I WAS SHIVERRING like a bedraggled rat when I woke up late the next day. I'd been asleep for fifteen hours or more! Vanez was there to wish me good morning. He handed me a small mug full of a dark liquid and told me to drink.

"What is it? "I asked.

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"Brandy," he said. I hadn't tried brandy before. After the first mouthful, which made me gag, I decided I liked it. "Careful." Vanez laughed as I poured it freely down my throat. "You'll get drunk!"

Laying aside the mug, I hiccuped and grinned. Then I remembered the Trial. "I did it!" I shouted, jumping up. "I found the way out!"

"You certainly did," Vanez agreed. "It was close. You were in there just over twenty minutes. Did you have to swim towards the finish?"

"Yes," I said, then described all that had happened in the maze.

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"You performed excellently," Vanez said. "Brains, strength, and luck - no vampire lasts long without a healthy measure of each."

Vanez led me to the Hall of Khledon Lurt to get something to eat. The vampires there applauded when they saw me and crowded around to tell me how well I'd done. I made light of it and acted humble, but inside I felt like a hero. Harkat Mulds turned up while I was digging into my third bowl of bat broth and fifth slice of bread. "I am... glad you... survived," he said in his simple, direct fashion.

"Me too," I laughed.

"The betting... against you... has dropped... since you passed... the first Trial. More vampires... are betting... on you to... win, now."

"That's good to hear. Have you bet anything on me?"

"I have... nothing to bet," Harkat said. "If I did... I would."

While we were talking, a rumor spread through the Hall, upsetting the vampires around us. Listening closely, we learned that one of the last remaining vampires on his way to Council had arrived before dawn and immediately rushed to the Hall of Princes to inform them of vampaneze tracks he'd come across while traveling to the mountain.

"Maybe it's the same vampaneze we found on our way here," I said, referring to a dead vampaneze we'd stumbled on during the course of our journey.

"Maybe," Vanez muttered, unconvinced. "I'll leave you for a while. Stay here. I won't be long."

When he returned, the games master seemed worried. "The vampire was Patrick Goulder," he said. "He came by an entirely different route, and the tracks were quite fresh. It's almost certain that this was a different vampaneze."

"What does it mean?" I asked, unsettled by the anxious rumblings of the vampires around us.

"I don't know," Vanez admitted. "But two vampaneze on the paths to Vampire Mountain are hardly coincidence. And when you take Harkat's message about the Vampaneze Lord into consideration, it doesn't look promising."

I thought again of Harkat's message and Mr. Tiny's long-ago vow that the Vampaneze Lord would lead the vampaneze against the vampires and crush them. I'd had other things to worry about, and still did - my Trials were far from over - but it was hard to ignore this ominous threat to the entire vampire clan.

"Still," Vanez said, making light of it, "the doings of the vampaneze are of no interest to us. We must concentrate on the Trials. We'll leave the other business to those best equipped to deal with it."

But try as we might to avoid the topic, the rumors followed us around the Halls all day long, and my achievements of the night before went unmentioned - nobody was interested in the fate of a single half-vampire while the future of the race itself hung in the balance.

Hardly anyone paid attention to me when I turned up with Vanez Blane at the Hall of Princes at dusk. A few pressed their right-hand fingers to their forehead and eyelids when they saw the purple flag - the death's touch sign - but they were too preoccupied to discuss my first Trial with me. We had to wait a long time for the Princes to beckon us forward - they were arguing with their Generals, trying to decide what the vampaneze were up to and how many might be skulking around. Kurda was standing up for his outcast friends.

"If they meant to attack us," he shouted, "they would have done so on the trail, while we were coming singly or in pairs."

"Maybe they plan to attack us on the way back," someone retorted.

"Why should they?" Kurda challenged him. "They've never attacked before. Why start now?"

"Perhaps the Vampaneze Lord put them up to it," an old General suggested, and nervous growls of agreement echoed around the Hall.

"Nonsense!" Kurda snorted. "I don't believe those old legends. Even if they are true, Mr. Tiny said the night of his coming was at hand - not already upon us."

"Kurda is correct," Paris Skyle said. "Besides, attacking us in such a fashion - alone, on our way to or from Council - would be cowardly, and the vampaneze are no cowards."

"Then why are they here?" someone cried. "What are they up to?"

"It's possible," Kurda said, "that they came to see me."

Every vampire in the Hall stared at him.

"Why should they do that?" Paris asked.

"They are my friends." He sighed. "I don't believe this Vampaneze Lord myth, but many vampaneze do, and a lot are as troubled by it as we are - they don't want a war any more than we do. It's possible that Mr. Tiny sent word to the vampaneze as he did to us, and the pair found on the way here were coming to warn me, or to discuss the situation."

"But Patrick Goulder couldn't find the second vampaneze," Mika Ver Leth said. "If he's still alive, wouldn't he have contacted you by now?"

"How?" Kurda asked. "A vampaneze can't waltz up to the gates and ask for me by name. He'd be killed on sight. If he is a messenger, he's probably waiting somewhere nearby, hoping to catch me when I leave."

That made sense to a lot of vampires, but others dismissed it out of hand - the idea of a vampaneze going out of his way to help a vampire was lunacy as far as they were concerned - and the argument reared up again and bubbled on for another couple of hours.

Mr. Crepsley said little during the arguing. He just sat in his pew near the front, listening carefully, thinking hard. He was so absorbed in what was being said, he hadn't even noticed my arrival.

Finally, during a lull, Vanez crept forward and whispered to one of the guards, who advanced to the platform and spoke in the ear of Paris Skyle (his only good ear - his right had been chopped off many years before). Paris nodded, then clapped loudly for silence. "We have been overlooking our duties, my friends," he said. "The news of the vampaneze is worrying, but we must not let it interfere with regular Council affairs. There is a young half-vampire for whom time is precious. May we enjoy a few minutes of peace to deal with his more pressing concerns?"

When the vampires had settled back into their seats, Vanez escorted me up to the platform.

"Congratulations on passing the first of your Trials, Darren," Paris said.

"Thank you," I replied politely.

"As one who never learned to swim, I have extra reason to admire your narrow escape," said Arrow, the large, bald Prince, with tattoos of arrows on his arms and head. "Had I found myself in your position, I wouldn't have made it out alive."

"You did well, young Shan," Mika Ver Leth agreed. "A good start is half the battle. There's a long way to go, but I'm willing to accept that I might have been wrong about you."

"We would hear about more of your exploits in the maze if we had the time," Paris sighed, "but, alas, that is a tale you must save for another occasion. Are you ready to choose your next Trial?"

"I am."

The bag of numbered stones was produced. After they'd been checked, I reached in, dug down, and picked one close to the bottom. "Number twenty-three," the guard called out, having examined the stone. "The Path of Needles."

"I thought there were only seventeen Trials," I muttered to Vanez as the stone was taken to the Princes.

"Seventeen for you," he agreed, "but there are more than sixty in total. A lot have been omitted because they're not currently possible to host - like the pit of snakes - and others have been left out because of your size and age."

"Is it a difficult Trial?" I asked.

"It's easier than the Aquatic Maze," he said. "And your size will help. It's as good as any we could have hoped for."

The Princes examined the stone, announced their approval, then set it aside and wished me well. They'd treated me rather curtly, but I understood their distraction and didn't feel slighted. As Vanez and I left, I heard the arguments about the vampaneze kick into life again, and the thick air of tension in the Hall was almost as suffocating as the water in the Aquatic Maze had been.

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