rating: 6.5/10.
♥ "Mr. Tiny." He sighed, scratching the long scar that ran down the left side of his face. "Wonder what he wants?"
"I don't know," I answered, "but he said not to leave until he had a word with you." I lowered my voice and whispered, "We could sneak away without being seen if we hurried. Dusk isn't too far away. You could handle about an hour of sunlight if we stayed in the shadows, couldn't you?"
"I could," Mr. Crepsley agreed, "were I given to fleeing like a dog with its tail between its legs. But I am not. I will face Desmond Tiny."
♥ Leaving the safety of the van, we cleared the camp, let the two silent Little People fall into place behind us, and set off on what would prove to be a wild, danger-filled adventure into lands cold and foreign and steeped in blood.
♥ 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."
"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."
♥ "How many vampires are there?" I asked.
"Between two and three thousand," he answered. "Maybe 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."
"Maybe two hundred and fifty, or three hundred—I cannot say for sure."
♥ "I see you have met some of our cousins,"; Mr. Crepsley said, stepping slowly over the remains of the fire, holding his hands palms-up so the wolves wouldn't be alarmed. They growled at him, but once they caught his scent they relaxed and sat, although they kept a wary eye on the munching Little People.
"Cousins?" I asked.
"Wolves and vampires are related," he explained. "Legends claims that once we were the same, just as man and ape were originally one. Some of us learned to walk on two legs and became vampires—the others remained wolves."
"Is that true?"
Mr. Crepsley shrugged. "Where legends are concerned, who knows?"
♥ "A fine specimen," Mr. Crepsley said, stroking the wolf's long snout. "A born leader."
"I call him Streak, because he's got a streak of black hair on his belly," I said.
"Wolves have no need of names," the vampire informed me. "They are not dogs."
♥ "..First—I am a...ghost."
Our jaws dropped.
"A ghost! Mr. Crepsley shouted. "Absurd!"
"Absolutely," Gavner agreed with a grin. "Vampires don't believe in crazy things like ghosts, do we, Larten?"
.."What I should... have said... is, I... was a ghost. All... Little People... were ghosts. Until... they agreed to terms... with Mr. Tiny."
"I don't understand," Gavner said. "Agreed to what terms? How?"
"Mr. Tiny can... talk with... dead," Harkat explained. "I did not... leave Earth... when I died. Soul... could not. I was... stuck. Mr. Tiny found... me. Said he'd give... me a... body, so I... could live again. In return... I'd serve him, as a... Little Person."
According to Harkat, each of the Little People had struck a deal with Mr. Tiny, and each deal was different. They didn't have to serve him forever. Sooner or later, they would be freed, some to live on in the gray, short bodies, some to be reborn, others to move on to heaven or paradise or wherever it is that dead souls go."
"Mr. Tiny has that much power?" Mr. Crepsley asked.
"What deal did you strike with him?" I asked curiously.
"I do not... know," he said. "I cannot... remember."
♥ Harkat took a deep, shuddering breath. "Mr. Tiny told... me to tell... Princes that the... night of the... Vampaneze Lord... is at hand. That is... all."
..It had to do with something Mr. Tiny told the vampires hundreds of years ago, when the vampaneze broke away. Once the fighting had died down, he visited the Princes at Vampire Mountain and told them that the vampaneze were not "hierarchically structured" (Mr. Crepsley phrase), which meant there were no Vampaneze Generals or Princes. Nobody gave orders or bossed the others around.
"That was one of the reasons they broke away," Gavner said. "They didn't like the way things worked with vampires. They thought it was unfair that ordinary vampires had to answer to the Generals, and the Generals to the Princes."
..Though the vampaneze didn't believe in leaders, Mr. Tiny said that one night a champion would step forward. He would be known as the Vampaneze Lord and the vampaneze would follow him blindly and do everything he said.
"What's so bad about that?" I asked.
"Wait till you hear the next part," Gavner said gravely. Apparently, not long after the Vampaneze Lord came to power, he would lead the vampaneze into war against the vampires. It was a war, Mr. Tiny warned, that the vampires couldn't win. They would be wiped out.
"Is that true?" I asked, appalled.
Gavner shrugged. "We've been asking ourselves that for seven hundred years. Nobody doubts Mr. Tiny's powers—he's proved before that he can see into the future—but sometimes he tells lies. He's an evil little worm. ..There are more vampires than vampaneze and we're as strong as they are, so I can't see why we shouldn't be able to get the better of them. But Mr. Tiny said numbers wouldn't matter.
"There's one hope," he added. "The Stone of Blood."
"You'll see when we get to Vampire Mountain. It's a magic icon, sacred to us. Mr. Tiny said that if we prevented it from falling into the hands of the vampaneze, one night, long after the battle has been fought and lost, there's a chance that vampires might rise from the ashes and prosper again."
"How?" I asked, frowning.
Gavner smiled. "That question has puzzled vampires for as long as it's been asked. Let me know if you figure it out," he said with a wink, and drew the conversation to a troubling close.
♥ "Very few vampires live to be a ripe old age," he replied. "While vampires live far longer than humans, very few of us make it to our vampiric sixties or seventies."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Vampires measure age in two ways—earth years and vampire years," he explained. "The vampiric age is the age of the body—physically, I am in my eighties. The earth age refers to how many years a vampire has been alive—I was a young boy when I was blooded, so I am seven hundred earth years old."
Seven hundred! It was an incredible age.
"Though many vampires live for hundreds of earth years," Seba went on, "hardly any make it to their vampiric sixties."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Vampires live hard. We push ourselves to the limit, undergoing many tests of strength, wit, and courage. Hardly any sit around in pajamas and slippers, growing old quietly. Most, when they grow too old to care for themselves, meet death on their feet, rather than let their friends look after them."
"How come you've lived so long then?" I asked.
"Darren!" Mr. Crepsley snapped, shooting me a piercing glare.
"Do not chastise the boy." Seba smiled. "His open curiosity is refreshing. I have lived to this long age because of my position," he said to me. "I was asked many decades ago to become the quartermaster of Vampire Mountain. It is not an enviable job, since it means living inside—hardly ever going hunting or fighting. But quartermasters are essential and much honored—it would have been impolite of me to refuse. If I was free, I would have been long dead by now, but one who does not exert oneself tends to live longer than those who do."
"It seems crazy to me," I said. "Why do you push yourselves so hard?"
"It is our way," Seba answered. "Also, we have more time on our hands than humans, so it is less precious to us. If, in vampire years, a sixty-year-old man was blooded when he was twenty, he will have lived for more than four hundred earth years. A man grows tired of life when he has lived so much of it."
I was trying to see it from their point of view, but it was hard. Maybe I'd think differently when I'd been around a century or two!
♥ "..You were a fiery youth, and there were times when I thought you would never calm down. I was often tempted to dismiss you, but I did not. I let you ask your questions and air your rage, and in time you learned that yours was not the wisest head in the world, and that the old ways might indeed be best.
"Students never appreciate their teachers while they are learning. It is only later, when they know more of the world, that they understand how indebted they are to those who instructed them. Good teachers expect no praise or love from the young. They wait for it, and in time, it comes."
♥ So, wriggling free of my clothes, I walked to the edge of the pond, tested the water with my toes — yowch! — then leaped forward and surrendered myself to the flow of the second waterfall.
"Oh, man!" I roared with ice-cold shock. "This is torture!"
"Aye!" Mr. Crepsley shouted. "Now you understand why so few vampires bother to wash while at Council!"
"Is there a law against hot water?" I screeched, furiously scrubbing my chest, back, and under my arms in a hurry to finish with the shower.
"Not as such," Mr. Crepsley replied, stepping out his waterfall and running a hand through his short crop of orange hair, before shaking it dry like a dog. "But cold water is good enough for nature's other creatures of the wilds—we prefer not to heat it, at least not here, in the heart of our homeland."
♥ I hesitated before answering. "I don't know enough about the vampires pr vampaneze to offer an opinion," I said.
"Nonsense," Kurda huffed. "Everyone's entitled to an opinion. Go on, Darren, tell me what you think. I like to know what's on people's minds. The world would be a simple and safer place if we all spoke our true thoughts."
♥ "It's the Hall of Death," he said quietly.
"Another cremation Hall?"
He shook his head. "A place of execution."
"Execution?" I was really curious now. Kurda saw this and sighed.
"You want to go in?" he asked.
"Yes, but it's not a pretty sight. It would be better to proceed directly to the Hall of Sport."
A warning like that only made me more eager to see what lurked behind the door! Noting this, Kurda opened it and led me in. The Hall was poorly lit, and at first I thought it was deserted. Then I spotted one of the white-skinned Guardians, sitting in the shadows of the wall at the rear. He didn't rise or give any sign that he saw us. I started to ask Kurda about him, but the General shook his head instantly and hissed quietly, "I'm definitely not talking about them here!"
I could see nothing awful about the Hall. There was a pit in the center of the floor and light wooden cages set against the walls, but otherwise it was bare and unremarkable.
"What's so bad about this place?" I asked.
"I'll show you," Kurda said, and guided me toward the edge of the pit. Looking down into the gloom, I saw dozens of sharpened poles set in the floor, pointing menacingly toward the ceiling.
"Stakes!" I gasped.
"Yes," Kurda said softly. "This is where the legend of the stake through the heart originated. When a vampire's brought to the Hall of Death, he's placed in a cage—that's what the cages against the walls are for—which is attached to ropes and hoisted above the pit. He's then dropped from a height and impaled on the stakes. Death is often slow and painful, and it's not unusual for a vampire to have to be dropped three or dour times before he dies."
"But why?" I was appalled. "Who do they kill here?"
"The old and crippled, along with mad and treacherous vampires," Kurda answered. "The old and crippled vampires ask to be killed. If they're strong enough, they prefer to fight to the death, or wander off into the wilderness to due hunting. But those who lack the strength or ability to die on their feet ask to come here, where they can meet death head-on and die bravely."
"That's horrible!" I cried. "The elderly shouldn't be killed off!"
"I agree," Kurda said. "I think the nobility of the vampires is misplaced. The old and infirm often have much to offer, and I personally hope to cling to life as long as possible. But most vampires hold to the a ancient belief that they can only lead worthwhile lives as long as they're fit enough to fend for themselves.
"It's different with mad vampires," he went on. "Unlike the vampaneze, we choose not to let our insane members run loose in the world, free to torment and prey on humans. Since they're too difficult to imprison—a mad vampire will claw his way through a stone wall—execution is the most humane way to deal with them."
"You could put them in straitjackets," I suggested.
Kurda smiled sourly. "There hasn't been a straitjacket invented that could hold a vampire. Believe me, Darren, killing a mad vampire is a mercy, to the world in general and the vampire himself.
"The same goes for treacherous vampires," he added, "though there have been precious few of those—loyalty is something we excel at; one of the bonuses of sticking to the old ways so rigidly. Aside from the vampaneze—when they broke away, they were called traitors; many were captured and killed—there have been only six traitors executed in the fourteen hundred years that vampires have lived here."
I stared down at the stakes and shivered, imagining myself tied in a cage, hanging above the pit, waiting to fall.
"Do you give them blindfolds?" I asked.
"The mad vampires, yes, because it is merciful. Vampires who have chosen to die in the Hall of Death prefer to do without one—they like to look death in the eye, to show they're not afraid. Traitors, meanwhile, are placed in the cages faceup, so their backs are to the stakes. It's a great dishonor for a vampire to die from stab wounds in the back."
♥ "Vanez is a games master," Kurda explained.
"You're in charge of the games?" I asked.
"Hardly in charge," Vanez said. "The games are beyond the control of even the Princes. Vampires fight—it's in our blood. If not here, where their injuries can be tended to, then in the open, where they might bleed to death unaided. I keep an eye on things, that's all." He grinned.
♥ After a while I noticed there were no guns or bows and arrows, and I asked about their absence.
"Vampires only fight hand to hand," Vanez informed me. "We do not use missile devices, such as guns, bows, or strings."
"Never?" I asked.
"Never!" he said firmly. "Our reliance on hand weapons is sacred to us—to the vampaneze as well. Any vampire who resorted to a gun or bow would be held in contempt for the rest of his life."
"Things used to be even more backward," Kurda chimed in. "Until two hundred years ago, a vampire was only supposed to use a weapon of his own making. Every vampire had to make his own knives, spears, and clubs. Now, thankfully, that's no longer the case, and we can use store-bought equipment; but many vampires still cling to the old ways, and most of the weapons used during Council are handmade."
♥ While I was studying her, I got to thinking about how few female vampires I'd seen, and asked about it.
There was a long silence. The two men looked embarrassed. I was going to let the matter drop when Arra glanced at me archly and said, "Women do not make good vampires. The entire clan's barren, so the life doesn't appeal to many of us."
"Barren?" I inquired.
"We can't have children," she said.
"What—none of you?"
"It's something to do with blood," Kurda said. "No vampires can sire or bear a child. The only way we can add to our ranks is by blooding humans.
♥ "Darren, this is Arra Sails," Kurda said. I stuck out a hand but she ignored it.
"Arra doesn't shake the hands of those she doesn't respect," Vanez whispered.
"And she respects precious few of us," Kurda said aloud. "Still refusing to shake hands with me, Arra?"
"I will never shake the hand of one who does not fight," she said. "When you become a Prince, I will bow to you and do your bidding, but I will never shake your hand, even under threat of execution."
.."Wait!" I shouted, my head clearing a bit. I looked for Arra Sails and spotted her sitting on one of the bars, applying a cream to her bruised cheek. Shaking free of Kurda, I stumbled across to the vampires and stood as firmly as I could before her.
"Yes?" she asked, eyeing me guardedly.
I stuck out a hand and said, "Shake."
Arra stared at the hand, then into my unfocused eyes. "One good fight doesn't make you a warrior," she said.
"Shake!" I repeated angrily.
"And if I don't?" she asked.
"I'll get back up on the bars and fight you till you do," I growled.
Arra studied me at length, then nodded and took my hand. "Power to you, Darren Shan," she said gruffly.
"Power," I repeated weakly, then fainted into her arms and stayed unconscious till I came to in my hammock the next night.
♥ At the end of the tunnel we emerged into a huge cavern, in which a strange, white dome stood gleaming. It was like no other building I'd ever seen—the walls pulsed, as though alive, and there were no joints or cracks that I could make out.
"What is it?" I asked.
"The Hall of Princes," Mr. Crepsley said.
"What's it made of—rock, marble, iron?"
Mr. Crepsley shrugged. "Nobody knows." He led me to the dome—the only guards on this side of the tunnel were grouped around the doors to the Hall—and told me to place my hands on it.
"It's warm!" I gasped. "And it throbs! What is it?"
"Long ago, the Hall of Princes was like any other," Mr. Crepsley answered in his usual roundabout way. "Then, one night, Mr. Tiny arrived and said he had gifts for us. This was shortly after the vampaneze had split from the vampires. The "gifts" were the dome—which his Little People constructed, unseen by any vampires—and the Stone of Blood. The dome and Stone are magical artifacts."
.."The dome is magical. There is no way in except through the single set of doors. Nothing can penetrate its walls, no tool, explosive, or acid. It is the toughest material known to man or vampire."
"Where did it come from?" I asked.
"We do not know. The Little People brought it in covered wagons. It took them months to haul it up, one sheet at a time. We were not allowed to watch as they assembled it. Our finest architects have been over it many times since, but not one can unravel its mysteries.
"The doors can only be opened by a Vampire Prince," he went on. "They can open them by laying their palms directly on the panels of the doors, or from their thrones, by pressing their palms down on the armrests."
"They must be electronic," I said. "The panels "read" their fingerprints, right?"
Mr. Crepsley shook his head. "The Hall was built centuries ago, long before electricity was even a thought in the minds of man. It operates by paranormal means, or by a form of technology far advanced of anything we know.
"You see the red stone behind the Princes?" he asked. It was set on a pedestal fifteen feet behind the platform, an oval stone, about twice the size of a football. "That is the Stone of Blood. That is the key, not only to the dome, but to the longevity of the vampire race itself."
"Long—what?" I asked.
"Longevity. It means long life."
"How can a stone have anything to do with a long life?" I asked, puzzled.
"The Stone serves several purposes," he said. "Every vampires, when accepted into the fold, must stand before the Stone and place his hands on it. The Stone looks as smooth as a ball of glass, but is ultra sharp to the touch. It draws blood, which is absorbed by the Stone—hence its name—linking the vampire to the mental collective of the clan forever."
"Mental collective?" I repeated, wishing for the millionth time since I'd met Mr. Crepsley that he's use simple words.
"You know how vampires can mentally search for those they have bonded with?"
"Well, using the method of triangulation, we can also search for and find those we have not bonded with, via the Stone."
"Triangu—what?" I groaned, exasperated.
"Let us say you are a full vampire whose blood has been absorbed by the Stone," he said. "When a vampire gives his blood, he also gives his name, by which the Stone and other vampires will thenceforth recognize him. If I want to search for you after you have been blooded, I merely place my hands on the Stone of Blood and think your name. Within seconds the Stone allows me to pinpoint your exact location anywhere on Earth."
"You could do this even if I didn't want to be found?" I asked.
"Yes. But pinpointing your location would be no good—by the time I got to where you had been when I made the search, yyou would have moved on. Hence the need for triangulation, which simply means three people are involved. If I wanted to find you, I could contact someone I was bonded with—Gavner, for instance—and mentally transmit your whereabouts to him. With me guiding him via the Stone of Blood, he could track you down."
I thought that over in silence for a while. I twas an ingenious system, but I could see a few drawbacks. "Can anyone use the Stone of Blood to find a vampire?" I asked.
"Anyone with the ability to search mentally," Mr. Crepsley said.
"Even a human or a vampaneze?"
"Very few humans have minds advanced enough to use the Stone," he said, "but the vampaneze can."
"Isn't the Stone dangerous then?" I asked. "If a vampaneze got his hands on it, couldn't he track every vampire down—at least all the ones he knew the names of—and guide his colleagues to them?"
Mr. Crepsley smiled grimly. "Your battering at the hands of Arra Sails has not affected your powers of reasoning. You are correct—the Stone of Blood would mean the end of the vampire race if it fell into the wrong hands. The vampaneze would be able to hunt all of us down. They can also find those they do not know the names of—the Stone lets its user search for vampires by location as well as name, so they could scan for every vampire in England or America or wherever, then send out others to track them down. That is why we guard the Stone carefully and never let it leave the safety of this dome."
"Wouldn't it be simpler just to break it?" I asked.
Kurda, who'd been eavesdropping, laughed. "I put that proposal to the Princes several decades ago," he said. "The Stone could resist normal tools and explosives, the same as the walls of the dome, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to get rid of safely. 'Throw the damn thing down a volcano,' I pleaded, 'or toss it in the deepest sea.' They wouldn't hear of such a thing."
"Why not?" I asked.
"There are a number of reasons," Mr. Crepsley answered before Kirda could reply. "First, the Stone can be used to locate vampires who are missing or in trouble, or those who are mad and on the loose. It is healthy to know that we are joined to the clan by more than tradition, that we can always rely on aid if we lead good lives, and punishment if we do not. The Stone keeps us in line.
"Second, the Stone of Blood is necessary to operate the doors of the dome. When a vampire becomes a Prince, the Stone is a vital part of the ceremony. He forms a circle around it with two other Princes. They each use a hand to pump blood into him, while laying their other hand on the Stone. Blood flows from the old Princes to the new Prince, then to the Stone, and back again. By the end of the ceremony, the new Prince can control the doors of the Hall. Without the Stone, he would be a Prince in name only.
"There is a third reason why we do not destroy the Stone—the Lord of the Vampaneze." His face was dark. "The myth says that the Vampaneze Lord will wipe the vampire race from the face of the Earth when he comes to power, but through the Stone of Blood we might one night rise again."
"How's that possible?" I asked.
"We do not know," Mr. Crepsley said. "But those were the words of Mr. Tiny, and since the power of the Stone is also his, it makes sense to pay heed. Now more than ever, we must protect the Stone. Harkat's message concerning the Vampaneze Lord has struck at the hearts and spirits of many vampires. With the Stone, there is hope. To dispose of it now would be to surrender to fear."
"Charna's guts!" Kurda snorted. "I've no time for those old myths. We should get rid of the Stone, shut down the dome, and build a new Hall of Princes. Apart from anything else, it's one of the main reasons the vampaneze are loath to make a deal with us. They don't want to be hooked up to a magical tool of Mr. Tiny's, and who can blame them? They're afraid of bonding with the Stone—they could never split from the vampire clan if they did, because we'd be able to use the Stone to hunt them down. If we removed the Stone, they might return to us, and then the vampaneze would be no more—there'd be one big family of vampires—and the threat of the Vampaneze Lord would evaporate."
♥ "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."
♥ The Generals muttered among themselves, until a familiar figure stood up 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.
♥ I smiled, then glanced at Gavner worried. "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 Harmon 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!"