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?"

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"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.

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Harkat thought the ruined world would only come to pass if the vampaneze won the War of the Scars. But I knew about a prediction which I hadn't shared with anybody else. When the hunt for Steve was finally concluded, there would be one of two possible futures. In one, Steve became and destroyed the world. In the other future, wasme .

That's why I woke in a cold sweat, to the sound of my own screams, so often. It wasn't just fear of the future, but fear of myself. Would I somehow play a part in creating the barren, twisted world I'd seen in the future? Was I damned to become a monster like Steve, and wreck all that I held dear? It seemed impossible, but the uncertainties gnawed away at me all the same, prompted by the ever-repeating nightmares. I spent the time before dawn chatting with Harkat, small talk, nothing serious. He'd suffered terrible nightmares before finding out the truth about himself, so he knew exactly what I was going through. He knew what to say to calm me down.

When the sun rose and the Cirque camp started to come to life around us, we made an early start on our day's chores. We'd been with the Cirque Du Freak since returning from our gruelling quest in the wasteworld. We knew nothing about what was happening in the War of the Scars. Harkat wanted to return to Vampire Mountain, or at least make contact with the clan - now that he knew he had once been a vampire, he was more concerned than ever for them. But I held off. I didn't feel the time was right. I had a hunch that we were meant to remain with the Cirque, and that destiny would decide our course as and when it saw fit. Harkat strongly disagreed with me - we'd had some very heated arguments about it - but he reluctantly followed my lead - though I'd sensed recently that his patience was coming to an end.

We performed a variety of jobs around the camp, helping out wherever we were needed - moving equipment, mending costumes, feeding the Wolf Man. We were handymen. Mr Tall - the owner of the Cirque Du Freak - had offered to find more responsible, permanent positions for us, but we didn't know when we'd have to leave. It was easier to stick to simple tasks and not get too involved in the long-term running of the show. That way we wouldn't be missed too much when the time came to part company with the freakish folk.

We'd been performing on the outskirts of a large city, in an old, run-down factory. Sometimes we played in a big top which we transported around with us, but Mr Tall always liked to take advantage of local venues whenever possible. This was our fourth and final show in the factory. We'd be moving on in the morning, to pastures new. None of us knew where we'd be going yet - Mr Tall made those decisions and usually didn't tell us until we'd broken camp and were already on the move.

We put on a typically tight, exciting show that night, built around some of the longest-serving performers - Gertha Teeth, Rhamus Twobellies, Alexander Ribs, Truska the bearded lady, Hans Hands, Evra and Shancus Von. Usually the Vons rounded off the show, treating audiences to one final scare when their snakes slid from the shadows overhead. But Mr Tall had been experimenting with different line-ups recently.

On stage, Jekkus Flang was juggling knives. Jekkus was one of the Cirque helpers, like Harkat and me, but tonight he'd been billed as a star attraction and was entertaining the crowd with a display of knife tricks. Jekkus was a good juggler, but his act was pretty dull compared to the others. After a few minutes, a man in the front row stood up as Jekkus balanced a long knife on the tip of his nose.

"This is rubbish!" the man shouted, climbing on to the stage. "This is meant to be a place of magic and wonder - not juggling tricks! I could see stuff like this at any circus."

Jekkus took the knife from his nose and snarled at the intruder. "Get off the stage, or I'll cut you up into tiny pieces!"

"You don't worry me," the man snorted, taking a couple of large paces over to Jekkus, so they were eyeball to eyeball. "You're wasting our time and money. I want a refund."

"Insolent scum!" Jekkus roared, then lashed out with his knife and cut off the man's left arm just below the elbow! The man screamed and grabbed for the falling limb. As he was reaching for his lost forearm, Jekkus struck again and cut off the man's other arm in the same place!

People in the audience erupted with panic and surged to their feet. The man with the jagged stumps beneath his elbows tottered towards the edge of the stage, desperately waving his half-arms around, face white with apparent shock. But then he stopped - and laughed.

The people in the front rows heard the laughter and stared up at the stage suspiciously. The man laughed again. This time his laughter carried further, and people all around relaxed and faced the stage. As they watched, tiny hands grew out of the stumps of the man's arms. The hands continued to grow, followed by wrists and forearms. A minute later, the man's arms had returned to their natural length. He flexed his fingers, grinned, and took a bow.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" Mr Tall boomed, appearing suddenly on stage. "Put your hands together for the fabulous, the amazing, the incredibleCormac Limbs !"

Everybody realized they'd been the victims of a practical joke - the man who'd stepped out of the audience was a performer. They clapped and cheered as Cormac sliced off his fingers one by one, each of which grew back quickly. He could cut off any part of his body - though he'd never tried chopping off his head! Then the show finished for real and the crowd poured out, babbling with excitement, wildly discussing the mystical mysteries of the sensational Cirque Du Freak.

Inside, Harkat and I helped with the tidying up. Everyone involved was vastly experienced, and we could normally clear everything away within half an hour, sometimes less. Mr Tall stood in the shadows while we worked. That was odd - he normally retired to his van after a show - but we took little notice of it. You grew used to oddness when you worked with the Cirque Du Freak!

As I was stacking several chairs away, to be removed to a truck by other hands, Mr Tall stepped forward. "A moment, please, Darren," he said, removing the tall red hat he wore whenever he went on stage. He took a map out of the hat - the map was much larger than the hat, but I didn't question how he'd fitted it inside - and unrolled it. He held one end of the map in his large left hand and nodded for me to take the other end.

"This is where we are now," Mr Tall said, pointing to a spot on the map. I studied it curiously, wondering why he was showing me. "And this is where we will be going next," he said, pointing to a town a hundred and sixty kilometres away.

I looked at the name of the town. My breath caught in my throat. For a moment I felt dizzy and a cloud seemed to pass in front of my eyes. Then my expression cleared. "I see," I said softly.

"You don't have to come with us," Mr Tall said. "You can take a different route and meet up with us later, if you wish."

I started to think about it, then made a snap gut decision instead. "That's OK," I said. "I'll come. I want to. It? it'll be interesting."

"Very well," Mr Tall said briskly, taking back the map and rolling it up again. "We depart in the morning."

With that, Mr Tall slipped away. I felt he didn't approve of my decision, but I couldn't say why, and I didn't devote much thought to it. Instead, I stood by the stacked-up chairs, lost in the past, thinking about all the people I'd known as a child, especially my parents and younger sister. Harkat limped over eventually and waved a grey hand in front of my face, snapping me out of my daze. "What's wrong?" he asked, sensing my disquiet.

"Nothing," I said, with a confused shrug. "At least, I don't think so. It might even be a good thing. I?" Sighing, I stared at the ten little scars on my fingertips and muttered without looking up, "I'm going home."

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