THE FESTIVAL of the Undead came to a grand, elaborate close on the third night. The celebrations started several hours before sunset, and though the Festival officially ended with the coming of night, a number of vampires kept the party spirit alive late into the following morning.
There was no fighting during the final day of the Festival. The time was given over to storytelling, music, and singing. I learned much about our history and ancestors - the names of great vampire leaders, fierce battles we'd fought with humans and vampaneze - and would have stayed to listen right through the night if I had not had to leave to learn about my next Trial.
This time I picked the Hall of Flames, and every vampire in attendance looked grim-faced when the Trial was called out.
"It's bad, isn't it?" I asked Vanez.
"Yes," the games master answered truthfully. "It will be your hardest Trial yet. We will ask Arra to help us prepare. With her help, you might pull through."
He stressed the word might.
I spent most of the following day and night learning to dodge fire. The Hall of Flames was a large metal room with lots of holes in the floor. Fierce fires would be lit outside the Hall when it was time for the Trial, and vampires would use bellows to pump flames into the room and up through the floor. Because there were so many pipes leading from the fires to the holes, it was impossible to predict the path the flames would follow and where they would emerge.
"You must use your ears as much as your eyes," Arra instructed. The vampiress had injured her right arm during the Festival, and it was in a sling. "You can hear the flames coming before you see them."
One of the fires had been lit outside the Hall, and a couple of vampires pumped flames from it into the room so that I could learn to recognize the sound of the fire traveling through the pipes. Arra stood behind me, pushing me out of the way of the flames if I failed to react quickly enough. "You hear the hissing?" she asked.
"That is the sound of flames passing by you. It's when you hear a short whistling sound - like that!" she snapped, tugging me back as a pillar of fire sprouted from the floor at my feet. "Did you hear it?"
"Just about," I said, trembling nervously.
"That's not good enough." She frowned. "Just about will kill you. You have very little time to beat the flames. Every fraction of a second is precious. It's no good to react immediately - you must react in advance."
A few hours later, I had the hang of it and was darting around the Hall, avoiding the flames with ease. "That's good," Arra said as we rested. "But only one fire burns at the moment. Come the time of your Trial, all five will be lit. The flames will come quicker and in greater volume. You have much to learn before you are ready."
After more practice, Arra took me outside the Hall and over to the fire. She shoved me up close to it, grabbed a burning branch, and ran it over the flesh of my legs and arms. "Stop!" I screeched. "You're burning me alive!"
"Be still!" she commanded. "You must accustom yourself to the heat. Your skin is tough - you can stand a lot of punishment. But you must be ready for it. Nobody makes it through the Hall of Flames unmarked. You will be burnt and singed. Your chances of emerging alive depend on how you react to your injuries. If you let yourself feel the pain, and panic - you'll die. If not, you might survive."
I knew she wouldn't say these things unless they were true, so I stood still and ground my teeth together while she ran the glowing tip of the branch over my flesh. The itching, which had all but disappeared following Seba's application of the cobwebs, flared into life again, adding to my misery.
During a break, I studied my flesh where Arra had run the flaming branch over it. It was a nasty pink color and stung when touched, like a bad case of sunburn. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" I asked.
"You must grow used to the lick of flames," Arra said. "The more pain we subject your body to now, the easier it will be to cope later. Be under no illusions - this is one of the most difficult Trials. You will suffer before the end."
"You're not exactly filling me with confidence," I moaned.
"I'm not here to fill you with confidence," she replied. "I'm here to help you save your life."
After a short discussion between Vanez and Arra, it was decided that I should go without my usual few hours of sleep before the Trial. "We need those extra hours," Vanez said. "You've had three days and nights of rest. Right now, practice is more important than sleep."
So, after a brief break, it was back to the Hall and the fire, where I learned how to narrowly dodge flames. It was best to move around as little as possible during the Trial. That way you could listen more intently and concentrate on predicting where the next burst of flames was coming from. It meant getting singed and lightly burnt, but that was preferable to taking a wrong step and going up in a cloud of smoke.
We practiced until half an hour before the start of the Trial. I nipped back to my cell to catch my breath and change clothes - I'd be wearing leather shorts, nothing else - then returned to the Hall of Flames, where many vampires had gathered to wish me well.
Arrow - the bald-headed, tattooed Prince - had come from the Hall of Princes to oversee the Trial. "I'm sorry none of us could make it last time," he apologized, making the death's touch sign.
"That's OK," I told him. "I don't mind."
"You are a gracious competitor," Arrow said. "Now, do you know the rules?"
I nodded. "I have to stay in there fifteen minutes and try not to get roasted."
"Well put." The Prince grinned. "Are you ready?"
"Almost," I said, knees knocking together. I turned to face Mr. Crepsley. "If I don't pull through, I want you to - ", I began, but he interrupted angrily.
"Do not talk like that! Think positively."
"I am thinking positively," I said, "but I know how difficult it will be. All I was going to say was, I've been thinking it over, and if I die, I'd like you to take my body home and bury it in my grave. That way I'll be close to Mom, Dad, and Annie."
Mr. Crepsley's eyes twitched (was he blinking back tears?) and he cleared his throat. "I will do as you request," he croaked, then offered me his hand. I brushed it aside and gave him a hug instead.
"I'm proud to have been your assistant," I whispered in his ear, then pulled away before he could say anything else and entered the Hall of Flames.
The door clanging shut behind me cut off the sound of the fires being stoked up. I walked towards the center of the room, sweating freely from the heat and fear. The floor was already hot. I wanted to rub some spit on my feet, to cool them, but Arra had told me not to do that too soon. Things would get a whole lot hotter later - better to hold some spit back for when I really needed it.
There was a gurgling sound from the pipes below. I tensed, but it was only one of the pipes shaking. Relaxing, I closed my eyes and swallowed deep breaths while there was still clean air to breathe. That was another problem I'd have to face - although there were holes in the roof and walls, oxygen would be in short supply, and I'd have to find air pockets among the flames or risk suffocating.
As I was thinking about the air, I heard an angry hissing sound in the floor beneath me. Opening my eyes, I saw a jagged funnel of flame erupt several feet to my left.
The Trial had begun.
I ignored the spouting flames - they were too far away to harm me - and listened closely for the next burst. This time it came from one of the far corners of the room. I was off to a lucky start. Sometimes, according to Arra, flames struck at you right at the beginning and didn't let up for the entire Trial. At least I had time to adjust to the heat gradually.
There was a whistling sound close to my right. I jumped aside as fire blossomed in the air nearby, then scolded myself - that burst had been close, but it wouldn't have struck. I should have stood my ground or edged carefully out of its way. Moving as I had, I could have stepped straight into trouble.
The flames were coming in quick bursts now, all around the Hall. I could feel a terrible heat building in the air, and already it was hard to breathe. A hole a few inches from my right foot whistled. I didn't move as fire erupted and stung my leg - I could tolerate a small burn like that. A large burst came out of a wider hole behind me. I shifted forward slightly, rolling gently away from the worst of its bite. I felt the flames licking at the skin of my bare back, but none took hold.
The hardest times were when two or more funnels sprang from holes set close together. There was nothing I could do when trapped between a set of fiery pillars, except suck in my belly and step gingerly through the thinner wall of flames.
Within a few minutes my feet were in agony - they absorbed the worst of the flames. I spat on my palms and rubbed spit into my soles, which provided some measure of temporary relief. I would have stood on my hands to give my feet a rest, except that would have exposed my hair to the fire.
Most vampires, when preparing for the Trials, shaved their heads months in advance, so they were bald when the Trials began. That way, if they drew the Hall of Flames, they'd stand a better chance, since hair burns a lot easier than flesh. But you weren't allowed to shave your head especially for the Trial, and things had happened so quickly with me that nobody had thought to prepare me for the possibility of facing the flames.
There was no way to keep track of time. I had to focus every last ounce of my concentration on the floor and fire. The smallest of distractions could have lethal consequences.
Several holes in front of me spouted flames at the same time. I began edging backwards, when I heard pipes whistling savagely behind me. Sucking in my belly again, I nudged over to my left, away from the thickest sheets of fire.
The moment of danger passed, but I was getting trapped in a corner. Vanez had warned me about this, even before we'd tracked down Arra and asked her to train me. "Stay away from the corners," he'd said. "Stick to the middle as much as possible. If you find yourself backing into a corner, get out of it quickly. Most who perish in the Hall of Flames do so in corners, trapped by walls of fire, unable to break free."
I started back the way I'd come, but the fire was still shooting up through the holes, blocking my path. Reluctantly, I edged farther towards the corner, ready to take the first opening as soon as one presented itself. The trouble was - none did.
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.