I WAS SO STIFF when I woke that I thought I wouldn't be able to make it to the maze, let alone find my way out of it! But after a couple of minutes of walking around, I worked off the stiffness and felt as fit as ever. I realized Vanez had pushed me exactly the right amount and made a note not to doubt his tactics in the future.

I was hungry, but Vanez had told me not to eat anything when I woke - if things were tight, a few extra pounds could mean the difference between living and dying.

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Mr. Crepsley and Vanez came for me when it was time. Both wore their best clothes, Mr. Crepsley dazzling in bright red robes, Vanez less flamboyant in a dull brown tunic and trousers.

"Ready?" Vanez asked. I nodded. "Hungry?"

"Starving!"

"Good." He smiled. "I'll treat you to the finest meal of your life after the Trial. Think about that if you get into trouble - it helps to have something to look forward to."

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We wound our way down through the torch-lit tunnels to the Aquatic Maze, Vanez walking in front of me, Mr. Crepsley and Harkat just behind. Vanez carried a purple flag, the sign that he was escorting a vampire to a Trial. Most of the vampires we passed made a strange gesture when they saw me coming: they put the tip of their right-hand middle finger to their forehead, placed the tips of the fingers on either side of it on their eyelids, and spread their thumb and little finger out wide to the sides.

"Why are they doing that?" I asked Vanez.

"It's a customary gesture," he explained. "We call it the death's touch sign. It means, 'Even in death, may you be triumphant.?

"I'd rather they just said good luck," I muttered.

"That doesn't have quite the same significance," Vanez chuckled. "We believe that the gods of the vampires respect those who die nobly. They bless us when a vampire meets death proudly and curse us when one dies poorly."

"So they want me to die well for their own sakes," I said sarcastically.

"For the sake of the clan," Vanez corrected me seriously. "A vampire in good standing always puts the good of the clan before his own well-being. Even in death. The hand gesture is to remind you of that."

The Aquatic Maze was built in the pit of a large cavern. From the top it looked like a long square box. Around the sides of the pit were forty or fifty vampires, the most the cave could hold. Among them were Gavner and Kurda, Seba Nile and Arra Sails - and Mika Ver Leth, the Vampire Prince who'd sentenced me to the Trials.

Mika summoned us over, nodded gravely to Vanez and Mr. Crepsley, then fixed his icy gaze on me. He was dressed in his customary black outfit and looked even sterner than Mr. Crepsley. "You have prepared for the Trial?" he asked.

"I have."

"You know what lies ahead of you?"

"I do."

"Except for the four exits, there is no escape from the maze," he said. "Should you fail this Trial, you will not have to face the Hall of Death."

"I'd rather die at the stakes to drowning," I grunted.

"Most vampires would," he agreed. "But you don't need to worry - it is still water, not running."

I frowned. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"Still water cannot trap a vampire's soul," he explained.

"Oh, that old myth," I laughed. Many vampires believed that if you died in a river or stream, your soul remained trapped forever by the flowing water. "That doesn't bother me. It's the drowning I don't like!"

"Either way, I wish you luck," Mika said.

"No, you don't." I sniffed.

"Darren!" Mr. Crepsley said.

"It's all right." Mika silenced him with a wave of his hand. "Let the boy speak his mind."

"You made me take the Trials," I said. "You don't think I'm good enough to be a vampire. You'll be happy if I fail, because it'll prove you were right."

"Your assistant has a low opinion of me, Larten," Mika remarked.

"He is young, Mika. He does not know his place."

"Don't apologize for him. The young should speak their minds." He addressed me directly again. "You are right in one thing only, Darren Shan - I don't think you have what it takes to make it as a vampire. As for the rest of what you say..." - He shook his head - "No vampire takes pleasure in seeing another fail. I sincerely hope you prove me wrong. We need vampires in good standing, now more than ever. I will raise a glass of blood to your name if you complete the Trials, and willingly admit in public that I misjudged you."

"Oh," I said, confused. "In that case, I guess I'm sorry for what I said. No hard feelings?"

The black-haired, eagle-eyed Prince smiled tightly. "No hard feelings." Then he clapped his hands loudly and barked sharply, "May the gods bless you with the luck of the vampires!" - and the Trial began.

I was blindfolded, placed on a stretcher, and carried into the heart of the maze by four guards - so I couldn't memorize the way. Once inside, I was set down and the blindfold was removed. I found myself in a narrow corridor, about five feet wide, less than six and a half feet high. My size would work in my favor in this Trial - tall vampires had to stoop, which made the going even harder.

"Are you ready?" one of the guards asked.

"I'm ready," I said, glancing around the corridor to find my first marker. I saw a whitish stone in the wall to my left and made note of it, starting my mental map-making process.

"You must stay here till the water pours," the guard said. "That's the signal for the start of the Trial. Nobody can check on you once we leave, so there's nothing to prevent you from cheating, apart from your conscience."

"I won't cheat," I snapped. "I'll wait for the water."

"I'm sure you will," the vampire smiled apologetically. "I had to say it anyway - tradition."

The four guards gathered up the stretcher and left. They were all wearing extrasoft shoes, so their footsteps made no noise.

Small candles were set in glass bulbs in the roof of the maze, so I'd have plenty of light to see by, even when the water rose high.

My nerves gnawed at me while I was waiting for the water to gush. A cowardly voice inside my head nudged me to make an early start. Nobody would ever know. Better to live with a little shame than die because of stupid pride.

I ignored the voice - I'd never be able to look Mr. Crepsley, Gavner, or the others in the eye if I cheated.

Finally there was a gurgling sound, and water bubbled up out of a nearby pipe. Breathing a sigh of relief, I hurried for the end of the corridor, dragging my rock behind me, shaking the rope at regular intervals, as Vanez had taught me.

I made good time at the beginning. The water barely held me back, and there were plenty of striking stones to identify the different corridors by. I didn't panic when I came to a dead end or worked my way back to a corridor I'd already visited; I just stuck my head down and kept walking, taking a new route.

The going got tough after five or six minutes. The water was up above my knees. Each step was an effort. The rock now felt as if it weighed a ton. I was having trouble breathing, and my muscles ached, especially in my legs and back.

Still I didn't panic. Vanez had prepared me for this. I had to accept the water, not fight it. I let my pace drop. The mistake many vampires made was to try walking quickly - they exhausted themselves early and never got anywhere near the end.

Another couple of minutes passed. I was growing anxious. There was no way to tell how close or far from the finish I was. I could be a single turn away from an exit door without knowing it - or nowhere near one. At least I'd recognize an exit if I saw it - a huge white X was painted on all four doors and a large black button was in the center of the X. All I had to do was press that button, and the door would open, the water would flood out, and I'd be safe.

The trouble was finding it. The water was up to my chest by this point, and the rock was getting heavier all the time. I'd stopped shaking the rope - it was too much of an effort - and could feel it drifting along behind me, threatening to get caught between my legs. That happened sometimes - vampires got knotted up in the rope and came to a standstill, drowning where they stood.

I was turning a corner when the rock snagged on something. I gave the rope a pull, trying to free it - with no luck. Taking a deep breath, I dived down to see what was wrong. I found that the rock had jammed against a large crack in a wall. It only took a few seconds to pry it loose, but when I sprang up, I suddenly realized that my mind was a blank. Had I been in this tunnel before? I looked for a familiar sign, but couldn't see any. There was a yellow stone high up in one of the walls, and I thought I'd passed it earlier, but I didn't know for sure.

I was lost!

I lurched to the end of the corridor, then up another, desperately trying to establish my position. Panic flooded my system. I kept thinking, "I'm going to drown! I'm going to drown!" I could have passed a dozen markers and not recognized any of them, I was so stressed out.

The water was up to my chin. It splashed into my mouth. Sputtering, I slapped at the water, as though that would make it go away. I stumbled and fell. Came up spitting water and gasping. Terrified, I started to scream...

... and that stopped me. The sound of my roars snapped me back to my senses. I remembered Vanez's advice, stood perfectly still, shut my eyes, and refused to budge until I had the panic under control. I concentrated on the thought of the feast that awaited me. Fresh meat, wild roots, and fruit. A bottle of human blood to perk me up. Dessert - mountain berries, hot and juicy.

I opened my eyes. My heart had stopped beating like a drum, and the worst of the panic attack had passed. I waded slowly down the corridor, searching for a marker. If I could find one, I was sure I'd recall the rest of my mental map. I reached the end of the corridor - no markers. The next corridor was also new to me. And the one after that. And the next.

I could feel the panic bubbling up again when I spotted a candleholder set in a pale grey circular stone - one of my markers! I stared at the candle and waited for my map to reform. For several long seconds my mind remained as terrifyingly blank as it had been - then the map fell back into place. It came to me in sections first, a piece at a time, then in a rush. I stood where I was for a few more seconds, making sure I had it clear in my head before continuing.

The water was up to my lower lip now. The movement was almost impossible. I had to proceed in sluggish jumps, lurching forward to keep my head above water, being extra careful not to bash it on the ceiling. How long before I ran out of air? Three minutes? Four? It couldn't be much more than that. I had to find the way out - and quick!

Concentrating on the map inside my head, I tried figuring out how far away I was from the spot where I'd started. By my calculations, I should be near one of the border walls. If I was, and the exit door was close by, I stood a chance. Otherwise the Trial was as good as over.

Turning a corner, I ran into my first stretch of border wall. I knew it immediately, because the stones were darker and rougher than the rest of the maze. There was no X printed on it, but my heart gave a joyous leap anyway. Backtracking, I banished the map from my thoughts - it was no use to me anymore - and hurried to the next turn, searching for that elusive X.

I found four different sections of border wall, none of which contained the exit. The water was almost up to the ceiling now. I was swimming more than walking, pressing my lips to the ceiling to draw in air. I'd have been OK if it wasn't for the horrible rock - it dragged behind me worse than ever when I tried to swim, slowing me down to a crawl.

As I paused to take a breath, I realized it was time to make a critical decision. Vanez had discussed this with me in the practice maze. He'd hoped things wouldn't reach this stage, but if they did, I had to choose correctly.

If I continued as I was, I'd die. I was making very little progress, and in a minute or two the water would cover my face completely, and I'd drown. The time had come to gamble. One last roll of the dice. If the luck of the vampires was with me, it would mean survival. If not...

I took several deep breaths, filling my lungs, then ducked under the water and dived to the floor. Picking up the rock, I turned over, so I was floating on my back, and placed the rock on my belly. Then I swam. It was awkward - streams of water forced themselves up my nose - but this was the only way to stop the rock from dragging me down.

Vampires can hold their breath longer than humans - five or six minutes, easily - but because I was on my back, I had to keep blowing air out through my nose, to stop the water from going up it, so I'd have two, three minutes at most before I ran out of oxygen and drowned.

Swimming around another corner, I stared down a long corridor. I could spot the shape of what must be border wall at the end, but I was too far away to see if there was an X on it or not. I thought there might be, but that could be my mind playing tricks - Vanez had warned me about underwater mirages.

I swam up the corridor. About halfway, I realized there was no X - a long crack in the stones had fooled me - so I turned and quickly headed back the way I'd come. The weight of the rock was forcing me down. I stopped, put my feet on the floor, and used them to push myself up, then straightened out and resumed swimming.

I searched in vain for another glimpse of border wall, but the next two corners both led to other corridors, not the wall. My oxygen was running out. It was getting harder and harder to move my arms and legs.

The next turn didn't lead to border wall either, but I had no time to swim ahead and look for another corner. Summoning all of my energy, I swam down the short corridor and took the right turn at the end. That led to another short corridor. As I started down it, the rock slipped off my belly, scratching me as it fell. I yelped without thinking. Water rushed in, and air rushed out.

Coughing, I aimed for the ceiling to draw more air, but when I reached it, I found the water had beaten me to the punch - there was no more air.

I was treading water, silently cursing the fates and vampire gods. This was the end. I'd given it my best, but it wasn't meant to be. The best thing now would be to open my mouth, gulp in water, and make as quick an end of it as I could. I would have too, except this corridor wasn't well lit, and I didn't like the idea of dying in darkness. So, painfully, I dived again to the floor, gathered the rock, turned over onto my back, placed the rock on my belly, and swam ahead to find somewhere brighter to die.

As I made a left turn at the end of the corridor, I spotted the dark stone of border wall. I smiled weakly, remembering how excited that would have made me a few minutes ago. I rolled over onto my belly, so that I could die on my feet - then stopped.

There was an X on the wall!

I stared at it stupidly while precious air bubbles popped out of my mouth. Was this another trick of my mind? Another false crack? It must be. There was no way I could be this lucky. I should ignore it and...

No! It was an X!

I was out of air and strength, but the sight of that X gave me a new burst of life. Making use of resources I hadn't known I had, I kicked hard with my legs and shot towards the wall like a bullet. I bumped my head against it, recoiled, then rolled over and studied the large, rough X.

I was so delighted to find the X, I almost didn't think to push the button in its center. What a joke that would have been - to come so far and fail at the very end! But thankfully, I was spared that shame. Of its own accord, my left hand crept out, ran its fingers over the button set in the X, then pressed it. The button slid inwards, and the X vanished as the stone slid back into the wall.

With a huge slushing roar, water gushed out through the gap. I was carried along with it, jolting to a stop just beyond the door when my rock caught on something. My eyes and mouth were shut, and for a while it seemed as if I was still submerged in the maze, as water flooded out over my head. Gradually, though, the water level dropped, and I realized I could breathe.

After the deepest breath of my life, I opened my eyes and blinked. The cavern seemed a lot brighter than it had less than half an hour ago, when I'd been led down to it by Vanez Blane. I felt as if I was sitting on a beach on a warm summer's day.

Cheers and hollers reached my ears. Staring around like a fish on dry land, I noticed delighted vampires streaming towards me, splashing through pools of water, whooping with excitement. I was too tired to identify their faces, but I recognized the orange crop of hair on the vampire leading the way - Mr. Crepsley.

As the water subsided, I struggled to my feet and stood outside the door of the Aquatic Maze, smiling foolishly, rubbing the bump on my head where I'd hit the wall. "You did it, Darren!" Mr. Crepsley roared, reaching my side and throwing his arms around me in a rare display of affection.

Another vampire embraced me and yelled, "I thought you'd had it! So much time had passed, I was sure you'd failed!"

Blinking water from my eyes, I made out the features of Kurda and Gavner. And close behind, Vanez and Arra. "Mr. Crepsley? Kurda? Vanez? What are you doing on a beach in the middle of the day?" I asked. "You'll sizzle in the sunlight if you don't watch out."

"He's delirious!" Someone laughed.

"Who would not be?" Mr. Crepsley replied, hugging me proudly.

"Think I'll sit down awhile," I muttered. "Call me when it's time to build sand castles." And, collapsing on my bottom, I stared up at the roof, convinced it was the wide open sky, and hummed merrily to myself while the vampires fussed around me.

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