IT WAS an age of tragic mistakes. For me, the tragedy began fourteen years earlier when, mesmerized by a vampire's amazing performing tarantula, I stole it from him. After an initially successful theft, everything went to hell, and I paid for my crime with my humanity. Faking my own death, I left my family and home, and travelled the world with the Cirque Du Freak, as the assistant to a blood-drinking creature of the night.
My name's Darren Shan. I'm a half-vampire.
I'm also - through a series of events so astounding I still have trouble believing they really happened - a Vampire Prince. The Princes are the leaders of the vampire clan, respected and obeyed by all. There are only five of them - the others are Paris Skyle, Mika Ver Leth, Arrow and Vancha March.
I'd been a Prince for six years, living within the Halls of Vampire Mountain (the stronghold of the clan), learning the customs and traditions of my people, and how to be a vampire of good standing. I'd also been learning the ways of warfare, and how to use weapons. The rules of battle were essential components of any vampire's education, but now more so than ever - because we were at war.
Our opponents were the vampaneze, our purple-skinned blood-cousins. They're a lot like vampires in many ways, but alien to us in one key area - they kill whenever they drink blood. Vampires don't harm those they feed from - we simply take a small amount of blood from each human we target - but vampaneze believe it's shameful to feed without draining their victims dry.
Though there was no love lost between the vampires and vampaneze, for hundreds of years an uneasy truce had existed between the two clans. That changed six years ago when a group of vampaneze - aided by a vampire traitor called Kurda Smahlt - stormed Vampire Mountain in an attempt to seize control of the Hall of Princes. We defeated them (thanks largely to my discovery of the plot prior to their assault), then interrogated the survivors, baffled by why they should choose to attack.
Unlike vampires, vampaneze had no leaders - they were entirely democratic - but when they split from the vampires six hundred years ago, a mysterious, powerful magician known as Mr. Tiny paid them a visit and placed the Coffin of Fire in their possession. This coffin burnt alive anyone who lay within it - but Mr. Tiny said that one night a man would lie down in it and step out unharmed, and that man would lead them into a victorious war with the vampires, establishing the vampaneze as the unopposed rulers of the night.
During the interrogation, we learnt to our horror that the Lord of the Vampaneze had finally arisen, and vampaneze across the world were preparing for the violent, bloody war to come.
Once our assailants had been put to a painful death, word spread from Vampire Mountain like wildfire: "We're at war with the vampaneze!" And we'd been locked in combat with them ever since, fighting grimly, desperate to disprove Mr. Tiny's dark prophecy - that we were destined to lose the war and be wiped from the face of the earth...
IT WAS another long, tiring night in the Hall of Princes. A Vampire General called Staffen Irve was reporting to me and Paris Skyle. Paris was the oldest living vampire, with more than eight hundred years under his belt. He had flowing white hair, a long, grey beard, and had lost his right ear in a fight many decades ago.
Staffen Irve had been active in the field for three years, and had been giving us a quick rundown of his experiences in the War of the Scars, as it had come to be known (a reference to the scars on our fingertips, the common mark of a vampire or vampaneze). It was a strange war. There were no big battles and neither side used missile-firing weapons - vampires and vampaneze fight only with hand to hand weapons like swords, clubs and spears. The war was a series of isolated skirmishes, three or four vampires at a time pitting themselves against a similar number of vampaneze, fighting to the death.
"There was four of us 'gainst three of them," Staffen Irve said, telling us about one of his more recent encounters. "But my lads was dry behind the tonsils, while the vampaneze was battle-hardy. I killed one of 'em but the others got away, leaving two of my lads dead and the third with a useless arm.
"Have any of the vampaneze spoken of their Lord?" Paris asked.
"No, Sire. Those I take alive only laugh at my questions, even under torture."
In the six years that we'd been hunting for their Lord, there'd been no sign of him. We knew he hadn't been blooded - various vampaneze had told us that he was learning their ways before becoming one of them - and the general opinion was that if we were to have any chance of thwarting Mr. Tiny's predictions, we had to find and kill their Lord before he assumed full control of the clan.
A cluster of Generals was waiting to speak with Paris. They moved forward as Staffen Irve departed, but I signalled them back. Picking up a mug of warm blood, I passed it to the one-eared Prince. He smiled and drank deeply, then wiped red stains from around his mouth with the back of a trembling hand - the responsibility of running the war council was taking its toll on the ancient vampire.
"Do you want to call it a night?" I asked, worried about Paris's health.
He shook his head. "The night is young," he muttered.
"But you are not," said a familiar voice behind me - Mr. Crepsley. The vampire in the red cloak spent most of his time by my side, advising and encouraging me. He was in a peculiar position. As an ordinary vampire, he held no recognizable rank, and could be commanded by the lowliest of Generals. Yet as my guardian he wielded the unofficial powers of a Prince (since I followed his advice practically all the time). The reality was that Mr. Crepsley was second in charge only to Paris Skyle, yet nobody openly acknowledged this. Vampire protocol - go figure!
"You should rest," Mr. Crepsley said to Paris, laying a hand on the Prince's shoulder. "This war will run a long time. You must not exhaust yourself too early. We will have need of you later."
"Rot!" Paris laughed. "You and Darren are the future. I am the past, Larten. I will not live to see the end of this war if it drags on as long as we fear. If I do not make my mark now, I never will."
Mr. Crepsley started to object, but Paris silenced him with the crooking of a finger. "An old owl hates to be told how young and virile he is. I am on my last legs, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool, a liar, or both."
Mr. Crepsley tilted his head obediently. "Very well. I will not argue with you."
"I should hope not," Paris sniffed, then shifted tiredly on his throne. "But this has been a taxing night. I will talk with these Generals, then crawl off to my coffin to sleep. Will Darren be able to manage without me?"