The smell of blood is sickening. Hundreds of carcasses hang from silver hooks, stiff, shiny with frosty blood. I know they're just animals - cows, pigs, sheep - but I keep thinking they're human.
I take a careful step forward. Powerful overhead lights mean it's bright as day. I have to tread carefully. Hide behind the dead animals. Move slowly. The floor's slippery with water and blood, which makes progress even trickier.
Ahead, I spot him... the vampire... Mr. Crepsley. He's moving as quietly as I am, eyes focused on the fat man a little way ahead.
The fat man. He's why I'm here in this ice-cold slaughterhouse. He's the human Mr. Crepsley intends to kill. He's the man I have to save.
The fat man pauses and checks one of the hanging slabs of meat. His cheeks are chubby and red. He's wearing clear plastic gloves. He pats the dead animal - the squeaky noise of the hook as the carcass swings puts my teeth on edge - then begins whistling. He starts to walk again. Mr. Crepsley follows. So do I.
Evra is somewhere far behind. I left him outside. No point in both of us risking our lives.
I pick up speed, moving slowly closer. Neither knows I'm here. If everything works out as planned, they won't know, not until Mr. Crepsley makes his move. Not until I'm forced to act.
The fat man stops again. Bends to examine something. I take a quick step back, afraid he'll spot me, but then I see Mr. Crepsley closing in. Damn! No time to hide. If this is the moment he's chosen to attack, I have to get nearer.
I spring forward several feet, risking being heard. Luckily Mr. Crepsley is entirely focused on the fat man.
I'm only three or four feet behind the vampire now. I bring up the long butcher's knife that I've been holding down by my side. My eyes are glued to Mr. Crepsley. I won't act until he does - I'll give him every chance to prove my terrible suspicions wrong - but the second I see him tensing to spring...
I take a firmer grip on the knife. I've been practicing my swipe all day. I know the exact point I want to hit. One quick cut across Mr. Crepsley's throat and that'll be that. No more vampire. One more carcass to add to the pile.
Long seconds slip by. I don't dare look to see what the fat man is studying. Is he ever going to rise?
Then it happens. The fat man struggles to his feet. Mr. Crepsley hisses. He gets ready to lunge. I position the knife and steady my nerves. The fat man's on his feet now. He hears something. Looks up at the ceiling - wrong way, idiot! - as Mr. Crepsley leaps. As the vampire jumps, so do I, screeching loudly, slashing at him with the knife, determined to kill...
One month earlier...
My name's Darren Shan. I'm a half-vampire.
I used to be human, until I stole a vampire's spider. After that, my life changed forever. Mr. Crepsley - the vampire - forced me to become his assistant, and I joined a circus full of weird performers called the Cirque Du Freak.
Adapting was hard. Drinking blood was harder, and for a long time I wouldn't do it. Eventually I did, to save the memories of a dying friend (vampires can store a person's memories if they drain all their blood). I didn't enjoy it - the following few weeks were horrible, and I was plagued by nightmares - but after that first blood-red drink there could be no going back. I accepted my role as a vampire's assistant and learned to make the best of it.
Over the course of the next year, Mr. Crepsley taught me how to hunt and drink without being caught; how to take just enough blood to survive; how to hide my vampire identity when mixing with others. And in time I put my human fears behind me and became a true creature of the night.
A couple of girls stood watching Cormac Limbs with serious expressions. He was stretching his arms and legs, rolling his neck around, loosening his muscles. Then, winking at the girls, he put the middle three fingers of his right hand between his teeth and bit them off.
The girls screamed and fled. Cormac chuckled and wriggled the new fingers that were growing out of his hand.
I laughed. You got used to stuff like that when you worked in the Cirque Du Freak. The traveling show was full of incredible people, freaks of nature with cool and sometimes frightening powers.
Apart from Cormac Limbs, the performers included Rhamus Twobellies, capable of eating a full-grown elephant or an army tank; Gertha Teeth, who could bite through steel; the wolf-man - half man, half wolf, who'd killed my friend Sam Grest; Truska, a beautiful and mysterious woman who could grow a beard at will; and Mr. Tall, who could move as fast as lightning and seemed to be able to read people's minds. Mr. Tall owned and managed the Cirque Du Freak.
We were performing in a small town, camped behind an old mill inside which the show was staged every night. It was a run-down junkyard, but I was used to that type of venue. We could have played the grandest theaters in the world and slept in luxurious hotel rooms - the Cirque made a ton of money - but it was safer to keep a low profile and stick to places where the police and other officials rarely wandered.
My appearance hadn't changed much since leaving home with Mr. Crepsley almost a year and a half before. Because I was a half-vampire, I aged at only a fifth the rate of humans, which meant that though eighteen months had passed, my body was only three or four months older.
Although I wasn't very different on the outside, inside I was an entirely new person. I was stronger than any boy my age, able to run faster, leap farther, and dig my extra-strong nails into brick walls. My hearing, eyesight, and sense of smell had improved vastly.
Since I wasn't a full vampire, there was lots of stuff I couldn't do yet. For example, Mr. Crepsley could run at a superquick speed, which he called flitting. He could breathe out a gas that knocked people unconscious. And he could communicate telepathically with vampires and a few others, such as Mr. Tall.
I wouldn't be able to do those things until I became a full vampire. I didn't lose any sleep over it, because being a half-vampire had its bonuses: I didn't have to drink much human blood and - better yet - I could move around during the day.
It was daytime when I was exploring a garbage dump with Evra, the snake-boy, looking for food for the Little People - weird, small creatures who wore blue hooded capes and never spoke. Nobody - except maybe Mr. Tall - knew who or what they were, where they came from, or why they traveled with the Cirque. Their master was a creepy man called Mr. Tiny (he liked to eat children!), but we didn't see much of him at the Cirque.
"Found a dead dog," Evra shouted, holding it above his head. "It smells a little. Do you think they'll mind?"
I sniffed the air - Evra was a long way off, but I could smell the dog from here as well as a human could up close - and shook my head. "It'll be fine," I said. The Little People ate just about anything we brought.
I had a fox and a few rats in my bag. I felt bad about killing the rats - rats are friendly with vampires and usually come up to us like tame pets if we call them - but work is work. We all have to do things we don't like in life.
There were a bunch of Little People with the Cirque - twenty of them - and one was hunting with Evra and me. He'd been with the Cirque since soon after me and Mr. Crepsley joined. I could tell him apart from the others because he had a limp in his left leg. Evra and me had taken to calling him Lefty.
"Hey, Lefty!" I shouted. "How's it going?" The small figure in the blue hooded cape didn't answer - he never did - but he patted his stomach, which was the sign we needed more food.
"Lefty says to keep going," I told Evra.
"Figures," he sighed.
As I prowled for another rat, I spotted a small silver cross in the garbage. I picked it up and brushed off the dirt. Studying the cross, I smiled. To think I used to believe vampires were terrified of crosses! Most of that stuff in old movies and books is crap. Crosses, holy water, garlic: none of those matter to vampires. We can cross running water. We don't have to be invited into a house before entering. We cast shadows and reflections (though a full vampire can't be photographed - something to do with bouncing atoms). We can't change shape or fly.
A stake through the heart will kill a vampire. But so will a well-placed bullet, or fire, or a heavy falling object. We're harder to kill than humans, but we aren't immortal. Far from it.
I placed the cross on the ground and stood back. Focusing my will, I tried making it jump into my left hand. I stared hard for all of a minute, then clicked the fingers of my right hand.
I tried again but still couldn't do it. I'd been trying for months, with no success. Mr. Crepsley made it look simple - one click of his fingers and an object would be in his hand, even if it was several feet away - but I hadn't been able to copy him.
I was getting along pretty well with Mr. Crepsley. He wasn't such a bad guy. We weren't friends, but I'd accepted him as a teacher and no longer hated him like I did when he first turned me into a half-vampire.
I put the cross in my pocket and proceeded with the hunt. After a while I found a half-starved cat in the remains of an old microwave oven. It was after rats, too.
The cat hissed at me and the hair on its neck raised. I pretended to turn my back on it, then spun quickly, grabbed it by the neck, and twisted. It gave a strangled little cry and then went limp. I stuck it in the bag and went to see how Evra was doing.
I didn't enjoy killing animals, but hunting was part of my nature. Anyway, I had no sympathy for cats. The blood of cats is poisonous to vampires. Drinking from one wouldn't have killed me, but it would have made me sick. And cats are hunters, too. The way I saw it, the less cats there were, the more rats there'd be.
That night, back in camp, I tried moving the cross with my mind again. I'd finished my jobs for the day, and the show wouldn't be starting for another couple of hours, so I had lots of time to kill.
It was a cold late-November night. There hadn't been any snow yet, but it was threatening. I was dressed in my colorful pirate costume: a light green shirt, dark purple pants, a gold-and-blue jacket, a red satin cloth around my waist, a brown hat with a feather in it, and soft shoes with toes that curled in on themselves.
I wandered away from the vans and tents and found a secluded spot around the side of the old mill.
I stuck the cross on a piece of wood in front of me, took a deep breath, concentrated on the cross, and willed it into the palm of my outstretched hand.
I shuffled closer, so my hand was only inches away from the cross.
"I command you to move," I said, clicking my fingers. "I order you to move." Click. "Move." Click. " Move!"
I shouted this last word louder than I meant to and stomped my foot in anger.
"What are you doing?" a familiar voice asked behind me.
Looking up, I saw Mr. Crepsley emerging out of the shadows.
"Nothing," I said, trying to hide the cross.
"What is that?" he asked. His eyes missed nothing.
"Just a cross I found while Evra and me were hunting," I said, holding it out.
"What were you doing with it?" Mr. Crepsley asked suspiciously.
"Trying to make it move," I said, deciding it was time to ask the vampire about his magic secrets. "How do you do it?"
A smile spread across his face, causing the long scar that ran down the left side to crinkle. "So that is what has been bothering you." He chuckled. He stretched out a hand and clicked his ringers, causing me to blink. Next thing I knew, the cross was in his hand.
"How's it done?" I asked. "Can only full vampires do it?"
"I will demonstrate again. Watch closely this time."
Replacing the cross on the piece of wood, he stood back and clicked his fingers. Once again it disappeared and turned up in his hand. "Did you see?"
"See what?" I was confused.
"One final time," he said. "Try not to blink."
I focused on the small silver piece. I heard his fingers clicking and - keeping my eyes wide open - thought I saw the slightest blur darting between me and the cross.
When I turned to look at him, he was tossing the cross from hand to hand and smiling. "Figured me out yet?" he asked.
I frowned. "I thought I saw... it looked like..." My face lit up. "You didn't move the cross!" I yelled excitedly. " Youmoved!"
He beamed. "Not as dull as you appear," he complimented me in his usual sarcastic manner.
"Do it again," I said. This time I didn't look at the cross: I watched the vampire. I wasn't able to track his movements - he was too fast - but I caught brief glimpses of him as he darted forward, snatched up the cross, and leaped back.
"So you're not able to move things with your mind?" I asked.
"Of course not." He laughed.
"Then why the click of the fingers?"
"To distract the eye," he explained.
"Then it's a trick," I said. "It's got nothing to do with being a vampire."
He shrugged. "I could not move so fast if I were human, but yes, it is a trick. I dabbled with illusions before I became a vampire, and I still like to practice."
"Could I learn to do it?" I asked.
"Maybe," he said. "You cannot move as fast as I can, but you could get away with it if the object was close to hand. You would have to practice hard - but if you wish, I can teach you."
"I always wanted to be a magician," I said. "But... hold on..." I remembered a couple of occasions when Mr. Crepsley had opened locks with a click of his fingers. "What about locks?" I asked.
"Those are different. You understand what static energy is?" My face was a blank. "Have you ever brushed a comb through your hair and held it up to a thin sheet of paper?"