THE PATH of Needles was a long, narrow cavern filled with sharp-tipped stalactites and stalagmites. Vanez took me to see it before we set off to practice in another cave.

"All I have to do is walk across?" I asked.

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"That's all."

"It isn't much of a Trial, is it?" I said confidently.

"We'll see if you think the same way tomorrow," he grunted. "The stalagmites are slippery - one wrong move and you can impale yourself in the flicker of an eye. And many of the stalactites are precariously perched, hanging by a thread. Any sudden noise will result in some falling. If one hits you on the way down, it can cut clean through you."

Despite his warning, I still felt it was going to be easy. But by the end of our first practice session, I'd changed my mind.

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We practiced in a cave where the stalagmites weren't as sharp or as slippery as those on the Path of Needles, where the stalactites wouldn't break off and fall without warning. Yet, mild as this cave was in comparison, I came close to spearing myself several times, rescued only by the quick hands of Vanez Blane.

"You're not gripping hard enough!" he growled after I'd almost gouged an eye out. I'd scratched my cheek on the stalagmite, and Vanez was applying spit to the cut, to stop the flow of blood (as a half-vampire, my spit was no good for closing cuts).

"It's like trying to hold on to a buttered pole," I grumbled.

"That's why you must grip harder."

"But it hurts. I'll cut my hands to shreds if I -"

"Which would you rather?" Vanez interrupted. "Bloody hands or a stalagmite through your heart?"

"That's a stupid question," I groaned.

"Then stop acting stupidly!" he snapped. "You'll cut your palms to ribbons on the Path of Needles - there's no way to avoid that. You're a half-vampire, so the flesh will grow back quickly. You have to ignore the pain and focus on your grip. There will be plenty of time after the Trial to moan about your poor little fingers and how you'll never play the piano again."

"I can't play the piano anyway," I huffed, but did as he ordered and took a firmer grip on the treacherous mineral stakes.

At the end of the session, Vanez applied special herbs and leaves to my hands, to ease the worst of the pain and toughen up my palms for the ordeal ahead. It felt for a while as though my fingers were on fire, but gradually the pain seeped away, and by the time I had to report back for my second bout of training, it was just a dull throb at the end of my arms.

We concentrated on stealth this time. Vanez taught me to check each stalagmite before transferring my weight onto it. If one snapped off in the cave, it could send me plummeting to my death, or the sound could result in falling stalactites, which were just as hazardous.

"Keep one eye on the ceiling," Vanez said. "Most falling stalactites can be avoided by simply twisting out of the way."

"What if they can't be avoided?" I asked.

"Then you're in trouble. If one's coming for you and can't be dodged, you have to knock it sideways or catch it. Catching is harder but preferable - if you knock a stalactite out of the way, it'll crash and shatter. That sort of noise can bring the roof down."

"I thought you said this was going to be easier than the Aquatic Maze," I complained.

"It is," he assured me. "You need lots of luck to make it out of the Aquatic Maze. On the Path of Needles, you can exert more control over your fate - your life's in your own hands."

Arra Sails turned up during our third practice session, to help me work on my balance. She blindfolded me and made me crawl over a series of blunt stalagmites, so that I learned to maneuver by touch alone. "He has an excellent sense of balance," she noted to Vanez. "As long as he doesn't flinch from the pain in his hands, he should sail through this test."

Finally, after many hours of practice, Vanez sent me back to my cell to grab some shut-eye. Once again he'd worked me just the right amount. Tired, bruised, and cut though I was, after a few hours in my hammock I felt as good as new and ready for anything.

There were hardly any vampires present at the Path of Needles to observe my second Trial. Most were locked away in the Hall of Princes, or had gathered in one of the mountain's many meeting chambers, to discuss the vampaneze. Mr. Crepsley turned out to cheer me on, and so did Gavner Purl and Seba Nile. But Harkat was the only other familiar face in the tiny crowd of well-wishers.

A guard told me that the Princes sent their apologies, but they couldn't preside over the Trial. Vanez complained - he said the Trial should be delayed if a Prince wasn't present - but the guard cited a couple of past cases where Princes hadn't been able to attend Trials, which had gone ahead without them. Vanez asked me if I wanted to push the point - he said, if we created a fuss, we could probably persuade the Princes to postpone the Trial for a night or two, till one of them had time to come down and watch - but I said I'd rather get it over with.

The guard who'd been sent by the Princes checked to make sure I knew what I had to do, wished me luck, guided me to the mouth of the Path of Needles, and set me loose.

I climbed up onto the first of the stalagmites and stared at the sea and sky of glinting spikes. The cavern was well named - from this point it looked precisely like a pathway built of needles. Suppressing a shiver, I started ahead at a snail's crawl. There was no rushing on the Path of Needles. To survive, you had to move slowly and surely. I tested each stalagmite before choosing it, shaking it gently from side to side, making sure it would hold my weight.

Bringing up my legs was tricky. There was no way to grip the tips of the stalagmites with my toes, so I had to place my feet lower down, sometimes wedging them between two stalagmites. While this gave me a chance to take the weight off my arms and hands, it resulted in lots of scratching to my knees and thighs when it came time to drag my legs forward.

It was worst in the spots where the stalactites hung low over the stalagmites. There, I had to stretch out, so that I was lying almost flat on the stalagmites, in order to wriggle ahead. I picked up many nasty cuts to my chest, belly, and back. After a while I found myself envying those fabulous Indian fakirs who can train themselves to lie on a bed of nails!

About a fifth of the way in, my left leg slipped and banged loudly against one of the stalagmites. There was a trembling, tingling sound overhead. Glancing up, I saw several nearby stalactites shaking. For a couple of seconds it seemed as if they weren't going to fall, but then one snapped free and shattered on the ground. The noise of that shook others loose, and suddenly stalactites were dropping like nail bombs all around me.

I didn't panic. Thankfully, hardly any of the stalactites fell close enough to damage me. One would have cut my right arm in two if I hadn't spotted it and shifted out of the way, and I had to suck my gut in quickly to avoid a small but sharp stalactite from ripping a new belly button in my middle. But otherwise I stayed perched where I was, watching the ceiling closely for signs of danger, and waited out the avalanche.

Eventually the stalactites stopped falling, and the echoes of their shattering died away. I waited a minute, for fear of late droppers - Vanez had warned me about those - but when all looked safe I proceeded at my same cautious pace.

The falling stalactites had taken my mind off my torn, pricked body. Adrenaline had surged through me when I saw the shower of lethal needles, and I was temporarily immune to pain. Sensation returned the farther I progressed, but I remained numb to most of the cuts, only wincing every now and then when an especially sharp point bit deeper into my flesh than usual.

I got a good grip with my feet at the halfway point and rested for five or six minutes. The ceiling was high here, so I was able to stand up and rotate my arms and neck, working some of the stiffness out of my muscles.

It was hot and I was sweating like crazy. I was wearing a tight leather outfit, which made me sweat even worse but which was necessary - loose clothes would have snagged on the stalactites.

Many vampires wore no clothes when going through the Path of Needles, but although I hadn't minded stripping to get through a valley full of sharp thorns on the way to Vampire Mountain, I wasn't about to take my clothes off in front of a bunch of strangers!

I wiped my hands on my pants, but they were so stained with blood by this point that my hands became slippier than they'd been before. Looking around, I found a few pockets of dirt and used the dust to dry my palms. The dirt got in under my torn flesh and stung as if I'd grabbed two fistfuls of prickers, but the pain subsided after a while and I was ready to continue.

I was making good time and had passed the three-quarters point when I made my first real mistake. Though the ceiling was high in this part of the cavern, the stalagmites grew close together, and I had to stretch out to crawl over them. The tips were digging into my belly and chest, so I picked up speed, anxious to clear the vicious cluster.

Reaching ahead with my left hand, I tested a large stalagmite, but only slightly - it was so big, I felt sure it would support me. As I shifted my weight onto it, there was a sharp cracking sound, and the tip broke away in my hand. I realized immediately what was happening and tried retreating, but it was too late. My weight had snapped the tip clean off, and my body dipped, slamming into a few neighboring stalagmites.

The noise wasn't especially loud, but it built like thunder, and I could hear familiar tingling sounds overhead. Easing my head around, I glued my eyes to the ceiling and watched as several small stalactites fell and smashed. They didn't bother me - even if they'd been on target, they couldn't have done much harm - but the enormous stalactite directly above caused my guts to shrivel in fearful anticipation. For a while it looked like I was safe - the initial noise didn't even make the stalactite quiver - but, as smaller stalactites dropped and exploded, the larger one began to shake, gently at first, then alarmingly.

I tried scurrying out of its way, but I was snagged on the stalagmites. It would take a few seconds to free myself. I half rolled over, creating room to maneuver. I was staring up at the stalactite, judging how long I had to wriggle clear, when I thought about the stalactites around it. If the big one fell and smashed, the vibrations would bring pretty much every stalactite in this part of the cavern down on top of me!

While I was considering the problem and trying to figure a way out of it, the large stalactite snapped abruptly in the middle, and the lower half dropped upon me in a rush, its pin-sharp tip directed like an arrow at the soft flesh of my belly - it was going to go right through me!

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