I don’t want to die.
The air was thick with the smell of sweat and blood and dirt and shit. All around were the cries of men and the scream of horses from both sides, the whistle of volley after volley of arrows, the sharp whine of a blade slicing through the air, the pounding of hooves, the ear-splitting ring of steel against steel, an impossible crush of bodies and horseflesh. Everywhere was chaos and raw fear; trained, disciplined, courageous soldiers reduced to the animal instinct of blindly hacking and slashing at anything that came near. He had fought bravely but underneath the mask of courage he was terrified, just like everybody else. I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die. The words repeated themselves over and over at the back of his mind like a mantra. I don’t want to die. There were calls to advance, calls to retreat, and he could not tell who was shouting orders, he couldn’t even tell how long he had lain there, drifting in and out of consciousness, while men and horses churned the ground into mud all around him, and even in the pandemonium of the battlefield, frightened horses wheeled and reared to avoid trampling fallen bodies. His own horse had been killed beneath him and he had taken two arrows and a glancing slash below the ribs that he barely felt. Dimly, he heard a faraway voice calling his name, “Miya! Yaguchi Miya!” and a strong pair of hands trying to pull his broken body to safety, and he looked up through hazy eyes, recognising the face of his friend Yoshida Tooru, and he clutched at him desperately with one hand. I don’t want to die! He tried to reach for Tooru’s hand, anything familiar and safe that he could hold onto, but it was torn from his grasp and he was left clutching at thin air, and his mind felt like it exploded when someone or something kicked him hard in the head, and in the split second before he slipped into blackness he nearly wept, for he knew that he was going to die.
Please don’t let me die.
* * *
Everybody says that death is peaceful, that dying is like falling asleep and never waking up again, but Miya only dreamt of pain. His mouth tasted of blood and ash, his body was at once fire and ice, he felt his insides contracting, squeezing relentlessly so that he felt like his very bones might crack and break and turn to dust under the strain. It felt as though a vile poison ran through his veins, corrupting his body. Every breath was pure agony, every breath was shallower than the last until he couldn’t breathe anymore, and he gasped for air and tore at his throat, and he choked on bile and vomit, and he instinctively pulled himself up onto his hands and knees as he was sick over and over again, his stomach heaving and twisting and convulsing. His heartbeat became irregular and slow, each beat spasming torturously inside his chest as though it were trying to claw its way through his chest until it finally beat its last. He was curled up into a ball, fists and teeth tightly clenched, when suddenly it seemed as though everything released all at once and he took a deep gasp of breath. He felt gentle hands about him, cradling his head, brushing the matted, sweat-drenched hair from his forehead, and a soft, reassuring voice, the voice of an angel or a goddess telling him that it would be over very soon.
* * *
In the hazy remnants from his nightmares, Miya heard the echo of a scream, and he realised it must have been he who had screamed in his sleep. The horrors of the battlefield will do that to a man. He had heard many a story of men who had survived bloody wars, only to be driven to madness and suicide by the nightmares that hounded them for what was left of their wretched lives. Many said that it would have been better to die in battle and rest with honour for eternity, rather than live as hollow men. They could scarcely be said to live, for they were haunted by nightmares at night and they jumped at shadows by day. But not Miya. Miya wanted to live.
It took several seconds for him to figure out where he was, and when he blinked, he glimpsed a hazy memory of a pale, ghostly face peering down at him, or was it two? He couldn’t remember. He was lying not in the mud of the battlefield surrounded by dead men and dead horses, but on a surprisingly soft futon in a dark room with heavy curtains covering the windows. He stared at the ceiling and racked his mind: had he dreamt it all? The battle, the stench of death, the cries of the dying, the excruciating agony of his own death? No, what he remembered, he remembered vividly. He had been in battle and he had been mortally wounded. Had someone rescued him, then? Yes, that had to be it. By some miraculous stroke of luck, some kind soul had rescued him from the battlefield before he expired and brought him home to nurse him back to health. He had dreamt of death, but he was alive.
Miya threw the covers aside and sat up, and almost fell back down again. His head swam and he squeezed his eyes shut until the dizziness passed. Taking a deep, slow breath to steady himself, he opened his eyes and looked down at himself. He was dressed simply in a plain yukata. He tugged the garment open and stared. Slowly, he ran a hand over his skin. It was smooth and unblemished, and his hand came away clean. He had taken a couple of arrows but there were no bandages and no dressings, no wounds and no bruises. Not a single mark. How long had he been unconscious?
He looked down at his hands. They felt so cold. And something in his mouth felt strange. He moved his tongue left and right and winced when it grazed against a sharp point. They were his teeth, he realised. They definitely weren’t that sharp and pointed before. This frightened him and he felt a sudden urge to run away. He staggered to his feet just as the door slid open and there was a sharp cry of, “No!” just as his hands grasped the curtains and tore them apart.
It only lasted a few seconds but that was more than enough. The burning was excruciatingly painful, far hotter than any fire or furnace, and he tumbled onto the floor when somebody pushed him away from the window that faced the last few rays of the setting sun and yanked the curtains closed again.
Miya lay panting heavily on the floor and he felt a hand caressing his cheek; the burns stung but the hand was cool—cold, even—and soothing on his raw, scorched flesh, and he heard a soft voice that sounded just like the angel who had spoken to him in his dream.
“You’ll be all right. The burns will heal.”
“Who… who are you?” Miya asked hoarsely.
“My name is Yoshiki,” said the stranger.
“Where am I? What’s going on, what’s wrong with me?” The questions tumbled from Miya’s mouth. “Am I dead or alive? Why did that burn so much? How long was I asleep? Why…”
He stared at this Yoshiki. At first glance he looked like a woman: beautiful with long, golden hair and elegantly-dressed in feminine clothing. He had an effeminate face with cheeks as smooth as marble and full, blush-pink lips. Why can I see you so clearly in the dark?
Yoshiki’s face was full of concern. “You were dying on the battlefield. I rescued you and brought you here. This is my home. You’ve been here for a night and a day.”
Miya was speechless for several seconds, and then he pulled himself up and bowed to Yoshiki, so deeply that his head touched the floor. “Thank you for saving my life, my lord.”
“There’s no need for titles. I’m no lord.”
Miya sat up. “Yes, my lo—” He stopped and pursed his lips.
Yoshiki smiled and gazed at Miya with a thoughtful expression. “I heard you. I heard what you said in your heart over and over. It was so loud, so earnest.”
“What did I say?” Miya was puzzled.
“I don’t want to die.”
“Oh…” Miya bowed his head in embarrassment.
“Don’t feel ashamed,” Yoshiki said gently. “I actually found it admirable. People place too much stock in dying with honour. Humans only get one life and why shouldn’t they hold onto it? Your will to live was so strong and bright, I felt drawn to you. I love passionate people. I couldn’t leave you there to die, not when you so wished to live.”
Miya nodded mutely, unable to find the words to express his gratitude. “I had such dreams, my lord… terrible nightmares. I dreamt I was dying. I was in so much pain…”
He looked up sharply when Yoshiki gave a light chuckle.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh at you,” Yoshiki said, giving Miya a sympathetic look. “But that wasn’t a dream. It was real. I understand it was very painful, believe me I know, but it was the only way to save your life.”
“What… I don’t understand what you mean.” Miya’s brow furrowed. “If I’m here now, how could I have died? How does dying save someone’s life?”
Yoshiki’s gaze fell upon Miya’s body. “Have you noticed that your wounds have disappeared?”
Miya stalled. “Y-yes. I just thought that…” He trailed off and his eyes darted here and there, deep in thought. He had no idea what he thought. He had seen wounded men take weeks and months to heal. Short of being a sorcerer, surely nobody could heal wounds in a night and a day.
“Give me your hand.”
“M-my lord?” Miya stammered.
Yoshiki smiled reassuringly. “Give me your hand.”
Miya did as he was told, and Yoshiki reached into the folds of his robe and revealed a small knife. Panicked, Miya instinctively withdrew his hand but the other man held it tight. “No, what are you do—”
But Yoshiki had already slashed the back of his hand with the knife. The blade was so sharp that he barely felt it and he stared at the cut, scarcely thicker than a strand of hair and just as blood began to bead on the surface of his skin, the wound slowly began to close. Astonished, Miya gingerly touched the spot where his hand had been cut; the residual blood smeared on his skin and he rubbed at it, but there was no sign of any wound. None at all.
“You were at death’s door. To bring you back, I had to change you.”
Miya was still staring at his hand, open-mouthed. “What do you mean, ‘change’ me?”
Yoshiki smiled and when Miya looked up, he saw that some of his teeth were pointed and very sharp. With a start, he remembered how sharp his own teeth had felt. “I’m a vampire, Yaguchi Miya. An immortal blood-drinker. That gives me the power to make others like me. That’s how I saved you. A vampire is strong and beautiful and eternal. You’ll never have to fear mortal death again.”
Miya’s mind struggled to grasp this information. He was a vampire now? It was preposterous, but Yoshiki said it with such a simple frankness that he found it difficult not to believe him.
“I know it’s not something that’s easy to understand.” Yoshiki smiled at him indulgently. He took Miya’s hand and pressed it to his own chest. “Tell me what you feel.”
With his palm pressed flat against Yoshiki’s pale chest, Miya closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. Short of Yoshiki’s chest moving as he breathed, he wasn’t sure what he could feel. Finally he said, “I don’t know. I give up. I can’t feel anything.”
“That’s exactly right,” said Yoshiki, looking him straight in the eye. “No heartbeat.”
Miya blinked at him and then gingerly touched his own chest. It felt the same: no heart beat within his chest. It was eerie. “How is this real?”
“We’re very real.”
“We?” Miya tried to swallow, but his throat was as dry as paper.
Yoshiki’s brow furrowed slightly. “I do apologise, you must be hungry. Wait here.”
Yoshiki got up and left the room, leaving Miya alone with a whirlwind of thoughts. He racked his brains and tried to remember the stories he’d been told about vampires. They were blood-drinking wraiths that looked human—no, they used to be human before they were ‘changed’ as Yoshiki said. They were often said to have preternatural powers of persuasion as well as incredible physical strength. They could live forever and sickness couldn’t touch them. Some were presented as ghastly monsters, mindless beings with an insatiable thirst for blood, devils who killed indiscriminately. Others were cultured and sensitive, beautiful and charming. Just like Yoshiki.
Miya almost laughed when he caught himself in his thoughts. He was already accepting and analysing vampires as though they were real. And yet how could he deny that they weren’t? He’d just admitted to himself that Yoshiki was exactly as one might describe a vampire: the sharp teeth, the cold and deathly pale skin, with a sort of cold, untouchable beauty that was not quite human. And if he accepted that Yoshiki was a vampire, that meant that he had to accept that he was now a vampire himself. And would that really be so bad? He had cheated death and been given a second chance. He was dying and he had wanted to live; now he was, for all intents and purposes, alive, and that was what he wanted.
Miya touched his cheek. Stories always told that vampires were nocturnal creatures who feared the sun, for it had the power to turn them to dust. When he had opened the curtains, he had been badly burnt by the light of the setting sun, but now it was healed, just as his wounds from the battlefield had healed, just as the cut on his hand had healed.
He eyed the knife on the floor and was about to pick it up and try again when the door slid open and Yoshiki came in, bearing a wooden tray with a lacquered bowl, a candle, and a neatly folded napkin. He set the tray on the floor very carefully so as not to upset the bowl and the candle. The flame on the candle flickered and danced.
“Here,” said Yoshiki, offering Miya the bowl. “Drink quickly before it gets cold.”
He was hungry, Miya realised. He cupped the bowl in both hands. Its warmth was comforting, and the aroma of the bowl’s contents was delicious, so rich and heady. His mouth watered. He brought the bowl to his lips and drank deeply. It was thick and luscious and tasted like nothing he’d ever tasted before, and he could scarcely stop himself from moaning with delight as it filled him and warmed him from the inside. Only politeness stopped him from licking the dregs that clung to the bowl’s surface. When he was done, he licked his lips and Yoshiki laughed lightly at the ravenous look in his eyes.
“Did you enjoy that?” Yoshiki asked, almost teasingly.
“It was very good,” Miya said, inclining his head in a bow to his host. “Thank you.” He paused, and his tongue darted out just a little, to savour that delicious taste on his lips again. “If…”
Yoshiki had turned to return the bowl to its tray, but looked at Miya questioningly. “Yes?”
Miya licked his lips again. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was that?” He took the napkin that Yoshiki offered him, politely wiping his mouth.
“You’re a vampire now, Miya,” Yoshiki said patiently. “Only one thing can sustain a vampire.”
Miya looked down at the napkin in his hands. There was a small smear of crimson on it.
“One of our own has very kindly offered the blood of their own prey to you for your first feed.”
“There are others?” Miya asked.
“Yes. There are two others of our kind who live in this household besides me… and you,” he said. He rose to his feet and beckoned to Miya. “Come.”
“Will I meet them?” Miya asked.
“Soon.” Yoshiki took his hand, leading him through the beautiful old house. It was silent, but Miya could feel and smell the presence of others in the house. He followed Yoshiki outside, down the stone path lined with perfectly-manicured azalea bushes with pink buds that would soon flower. By now, the sun had set and the sky had turned an inky shade of blue. “But right now I’m going to take you out into the night and show you the world as it is now that you are reborn. Tonight is yours.”