"PACK YOUR BAGS," Mr. Crepsley said late one night, as he was heading for his coffin. "We leave for Vampire Mountain tomorrow."
I was used to the vampire making declarations out of the blue - he didn't believe in consulting me when he was making up his mind - but this was shocking, even for him.
"Vampire Mountain?" I yelled, racing after him. "Why are we going there?"
"To present you to the Council," he said. "It is time."
"The Council of Vampire Generals?" I asked. "Why do we have to go? Why now?"
"We go because it is proper," he said. "And we go now because the Council only meets once every twelve years. If we miss this year's gathering, we will have a long wait until the next."
And that was all he'd say about it. He ignored the rest of my questions and tucked himself into his coffin before the sun rose, leaving me to worry the day away.
My name is Darren Shan. I'm a half-vampire. I used to be human until eight or so years ago, when my destiny clashed with Mr. Crepsley's and I reluctantly became his assistant. I had a hard time adapting to the vampire and his ways - especially when it came to drinking human blood - but finally I let go, accepted my situation, and got on with the business of living.
We were part of a traveling band of amazing circus performers, led by a man called Hibernius Tall. We toured the world, putting on incredible shows for customers who appreciated our strange and magical talents.
Six years had gone by since Mr. Crepsley and me had last been separated from the Cirque Du Freak. We left to put a stop to a mad vampaneze by the name of Murlough, who was terrorizing the vampire's home city. The vampaneze are a breakaway group of vampires who kill humans when they feed on them. Vampires don't - we just take a little bit of blood and move on, leaving those we suck from unharmed. Most of the vampire myths you read about in books or see in movies actually began with the vampaneze.
They were a pretty good six years. I became a regular performer at the Cirque, going on with Madam Octa - Mr. Crepsley's poisonous spider - every night to amaze and frighten audiences. I also learned a few magic tricks, which I worked into the act. I got along well with the rest of the Cirque troupe. I got used to the wandering lifestyle and had been having a good time.
Now, after six years of stability, we were about to journey into the unknown again. I knew a little bit about the Council and Vampire Mountain. Vampires were ruled by soldiers called Vampire Generals, who made sure their laws were enforced. They killed insane or evil vampires and kept the rest of the walking undead in line. Mr. Crepsley used to be a Vampire General, but quit a long time ago, for reasons he never revealed.
Every once in a while - I now knew it was twelve years - the Generals gathered at a secret fortress to discuss whatever it was that bloodsucking creatures of the night discussed when they got together. Not only Generals attended - I heard that ordinary vampires could go, too - but they made up the majority. I didn't know where the fortress was, or how we'd get there, or why I had to be presented to the Council - but I was about to find out!
I WAS EXCITED BUT ANXIOUS about the journey - I was venturing into the unknown, and I had a feeling it wouldn't turn out to be a smooth trip - so I spent the day busily packing knapsacks for myself and Mr. Crepsley, to make the time pass faster. (Full vampires will die if exposed to the sun for more than a few hours, but half-vampires aren't affected by it.) Since I didn't know where we were going, I didn't know what to take or leave. If Vampire Mountain was icy and wintry, I'd need thick clothes and boots; if it was somewhere hot and tropical, T-shirts and shorts would make more sense.
I asked some of the Cirque people about it but they didn't know anything, except Mr. Tall, who said I should pack for snow. Mr. Tall was one of those people who seemed to know something about everything.
Evra agreed about the snow. "I doubt if sun-shy vampires would make their base in the Caribbean!" He laughed sarcastically.
Evra Von was a snake-boy, with scales instead of skin. Or wait, he used to be a snake-boy - now he was a snake-man. Evra had grown these last six years, gotten taller and broader and older-looking. I hadn't. As a half-vampire, I aged at one-fifth the normal rate. So, although eight years had gone by since Mr. Crepsley blooded me, I only looked about a year older.
I hated not being able to grow normally. Evra and me used to be best buddies, but not anymore. We were still good friends and shared a tent, but he was a young man now, more interested in people - especially women! - his own age. In reality I was only a couple of years younger than Evra, but I looked like a kid, and it was hard for him to treat me like an equal.
There were benefits to being a half-vampire - I was stronger and faster than any human, and would live longer - but I would have given them all up if it meant looking my real age and being able to lead an ordinary life.
Even though Evra and me weren't as close as we'd once been, he was still my friend, and was worried about me heading off for Vampire Mountain. "From what I know, that journey's no joke," he warned in the deep voice that had hit him a few years ago. "Maybe I should come with you."
I would have loved to jump at his offer, but Evra had his own life to lead. It wouldn't be fair to drag him away from the Cirque Du Freak. "No," I told him. "Stay and keep my hammock warm. I'll be okay. Besides, snakes don't like the cold, do they?"
"That's true." He laughed. "I'd probably fall asleep and hibernate till spring!"
Even though Evra wouldn't be coming, he helped me pack. I didn't have much to take: spare clothes, a thick pair of boots, special cooking utensils that folded up neatly so they were easier to carry, my diary - that went everywhere with me - and other stuff. Evra told me to take a rope - he said it might come in handy, especially when it came to climbing.
"But vampires are great climbers," I reminded him.
"I know," he said, "but do you really want to hang off the side of a mountain with only your fingertips for support?"
"Of course he does!" someone boomed behind us before I could answer. "Vampires thrive on danger."
Turning to see who it was, I found myself face-to-face with the sinister being known as Mr. Tiny, and my insides instantly froze with fright.
Mr. Tiny was a small, plump man, with white hair, thick glasses, and a pair of green boots. He fiddled around a lot with a heart-shaped watch. He looked like a nice old uncle but was really a cruel, dark-hearted man who'd cut your tongue out as soon as say hello to you. Nobody knew much about him, but everyone was afraid of him. His first name was Desmond, and if you shortened it to ?Des" and put it together with his last name you got Mr. Destiny.
I hadn't seen Mr. Tiny since a little after joining the Cirque Du Freak, but I heard a lot of stories about him - how he ate children for breakfast and burned down towns to warm his feet. My heart palpitated when I saw him standing a few feet away, eyes twinkling, hands wrapped behind his back, eavesdropping on Evra and me.
"Vampires are peculiar creatures," he said, stepping forward, as though he'd been part of the conversation all along. "They love a challenge. I knew one once who walked himself to death in sunlight, merely because someone had sneered at him for only being able to come out at night."
He stuck out a hand and, scared as I was, I automatically shook it. Evra didn't - when Mr. Tiny extended his hand to the snake-man, he stood, quivering, shaking his head furiously. Mr. Tiny just smiled and took back his hand.
"So, you're off to Vampire Mountain," he said, picking up my knapsack and peering inside without asking. "Take matches, Master Shan. The way is long and the days are cold. The winds that gust around Vampire Mountain would cut even a tough-skinned young man like you to the bone."
"Thanks for the advice," I said.
That was the confusing thing about Mr. Tiny. He was always polite and friendly, so even if you knew he was the type of guy who wouldn't blink in the face of great evil, you couldn't help liking him at least some of the time.
"Are my Little People near?" he asked. The Little People were short creatures who dressed in blue robes with hoods, never spoke, and ate anything that moved (including humans!). A couple of the mysterious beings almost always traveled with the Cirque Du Freak, and there were eight of them with us at that time.
"They're probably in their tent," I said. "I brought them some food about an hour ago, and I think they're still eating." One of my jobs was to hunt for the Little People's food. Evra used to do it with me, until he grew up and demanded less messy chores. Nowadays I was helped by a couple of young humans, children of the Cirque helpers.
"Excellent." Mr. Tiny beamed, and began to walk away. "Oh." He paused. "One last thing. Tell Larten not to leave until I've had a word with him."
"I think we're in a hurry," I said. "We might not have time to -"
"Just tell him I want a word," Mr. Tiny interrupted. "I'm sure he'll make time for me." With that, he tipped his glasses at us, waved good-bye, and moved on. I shared a worried look with Evra, found some matches and stuck them in my bag, then hurried off to wake Mr. Crepsley.
MR. CREPSLEY WAS GRUMPY when I woke him - he hated getting up before the sun went down - but stopped complaining when I told him why I disturbed his sleep. "Mr. Tiny." He sighed, scratching the long scar that ran down the left side of his face. "I wonder what he wants?"
"I don't know," I answered, "but he said not to leave until he had a word with you." I lowered my voice and whispered, "We could sneak away without being seen if we hurried. Dusk isn't too far away. You could handle about an hour of sunlight if we stayed in the shadows, couldn't you?"
"I could," Mr. Crepsley agreed, "were I given to fleeing like a dog with its tail between its legs. But I am not. I will face Desmond Tiny. Bring me my finest cloak - I like to look my best for visitors." That was as close to a joke as the vampire was probably going to come - he didn't have much of a sense of humor.
An hour later, with the sun setting, we made our way to Mr. Tall's caravan, where Mr. Tiny was entertaining the owner of the Cirque Du Freak with stories of what he'd seen in a recent earthquake.
"Ah, Larten!" Mr. Tiny boomed. "Prompt as ever."
"Desmond," Mr. Crepsley replied stiffly.
"Have a seat," Mr. Tiny said.
"Thank you, but I will stand." Nobody liked sitting when Mr. Tiny was around - in case they needed to make a quick getaway.
"I hear you're taking off for Vampire Mountain," Mr. Tiny said.
"We leave tonight," Mr. Crepsley confirmed.
"This is the first Council you've been to in about fifty years, isn't it?"
"You are well informed," Mr. Crepsley grunted.
"I keep an ear to the ground."
There was a knock at the door, and Mr. Tall let in two of the Little People. One walked with kind of a limp. He'd been with the Cirque Du Freak almost as long as me. I called him Lefty, although that was only a nickname - none of the Little People had real names.
"Ready, boys?" Mr. Tiny asked. The Little People nodded. "Excellent!" He smiled at Mr. Crepsley. "The path to Vampire Mountain is as hazardous as ever, isn't it?"
"It is not easy," Mr. Crepsley agreed cagily.
"Dangerous for a young snip of a thing like Master Shan, wouldn't you say?"
"Darren can look after himself," Mr. Crepsley said, and I grinned proudly.
"I'm sure he can," Mr. Tiny responded, "but it's unusual for someone so young to make the journey, isn't it?"
"Yes," Mr. Crepsley said curtly.
"That's why I'm sending these two along as guards." Mr. Tiny waved a hand at the Little People.
"Guards?" Mr. Crepsley barked. "We do not need any. I have made the trip many times. I can look after Darren myself."
"You can indeed," Mr. Tiny cooed, "but a little help never went astray, did it?"
"They would get in the way," Mr. Crepsley growled. "I do not want them."
"My Little People? Get in the way?" Mr. Tiny sounded shocked. "They exist only to serve. They'll be like shepherds, watching over the two of you while you sleep."
"Nevertheless," Mr. Crepsley insisted, "I do not want -"
"This is not an offer," Mr. Tiny interrupted. Although he spoke softly, the menace in his voice was unmistakable. "They're going with you. End of story. They'll hunt for themselves and see to their own sleeping arrangements. All you have to do is make sure you don't 'lose' them in the snowy wastelands on the way."
"And when we get there?" Mr. Crepsley snapped. "Do you expect me to take them inside? That is not permitted. The Princes will not stand for it."
"Yes they will," Mr. Tiny disagreed. "Don't forget by whose hands the Hall of Princes was built. Paris Skyle and the rest know which side their blood is buttered on. They won't object."
Mr. Crepsley was furious - practically shaking with rage - but the anger seeped out of him as he stared into Mr. Tiny's eyes and realized there was no arguing with the little man. In the end he nodded and shifted his gaze, ashamed at having to bow to the demands of this interfering man.
"I knew you'd see it my way," Mr. Tiny said, then turned his attention to me. "You've grown," he noted. "Inside, where it matters. Your battles with the wolf-man and Murlough have toughened you."