THE AQUATIC MAZE was man-made, built with a low ceiling and watertight walls. There were four doors in and out of it, one in each of its four external walls. From the center where I would be left, it usually took five or six minutes to find your way out, if you didn't get lost.
But in the Trial, you had to drag around a heavy rock - half your weight - which slowed you down. With the rock, eight or nine minutes was good going.
In addition to the rock, there was the water to deal with. As soon as the Trial began, the maze started to fill with water, which was pumped in through hoses from underground streams. The water slowed you down even more, and finding your way through the maze usually took about fifteen minutes. If it took longer, you were in serious trouble - because the maze filled to the top in seventeen minutes exactly.
"It's important not to panic," Vanez said. We were down in one of the practice mazes, a smaller version of the Aquatic Maze. The route wasn't the same - the walls of the Aquatic Maze could be moved around, so the maze was different each time - but it served as a good learning experience. "Most who fail in the maze do so because they panic," he went on. "It can be frightening when the water rises and the going gets slower and tougher. You have to fight that fear and concentrate on the route. If you let the water distract you, you'll lose your way - and then you're finished."
We spent the early part of the night walking through the maze, over and over, Vanez teaching me how to make a map inside my head. "Each wall of the maze looks the same," he said, "but they aren't. There are identifying marks - a discolored stone, a jagged piece of floor, a crack. You must note these small differences and build your map from them. That way, if you find yourself in a passage where you've already been, you'll recognize it and can immediately start looking for a new way out, wasting no time."
I spent hours learning how to make mental maps of the maze. It was a lot harder than it sounds. The first few passages were easy to remember - a chipped stone in the top left corner of one, a moss-covered stone in the floor of the next, a bumpy stone in the ceiling of the one after that - but the farther I went, the more I had to remember, and the more confusing it became. I had to find something new in every corridor, because if I used a mark that was similar to one I'd committed to memory already, I'd get the two confused and end up chasing my tail.
"You're not concentrating!" Vanez snapped when I came to a standstill for the seventh or eighth time.
"I'm trying," I grumbled, "but it's hard."
"Trying isn't good enough," he barked. "You have to tune out all other thoughts. Forget the Trials and the water and what will happen if you fail. Forget about dinner and breakfast and whatever else is distracting you. Think only about the maze. It must fill your thoughts completely, or you're doomed."
It wasn't easy, but I gave it my best shot, and within an hour I had improved considerably. Vanez was right - cutting off all other trains of thought was the solution. It was boring, wandering through a maze for hours on end, but that boredom was what I had to learn to appreciate. In the Aquatic Maze, excitement could confuse and kill me.
Once my map-making skills were good enough, Vanez wrapped a long rope around my waist and attached a rock to the other end. "This rock is only a quarter of your weight," he said. "We'll try you with a heavier rock later, but I don't want to tire you out too much ahead of the Trial. We'll get you accustomed to this one first, move up to a rock that's a third your weight, then try you on the real thing for a short time, to give you a taste of how it feels."
The rock wasn't especially heavy - as a half-vampire, I was much stronger than a human - but it was an annoyance. Along with slowing me down, it also had a bad habit of catching on corners or in cracks, which meant I had to stop and free it. "It's important to stop the instant you feel it snagging," Vanez said. "Your natural instinct will be to tug on the rope and free it quickly, but more often than not that worsens the situation, and you wind up taking even longer to fix it. Seconds are vital in the maze. It's better to act methodically and lose four or five seconds freeing yourself than to act hastily and lose ten or twenty."
There were ways to stop the rock and rope from snagging so much. When I came to corners or bends, I had to seize the rope and pull the rock in close to me - that way it was less likely to get stuck. And it was helpful to give the rope a shake every few seconds - that kept it loose. "But you have to do these things automatically," Vanez said. "You must do them without pausing to think. Your brain should be fully occupied with mapping the maze. Everything else must be done by instinct."
"It's useless," I groaned, sinking to the floor. "It'd take months to get ready for this. I don't have a hope in hell."
"Of course you do!" Vanez roared. Squatting beside me, he poked me in the ribs. "Feel that?" he asked, jabbing a sharp finger into the soft flesh of my belly.
"Ow!" I slapped his hand away. "Quit it!"
"It's sharp?" he asked, jabbing me again. "It hurts?"
He grunted, jabbed me one more time, then stood. "Imagine how much sharper the stakes in the Hall of Death are," he said.
Sighing miserably, I hauled myself to my feet and wiped sweat from my brow. Picking up the rope, I gave it a shake, then started back through the maze, dragging the rock and mapping out the walls, as Vanez had taught me.
Finally we stopped for a meal and met up with Mr. Crepsley and Harkat in the Hall of Khledon Lurt. I wasn't hungry - I felt too nervous to eat, but Vanez insisted: he said I'd need every last bit of energy when it came to the Trial.
"How is he doing?" Mr. Crepsley asked. He'd wanted to watch me train, but Vanez had told him he'd be in the way.
"Remarkably well," Vanez said, chewing on the bones of a skewered rat. "To be honest, though I put on a brave face when the Trial was picked, I thought he'd be - excuse the pun - out of his depth. The Aquatic Maze isn't one of the more brutal Trials, but it's one you need a lot of time to prepare for. But he's a quick learner. We still have a lot to fit in - we haven't tried him in water yet - but I'm a lot more hopeful now than I was a few hours ago."
Harkat had brought Madam Octa - Mr. Crepsley's spider - to the Hall with him and was feeding her bread crumbs soaked in bat broth. He'd agreed to take care of her while I was concentrating on my Trials. Moving away from the vampires, I struck up a conversation with the Little Person. "Managing her OK?" I asked.
"Yes. She is... easy to... take care of."
"Just don't let her out of her cage," I warned. "She looks cute, but her bite is lethal."
"I know. I have... often watched... you and her... when you... were onstage... at the Cirque... Du Freak."
Harkat's speech was improving - he slurred his words a lot less now - but he still had to take long pauses for breath in the middle of sentences.
"Do you think... you will... be ready... for the Trial?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Right now, the Trial's the last thing on my mind - I'm not even sure I'm going to get through the training! Vanez is working me hard. I suppose he has to, but I feel exhausted. I could slide under the table and sleep for a week."
"I have been... listening to... vampires talk," Harkat said. "Many are... betting on you."
"Oh?" I sat up, taking an interest. "What odds are they giving me?"
"They do not... have actual... odds. They bet... clothes and... pieces of... jewelry. Most vampires... are betting... against you. Kurda and Gavner... and Arra... are accepting... most of the... bets. They... believe in you."
"That's good to hear." I smiled. "What about Mr. Crepsley?"
Harkat shook his head. "He said... he does not... bet. Especially not... on children."
"That's the sort of thing the dry old buzzard would say," I huffed, trying not to sound disappointed.
"But I... heard him talking... to Seba Nile," Harkat added. "He said... that if you... failed, he would... eat his cape."
I laughed, delighted.
"What are you two talking about?" Mr. Crepsley asked.
"Nothing," I said, grinning up at him.
When we'd finished eating, Vanez and I headed back to the maze, where we practiced with heavier rocks and in the water. The next few hours were some of the most arduous of my life, and by the time he called it a night and sent me to my cell to rest, I was so tired that I collapsed halfway there and had to be carted back to my hammock by a couple of sympathetic guards.