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Palace of the Damned
By Darren Shan
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $7.99
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Brothers to the Death
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"a palace of the dead"
A huffing Larten Crepsley mounted a treacherous, icy ridge and stared across a frozen sea of jagged peaks. He had visited most parts of the world in his decades as a vampire, but this was the harshest wilderness he'd ever experienced. A plateau of ice peppered with rocky outcrops. Whipping snow that could blind a man in minutes. Temperatures so low that each breath stung his throat and lungs. It was a hostile, alien, unforgiving landscape.
Larten threw back his head and howled with mad delight. He was loving this! There was no better place for a vampire to perish than in an area where no human would dare tread. This would make for a brutal, lonely death, and he deserved nothing better. A fitting end for a savage killer.
The baby he was carrying moaned softly and shivered beneath the covering of the vampire's shirt. Larten was holding him clasped in one arm, sheltered from the wind and snow as much as possible. He felt a stab of guilt at the baby's cry and paused to puff a breath of warm air down the neck of his shirt. The boy gurgled happily, then shivered again.
Larten wished he'd left the baby behind. Taking him was an act of madness. He had done it to save the child from a cannibal, but he saw now how crazy he'd been. The boy had stood a chance on the ship, but was doomed for sure out here in this chilling realm of death.
"At least you will find Paradise," Larten whispered, rubbing the baby's back to keep him warm. "And my soul will not be there to trouble you."
Every vampire dreamed of going to Paradise when he died. It was the reward at the end of the road to which every night-walker aspired. But Larten was sure he would never know that eternal peace. He had lost his mind on the ship and slaughtered the crew and passengers, including the baby's parents. True, they had hung an innocent girl–poor, loyal Malora–but they'd thought she was a monster. ("Like me," Larten croaked.) Their punishment far outweighed their crime.
A cruel wind cut through Larten and he staggered down the other side of the ridge. He had lost track of time in this barren land of ice. It felt like he had been wandering for days, but he suspected it was more like twelve hours. A vampire could survive a long time in conditions like these, but a human baby? Larten guessed the boy was close to the limits of his fragile form.
He considered backtracking, to return the baby to the ship, but he'd lost his way many hours earlier. Everything looked the same once you got away from the coast. He wouldn't be able to find the rowboat again. Even if he did, the ship would have sailed on, and Larten had no idea in which direction the towns lay.
Towns! It was hard to believe anyone could live here, but there were areas along the coast where life was supported. If Larten knew how to find them, he would have taken the baby to the nearest homestead and left him to the mercy of the people within. But the towns could be anywhere. It was impossible to judge.
"You will have to die with me," he mumbled, teeth chattering, orange hair caked with frost, eyes slit against the wind and snow. "But we will find a good place to perish. I can do that much right at least."
Larten's only concern now was to find a cave that could serve as the baby's tomb. Larten didn't care if he himself died in the open, to be buried in snow or torn apart by scavengers. But he wanted something better for the boy, a sheltered, quiet place where his remains wouldn't be disturbed.
The wind roared around them and the temperature dropped. Larten hadn't thought it could get any colder, but he was wrong. Even his vampire blood seemed poised to turn to ice in his veins. His exposed flesh was numb. His lips were drawn back from his teeth in a grimace. The scar on the left side of his face was blue from the chill. Only his chest was marginally warm, where the baby nestled beneath his shirt.
Larten slipped and almost collapsed on top of the boy, but managed to twist and fall on his side. He gasped from the shock of the cold impact. Part of him wanted to lie there and let nature take its course. If he had been alone, he might have stopped. It would have been easier than rising and pushing on. But there was the baby to consider, so he prepared himself to get up.
As he struggled to his feet, he caught sight of something pounding towards him. It was massive, white like the snow, almost invisible. If not for its dark eyes he would have missed it until it was upon him. He had seen polar bears before, but even if he hadn't, he would have known this beast instantly. In the wastelands of the north, what else could it be?
Larten tore his shirt open, dropped the startled baby and leaped forward. The bear was female, not as large as some he'd seen, but still taller than Larten when erect. She looked scraggly and starved. An elderly sow, well past her prime. She had been tracking Larten for an hour. A more cunning creature would have waited even longer, until her prey was too weak to defend himself. But when she saw the man slip, her mouth watered and she could hold back no longer.
Larten threw himself at the bear as she reared up on two legs and bellowed at him. He was in worse shape than the sow, but he had a child to protect and that gave him a slight, desperate edge. He didn't care what happened to him, but he wasn't going to let this ferocious carnivore feast on the hot, steaming innards of the baby.
As the bear wrapped her limbs around Larten, he dug for her eyes with his thumbs. All vampires had hard, sharp nails, but Larten's were longer and more jagged than usual, since he hadn't trimmed them while suffering with a fever on the ship. The nail on his left thumb found the bear's eye and speared it at the first attempt.
The sow yowled and shook her head, snapping at Larten's arm. She had endured much pain in her time, but nothing like this. She had already forgotten the promise of food. All she cared about now was killing the brute who had hurt her.
Larten couldn't afford a drawn-out fight. He knew that even with one eye the bear would soon wear him down if he tried to spar with her. If he didn't finish her swiftly, he would die, and the baby too.
Ignoring the threat of the gnashing fangs, Larten dug the nails of his right hand into the bear's neck. The fur was thick and the skin was tough, but Larten pierced both coverings and his nails sank into hot flesh and drew blood.
As the sow howled and clawed at his back, Larten grabbed the fur on the other side of the beast's neck and pulled so that the skin beneath was stretched tight. Opening his mouth wide, he latched on to her throat and bit hard. He worked his teeth savagely from side to side, biting and chewing, ignoring the pain as the bear's claws cut deep into his back. Blood shot up his nose and he almost choked. But he snorted it out and jammed his chin in farther, sliding his lower teeth left and right like a saw.
The bear spewed blood and her grip slackened. But Larten didn't relax—he wasn't going to fall into the same trap that she had when she saw him topple. He continued to chew until the sow collapsed, convulsed a few times and fell still.
When it was over, Larten rolled aside, panting, warm for the first time since he'd stepped ashore. His eyes were bright and he was grinning horribly. He was going to die in this godsforsaken land, but at least he'd squeezed in one last, decent fight. It was a pity the bear hadn't been younger and stronger—this would have been a good way to perish. Perhaps he could find another to finish the job.
The baby cried out weakly, reminding Larten that he wasn't alone and hadn't just his own fate to consider. He could track down a fiercer bear later. First he had to deal with the baby and find a final resting place for the boy, somewhere safe from the creatures that would otherwise pick his bones clean.
Larten crawled across and picked up the trembling child. As he settled the baby back inside his shirt, he paused and glanced at the dead polar bear. He was keen to press on, but there was no telling how long it might take to find a cave. If he fell before he laid the boy to rest, he'd fail in his quest to secure the baby a tomb. It was a pointless quest but Larten had fixed on the idea. He had done much wrong in his life, but he didn't want to add to the list at this late stage. Finding a cave where he could lay the child's remains wouldn't change anything in the grand scheme of things, but it mattered to Larten. In that land of the lost, it was all that he cared about.
Larten scratched at his injured back–the wounds were deep, but not life-threatening–while considering his course. He could dig through the fur and flesh of the bear's stomach with his nails. There would be hot juices inside. Digested food that he could mash up and feed to the baby. It would make for a foul meal, but the boy wouldn't complain once his stomach was full. And Larten could fashion wraps out of the fur, one for the child and another for himself. Protected and fed, they could maybe march for another day or two. Surely that would give him all the time he needed to find a cave for his young, doomed charge.
Grimacing against the pain in his back, Larten wiped blood from his lips and knelt by the bear. He said a quick prayer over its carcass, then made a blade of his fingers and set to work, staying hunched against the snow that never stopped blowing while he sliced open the dead bear's stomach and trawled through a maze of steaming, gooey guts.
A storm was raging. It had whipped up without warning and had been blowing for hours. Larten struggled through it, his face buried in the rough cloak he'd made from the fur of the polar bear. The baby was covered entirely and was gurgling happily in the dark, sticky warmth.
Larten had slipped many times and almost fallen through cracks in the ice. This was deadly land if you couldn't see clearly. Very easy to wander off the edge of a ridge or drop into an icy abyss. It would have been best to sit, covered by the fur, and wait out the storm.
But the baby would soon be hungry again. Larten had brought some strips of meat, which he could chew up and feed to the child like a bird feeding a chick. But he didn't know if the boy would be able to stomach such an offering. He hadn't reacted favorably to yesterday's foul feast and had vomited up most of it. Larten was resigned to the fact that the baby would die, but he hated the thought of the infant starving to death in his arms. So he pushed on, preferring the idea of the baby falling into a chasm with him to perishing of hunger.
Larten pictured faces of the dead as he stumbled forward. Vur Horston, Traz, Wester's family, Zula Pone and of course the faces of the people on the ship, the doomed crew and passengers, fresh in his memory and with more cause than the others to haunt his thoughts.
But mostly he found himself focusing on the face of poor Malora, filling with guilt and regret when he recalled how she had died protecting him and how he had failed her in her hour of need. He would never forgive himself for not being there when she had needed him most.
Seba had said, many years ago before blooding him, that a vampire had to prepare himself for a lifetime of death. When you lived as long as they did, most of the people you knew would die before you. Larten had accepted that. He wasn't afraid of death or the grief he must endure when losing a loved one. That was the way of the clan and he faced the hardships without complaint.
But in that icy wilderness, his mind still askew from the madness that had consumed him on the ship, Larten cursed his long years and the choices he'd made. He felt that the dead were jealous of him, that they hated him for being alive. He cringed as he imagined their voices on the wind, their hands snaking around his ankles, an army of ghosts rising up to drag him down and torment him.
Something shimmered far off to his right. Larten thought his mind was playing tricks but then it came again, a flash of yellow and green. He stopped and squinted. The snow was thick as ever and it was almost impossible to see anything farther than a couple of feet away. But Larten held his position and kept his eyes open. Moments later the flicker of colors came again, but farther off this time.
Larten didn't know what it might be. An animal? He couldn't think of any green or yellow animals in this part of the world. A human? Perhaps he was close to a town, or maybe this was a hunter in search of game.
"Hey!" Larten called, shouting through a cupped hand to amplify his voice.
But if it was a person, they either didn't hear him or ignored him.
Larten changed direction. It was probably nothing, a leaf or a scrap of cloth, but hope drove him on. If it was a person, he could hand over the baby. Maybe the boy didn't have to die with the vampire. Instead of a cave, he might wind up in a cottage with a fire burning brightly in one corner and a pail of warm milk to drink from.
There was only ice in the place where Larten had glimpsed movement. He stood, peering into the snow-riddled darkness, trying not to breathe. For a long time he saw nothing. But then, as the wind briefly died down, he caught sight of it again, a long way off, something green and yellow. He started to cry out, but lost sight of the object once more as the storm revived.
Larten trailed the phantom for the rest of the night. The longer he chased it, the more convinced he became that it wasn't real. He thought a ghost was leading him to his doom, toying with him cruelly. Or the snow had impaired his vision and the occasional flashes of green and yellow were nothing more than a flare at the back of his eyes. If he'd been alone, he would have abandoned the colors and their mocking promise of hope. But as long as the baby breathed, Larten owed him. If there was even the slimmest of chances that this might prove the saving of the boy, Larten had to seize it.
So he pushed on, through snow, over ice, defying the bitter wind. Cold was setting in again, despite his covering of fur. He could feel himself drawing close to the end. Even vampires had their limits. As plagued as he'd been with sickness recently, it was a miracle he had made it this far. He tried chewing a piece of meat to renew his strength, but it only made him feel sick.
He had bottles of blood, taken from the few sailors he'd spared on the ship, but he was reluctant to drink. Human blood was nectar to a vampire. He could go a long way on a small amount. If he drank now, he'd find the strength to continue, but that would carry him farther than he cared. He didn't want another week of life. So he left the bottles buried deep beneath his shirt and stumbled on.
Shortly after dawn, as he readjusted the fur to protect his face from the weak sunlight, the green and yellow flashes vanished. He had lost track of them many times before, only to catch another flicker out of the corner of his eye a few minutes later, so he waited calmly. But eventually he realized the colors–if they'd existed in the first place–had disappeared for good. He and the baby were alone, stranded and more lost than ever.
Larten sneered at the wind and snow. He should have known better. He had let himself be distracted when all that mattered was finding a cave. There was no hope for the baby in this damned land. All he'd done was waste time and make it more likely that the child would have to rot in the open with him.
"The same old Larten," he muttered. "Always indecisive. But no more."
He straightened and let the rough cloak of bloodstained fur drop to the snowy ground. Enough was enough. He was going to do what he should have done as soon as he got ashore—dig a hole and bury the baby alive. Not a pleasant way for the boy to die, but at least his suffering would be short. It would be hard digging through ice and frozen earth, but his vampire nails were a match for the job. Once the grim deed was done, he could go in search of his own death.
Larten stopped halfway into a crouch. The wind had dropped for a second and he'd spotted an opening in a rocky ridge to his left. It looked like the mouth of a cave.
For a long moment Larten stared slack-jawed at the ridge. Was this real? If so, perhaps the colors had been too. Maybe the yellow and green flashes had been shades of the baby's parents, leading Larten to this place, so that their son could be laid to rest in a proper tomb. It was unlikely, but Larten had seen and heard of stranger things.
Sighing, he picked up the fur, covered himself and the boy again, and set off towards the hole in the rock. One way or another he was determined to part ways with the baby at the ridge. Death had been cheated long enough. It was time to pay the grim reaper his due.
It wasn't a cave. It was a palace of the dead.
Larten couldn't believe it at first. The opening in the rock was larger than it had looked from afar, but he'd assumed it was no more than an ordinary cave. He entered happily, glad to be out of the bite of the wind, thinking maybe this would be a good place for him to die too. He stood within the entrance awhile, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness.
And then he realized it wasn't that dark. The world behind him was sparkling beneath the rays of the day's young sun, but the cave ahead was illuminated too. There was a source of light at the other end. Frowning, Larten made sure one of his knives was within easy reach–he felt nervous for some reason–then inched forward, whispering to the baby to keep him quiet.
When the tunnel opened out into a great cavern, Larten forgot about his knife, the baby, and everything else, and just stared around in silent, dumbstruck wonder.
Like many of the halls of Vampire Mountain, this monumental cave had started out as a natural feature, but had been worked on by other hands since nature last applied her touch. Rocks had been removed from the ceiling and panels of crystal inserted in their place. That was why the cave was bright—the light of the sun reflected through the crystals.
Symbols and pictures had been carved into the walls, along with words, row after row of text, encircling the cavern. Larten had never learned to read, so he wasn't sure what language it was, but from the different styles he assumed more than one person had worked on the carvings.
There were dozens of ice sculptures dotted around the cavern and hanging by ropes from the ceiling. Some of the sculptures were of objects—a chandelier that looked like it was decorated with candles, a drinking fountain, a four-poster bed, several chairs and thrones. Others were of men, or to be more precise, vampires. Even if there hadn't been the marks on their fingertips and the scars of warfare on their faces and limbs, Larten would have known. One vampire always recognized another, even if that other was only an icen statue.
The grandest sculpture stood at the center of the cavern. It was a perfect replica of Vampire Mountain, carved out of ice, twenty feet tall. Larten felt a pang of homesickness, which surprised him—after all, he hadn't been forced out of the mountain, but had left of his own accord.
At the foot of the giant sculpture sat a long coffin made of ice. Others were spread around the hall, an almost perfect circle of them, only disturbed in two places by a chasm that Larten would soon explore. But first the main coffin. He didn't want to die before his curiosity had been sated.
The coffin was beautifully decorated with carvings of wolves, bats and bears. Weapons were buried within the ice, a sword, several knives and an ax. They surrounded the body of a naked vampire, one of the finest warriors the clan had ever produced. As Larten drew abreast of the corpse, he peered through the lid of ice at the face of the vampire inside, preserved as if he'd died only a few nights ago. He noted the missing hand and half a missing jaw, but he didn't need those features to identify the dead General. He'd known as soon as he set foot inside the cavern. Part of him had known when he saw the opening in the ridge from afar.
"Perta Vin-Grahl," Larten sighed, and knelt before the final resting place of the vampire who had passed into the realms of myth hundreds of years before.
When the vampaneze broke away from the clan, Perta Vin-Grahl fought harder than anyone to eliminate the traitors. He hated the breakaway group, but loved the vampire clan even more. When the Princes agreed to a truce, Perta couldn't accept their decision. In order not to clash with his leaders and create more problems, he led a group of similarly inclined vampires away into the frozen wilds to perish out of sight and mind.
One of Perta's group returned years later with tales of a tomb like a palace and coffins made of ice. For centuries nobody knew if the stories were true. Many had searched for Perta Vin-Grahl's final resting place, but none had found it. Until now.
- On Sale
- Dec 15, 2011
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers