I HAS A SPLIT SECOND to think and react. For a human, it would have been all over. As a half-vampire, I stood a chance. Wriggling out of the way was impossible - no time - so I flopped onto my back, bracing myself against the flat rim of the stalagmite whose tip I'd broken off. Letting go of the stalagmites around me, ignoring the pain as a dozen sharp tips dug into me, I raised my hands above my body and grabbed for the dropping stalactite.

I caught it in midair, several inches above the tip. It slid down through my hands, shedding tiny silver splinters all along the flesh of my palms. I had to bite down hard on my tongue to hold an agonized yell inside.

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Ignoring the pain, I pressed my hands closer together, gripping the stalactite as tightly as I could, and the tip came to a stop a couple of inches above my belly. The muscles in my arms creaked at the effort it took to stop and hold the heavy piece of stalactite, but didn't let me down.

Gently, with trembling arms, I laid the stalactite to one side, careful not to make any noise, then lifted myself off the stalagmites and blew on my bleeding palms, the lines of which had been severed in dozens of places by the sharp sides of the stake. By the luck of the vampires, none of my fingers had been amputated, but that was the only thing I had to feel grateful for.

The rest of my body had been similarly lacerated. I felt like I'd been stabbed all over. Blood was flowing freely from my back, arms, and legs, and I could feel a deep impression in the skin of my lower back, where the rim of the big stalagmite had cut into me. But I was alive!

I took my time going over the rest of the sharp cluster, hard as it was. Once clear, I paused, wiped the blood from my hands, licked my fingers, and rubbed spit into the worst of my wounds. I wasn't able to close cuts like full-vampires could, but the damp saliva eased some of the pain. A few sorry tears crept down my cheeks, but I knew self-pity would get me nowhere, so I wiped them away and told myself to concentrate - I wasn't out of the cavern yet.

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I thought about taking off my top and ripping it to pieces, wrapping the strips around my hands to give me a firmer grip. But that would have been cheating, and the vampire blood in me boiled angrily at the suggestion. Instead, I found more pockets of dirt and used them to dry my blood-stained palms and fingers. I also rubbed lots of dirt into my feet and lower legs, which were slippery with blood that had dripped from my hands.

After a short rest, I continued. It wasn't so hard on this side of the cluster, but I was in such bad shape that it seemed difficult. I proceeded slowly, testing each stalagmite more thoroughly than necessary, taking no chances at all.

Finally, after more than an hour and a half on the Path of Needles - most vampires made it across in less than forty minutes - I crawled out, to be warmly greeted by the few vampires who'd gathered to cheer my success.

"Well?" Vanez asked, throwing a roughly woven towel around my shoulders. "Still think it isn't much of a Trial?"

I glowered at the games master. "If I ever say such a stupid thing again," I told him, "cut out my tongue and sew my lips closed!"

"Come on," he laughed. "We'll wash off that blood and dirt, then get busy with the balms and bandages."

Supported by Vanez and Mr. Crepsley, I hobbled away from the Path of Needles and said a silent prayer that the next Trial would have nothing to do with cramped caverns and razor-sharp obstacles. If I'd known how my prayer was going to be answered, I wouldn't have bothered!

As it turned out, I didn't have to worry about my next Trial immediately. While I was showering under an icy-cold waterfall in the Hall of Perta Vin-Grahl, word reached us that the final vampire had arrived at the mountain, which meant the Festival of the Undead would begin at the end of the next day, with the setting of the sun.

"There!" Vanez beamed. "Three nights and days to drink, be merry, recover, and relax. Things couldn't have worked out better if we'd planned them."

"I don't know," I groaned, using my fingernails to dig dirt out of the cuts in my legs and feet. "I think I'll need a couple of weeks - at least!"

"Nonsense," Vanez said. "A few nights and you'll be good as new. A little scarred and scratched, but nothing that will work against you in the later Trials."

"Will I have my extra allotted day to prepare for the Trial, on top of the three days allowed for the Festival?" I asked.

"Of course," he said. "There can be no official business during the Festival of the Undead. It's a time for rest and games and the swapping of old tales. Even the subject of the vampaneze must be put on ice for the next three nights and days.

"I've been looking forward to this for months," Vanez said, rubbing his hands together. "As a games master, I can have nothing to do with organizing or overseeing games during the Festival - so I can cut loose and really enjoy myself, without having to worry about what others are getting up to."

"Can you take part in the games with just one eye?" I asked.

"Certainly," he replied. "There are a few which require the use of both, but most don't. Wait and see - I'll crack many a head before the final ceremonies of the Festival. Dozens of vampires are going to leave the Council cursing my name and the night they crossed me."

When I finished showering, I stepped out of the waterfall and wrapped myself in several towels. I stood by a couple of strong torches to dry out, then Vanez bandaged the worst of my wounds, and I slipped into the light clothes he'd provided. Although the material was wafer thin, I felt uncomfortable, and as soon as I was back in my cell I got rid of the clothes and lay down naked in my hammock.

I didn't get much sleep that night - I was too sore. Though I tried to lie still, I couldn't, and my tossing and turning kept me awake. Finally I got up, pulled on a pair of pants, and went looking for Harkat. It turned out he was back in the Hall of Princes - they were questioning him about his message from Mr. Tiny one last time, before the Festival of the Undead - so I returned to my cell, found a mirror, and passed a few hours counting the scratches on the backs of my arms and legs.

As day came - I was getting used to the passage of time inside the mountain; when I'd first arrived I hadn't been able to tell the difference between day and night - I got back in my hammock and tried to sleep again. This time I managed to doze off, and though my sleep was fitful, I squeezed in a handful of hours before the start of the much-awaited Festival of the Undead.

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