In the distance a wave of blood was building. Red, towering, topped with spitting heads of fire. On a vast plain, a mass of vampires waited. All three thousand or so faced the onrushing wave. At the rear, separated from the crowd, I stood alone. I was trying to push forward - I wanted to be with the rest of the clan when the wave hit - but an invisible force held me back.
As I struggled, roaring silently - my voice didn't work here - the wave swept ever nearer. The vampires pulled closer together, terrified but proud, facing their deaths with dignity. Some were, pointing spears or swords at the wave, as though they could fight it back.
Closer now, almost upon them, half a kilometre high, stretching in an unbroken line across the horizon. A wave of crackling flames and boiling blood. The moon disappeared behind the crimson curtain and a blood-red darkness descended.
The foremost vampires were eaten by the wave. They screamed in agony as they were crushed, drowned or burnt to death, their bodies tossed about like pieces of cork within the heart of the scarlet wave. I reached out to them - my people! - and prayed to the gods of the vampires to free me, so that I could die with my blood brothers and sisters. But still I couldn't break through the invisible boundary.
More vampires vanished beneath the breaking surf of fire and blood, lost to the wave of merciless red. A thousand lives extinguished? fifteen hundred warriors eliminated? two thousand souls sent soaring to Paradise? twenty-five hundred death howls? three thousand corpses, bobbing and burning in the flames.
And then only I was left. My voice returned, and with a desolate cry I collapsed to my knees and glared hatefully up at the crest of the wave as it teetered overhead. I saw faces within the walls of flaming blood - my friends and allies. The wave was taunting me with them.
Then I saw something hovering in the air above the wave, a creature of myth but oh so real. A dragon. Long, glittering, scaled, terrifyingly beautiful. And on its back - a person. A figure of pulsating darkness. It was almost as though his body had been created from shadows.
The shadow man laughed when he saw me, and his laugh was a ghostly cackle, evil and mocking. At his command, the dragon swooped lower, so that it was only a few metres above me. From here I could see its rider's features. His face was a mass of dancing patches of darkness, but when I squinted I recognized him - Steve Leopard.
"All must fall to the Lord of the Shadows," Steve said softly, and pointed behind me. "This is my world now."
Turning around, I saw a vast area of wasteland dotted with corpses. Over the dead bodies crawled giant toads, hissing black panthers, grotesque human mutants, and more nightmarish creatures and shapes. Cities burnt in the far distance, and great mushroom clouds of smoke and flames filled the air overhead.
I faced Steve again and roared a challenge at him. "Face me on the ground, you monster! Fight me now!"
Steve only laughed, then waved an arm at the wave of fire. There was a moment of hushed calm. Then the wave crashed to earth around me and I was swept away, face burning, lungs filling with blood, surrounded by the bodies of the dead. But what terrified me most before I was swallowed by eternal blackness was that I'd snatched one final glimpse of before I died. And this time it wasn't Steve's face I saw - it wasmine .
My eyes snapped open. I wanted to scream, but there was a hand over my mouth, rough and powerful. Fear gripped me. I lashed out at my attacker. Then my senses returned and I realized it was just Harkat, muffling my screams so that I didn't disturb any of the sleepers in the neighbouring caravans and tents.
I relaxed and tapped Harkat's hand to show that I was OK. He released me and stepped back, his large green eyes alive with concern. He handed me a mug of water. I drank deeply from it, then wiped a shaking hand across my lips and smiled weakly. "Did I wake you?"
"I wasn't asleep," Harkat said. The grey-skinned Little Person didn't need much sleep and often went two or three nights without dozing. He took the mug from me and set it down. "It was a bad one this? time. You started screaming five or six? minutes ago, and only stopped now. The same nightmare?"
"Isn't it always?" I muttered. "The wasteworld, the wave of fire, the dragon, the? Steve," I finished quietly. I'd been haunted by the nightmare for almost two years, screaming myself awake at least a couple of times a week. In all those months I hadn't told Harkat about and that wretched face I always saw at the end of the nightmare. As far as he knew, Steve was the only monster in my dreams - I didn't dare tell him that I was as scared of myself as I was of Steve Leopard.
I swung my legs out of my hammock and sat up. I could tell by the darkness that it was only three or four in the morning, but I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep any more. The nightmare always left me shaken and wide awake.
Rubbing the back of my neck, I found myself studying Harkat out of the corner of my eye. Although he wasn't the source of my nightmares, I could trace their origins back to him. The Little Person had been built from the Remains of a corpse. For most of his newlife he hadn't known who he was. Two years ago, Mr Tiny - a man of immense power, with the ability to travel through time - transported us to a barren wasteworld and sent us off on a quest to discover Harkat's previous identity. We fought a variety of wild creatures and twisted monstrosities before finally fishing Harkat's original body out of the Lake of Souls, a holding place for damned spirits.
Harkat used to be a vampire called Kurda Smahlt. He'd betrayed the vampire clan in a bid to prevent war with our blood cousins, the purple-skinned vampaneze. To make up for his sins, he'd agreed to become Harkat Mulds and travel back into the past to be my guardian.
I'm Darren Shan, a Vampire Prince. I'm also one of the hunters of the Lord of the Vampaneze - a.k.a. Steve Leopard. Steve was destined to lead the vampaneze to victory over the vampires. If he won, he'd wipe us out entirely. But a few of us - the hunters - had the ability to stop him before he came fully into his powers. If we found and killed him before he matured, the war would be ours. By helping me as Harkat, Kurda hoped to help the clan and prevent their destined destruction at the hands of the vampaneze. In that way he could put right some of the wrongs he'd committed.
Having learnt the truth about Harkat, we returned to our own world - rather, our owntime . Because what we worked out later was that the wasteworld wasn't an alternative universe or Earth in the past, as we'd first thought - it was Earth in the future. Mr Tiny had given us a glimpse of what was to come if came to power.