It was genuine hell in the trenches. As, of course, I would know. The night shrouded me in black, ugly horror that was almost tangible. The air was thick, tumultuous, thrumming with the sound of recent gunfire. The human cries had ceased but their pain echoed on the cold wind. Rain had turned the soil to mud, sodden filth that saturated the fallen bodies.
That was where I first saw him.
I stepped down into the ditch, my boots slipping on the slick filth. The guns were only a distant echo now, an occasional, dull reverberation in my ears. Light flashed erratically on the horizon, sudden spikes of illumination, then the scene plunged once again to velvet black. Something mechanical whistled, high in the sky. I didn’t expect to find any signs of human life around me, only a trail of relentless, weary conflict and the sorry detritus left behind. I was only passing through.
Heading to the back of the trench, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. A young soldier was huddled over by the far bank, his body shaking. Turning back, I trod a slow, careful path toward him, weaving between dead bodies and the remnants of them. A smashed rifle lay embedded in the mud: a discarded, upturned helmet rocked gently as I passed. My nose wrinkled, the stench of horror and fear particularly strong. He was facing away from me and I couldn’t see much of his head past his hunched shoulders. His uniform was the same grimy color as all the others around me, its camouflage effect both effective and depressing. He knelt in the mud, the soles of his boots facing me, wet and encrusted with dirt, and he looked to be nothing more than an ordinary foot-soldier, bent double with misery and pain.
Something made me pause a few feet away from him. I didn’t make a sound but he suddenly stilled. “Who’s there?”
Now I could see that he wasn’t the only body there. He leaned over another fallen soldier, whose serge-clad legs were already rigid with death, whose arm stretched out along the bank as if in final protest at his fate. I could hear the living soldier’s breath, heavy on the pregnant air, and underlying it, a slight wheezing, sucking noise. That was a familiar sound to me.
“Don’t stop on my account,” I said quietly. “It will be no good to you if you wait any longer. There’ll be no spark of life left in him at all. Nothing…fresh.”
The soldier straightened, his bare head jerking up, but he didn’t turn around. “Declare yourself.”
I coughed gently. “There’s little point. I’m only passing and had not intended to disturb you. Let us leave it at that, shall we?”
He whirled around then. Wide, shocked eyes. No scars on his face: his skin lined only from what he’d seen, not from age. So very young! My heart ached, though I questioned exactly what for. For the death of the soldiers on the ground? For the pain in the living one’s gaze? He was covered in filth but he was a fine-looking man, nonetheless. A pale, long neck and broad shoulders. Full lips and a fine, straight nose. An emotion stirred inside me that had been dormant for a long time and it startled me. He was confident in confronting me, graceful in his movements. That would develop even further in time, of course.
“Are you a Jerry? You bastard, creeping up on me. Filthy, sodding coward!” He spat the words at me and I saw him glance swiftly at the ground either side of him, looking for a serviceable weapon. Unable to find anything, he glared back at me, confusion tangled in with his fear. “You don’t dress like one.” He frowned. “Where’s your rifle? You don’t dress right at all.”
His accent was coarse, his fright making him clumsy with speech. I concentrated more carefully, strengthening my image, making sure he would notice the points of similarity between us and not the anomalies. “I am not your enemy.”
His face went pale under the dirt. “You’re not my friend, neither. I’m not a fucking idiot, you know.”
I nodded. “You are far from that. I can help you, too–”
“Piss off!” He scrambled to his feet, panting. “It was you! Was it you?” He struggled to stay upright, his legs weak. “Damn you, damn you, make it stop…” The breath he sucked in didn’t seem enough for him–his chest dipped up and down, the movements desperate and shallow. His pupils were dilated, I could see that very clearly as he stared at me. He was alert, but barely coherent. Barely there.
“It wasn’t me.” I stared back at him, my gaze fierce, determined that he should understand that, if nothing else. It mattered to me–strangely, suddenly–that he should know I cared. “Calm down, or things will feel even worse. I was not the one who did this to you.”
He shook his head, rocking on his heels. His hands fisted then opened again, the palms lifted toward me, the gesture pitiful. “Look at me! Look at you.” He peered at me, searching my face, my form, his expression becoming even more confused. There were tears in his eyes, now. “Fucking cowards…What are you? You are…you’re not…”
It was pitiful, both to see and hear him in this transitory state. I had no idea who might have passed through here before me, but this job had been ill done, and someone should pay for that. “It does not matter what I am. Do you remember who did this? Do you remember him?”
The young soldier flushed and I knew I had been correct in my assumption that it was a man. “No. Yes. He was…He came in the night, when I was caught under fire, over by the ridge. It was dark. He didn’t listen to me…touched me.” He frowned, anguished at the memory of what would have been his utter helplessness. “I can’t remember his name or how he looked. I tried not to want it…But then I did. I wasn’t fucking scared, you know? No one’s ever going to say I was scared.” His eyes rolled up in his head and I thought he would pass out, but his gaze came back to me, steady again. His pupils glittered with a new slyness. “You know, don’t you? Tell me. What’s happened to me?”
I took a step forward. I wanted to touch him and draw him far closer than was necessary, compared to the other men I took. The stark ferocity of my desire shocked me. How long had it been since I felt that way? It led to vulnerability and pain, I knew that too well. And what was I thinking I’d gain? He was a beautiful young man but he was unregulated and out of control here. I ran my eyes up and down his body. I didn’t mistake the gentle swell of cock beneath the coarse fabric of his uniform. Blood pumped faster in my veins.
“You are responding to me, it’s natural you should. It can feel good–it will feel good. Believe me.” I lifted my arms up slightly from my sides, displaying myself. “Do you want me?” With more concentration, I showed myself to him, shifting the image, making him realize what I was offering. Ecstasy; passion; the best of its kind. The gentle tang of arousal lifted from him like morning dew. Excitement rose in me, thick and thrilling. Yes, he would be willing. I would welcome his body, and I would create joy in return that he couldn’t possibly imagine. I could raise light in this unholy darkness; I could deafen him to the distant gunfire; I could overwhelm the stench of rot in his nostrils with the thick, rich aroma of something that would give him life, not death…
When he laughed, it startled me. It was a harsh, unhappy sound, and a response I hadn’t expected. “You’re fucking mad, mate.” He glared at me. “You want to get me shot?”
“No,” I said quietly. “But that’s what you want, isn’t it?”
He grimaced. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Whatever is in you, it’s new and it hurts,” I continued. I took another step toward him. “It disgusts. It terrifies. It has been growing inside you like a parasite. And it demands things of you. Up until now, you haven’t thought of any way to escape it, except to die.” I glanced at the body at his feet. Its head was thrown back, the pale neck exposed. There was a single trail of liquid running from under the jaw–in the dim light, it showed black against the marble-like white of a corpse’s skin, glinting against the dull husk of lifeless flesh. “You wish you had been hit instead of him.”
His eyes went wide, the whites gleaming around the irises. “How the hell do you know that?”
I shrugged. He would understand his inherited abilities, one day soon. “You can come with me, if you want. I will ease it for you. I will show you what pleasure you can find, what compensation there can be.” I was only a foot away from him and I could smell the sweat on him: see it glinting in the hollow of his throat where he’d opened the top button of his jacket. He was fresh–aching. Truly gorgeous. When I reached out and touched his face, he didn’t pull away but he flinched. “I don’t offer to everyone,” I murmured, piqued. It had been a long time since I’d been resisted, yet an even longer time since I’d been interested enough in a man to offer him companionship. Sex was far easier; far less intimate. The young soldier’s gaze was fixed on my face and I could hear his heart beating very fast. A beautiful, sincere, passionate heart, but now darkened beyond rescue. When the lights flared briefly on the horizon behind him, they lit a corona around his head–a momentary, mocking halo. “You want me,” I persisted. My tone held a plea, something I hadn’t utilized for many ages. “You want to be with me. It will be glorious.”
“Yes, I know,” he whispered, his eyes closing. When I ran my fingers along his top lip, he shuddered. I slipped my thumb into his mouth and let him suck at the stray drop of thick, viscous blood I had wiped from his own mouth. He had been clumsy with the fresh corpse; too greedy with his victim. New travellers so often were. Desperation and disgust, I could feel them both in the beat of his pulse. I would teach him how he should deal with his new life.
“But I won’t go with you,” he said, so softly that I had to lean over to hear. His eyes lifted to meet my gaze and he must have seen the shock in my eyes. His expression was grim. “I won’t be one of you.” I felt him tense, trying to hold himself in place, to find the courage to deny me. He nodded his head at his fallen comrade. “He was my sergeant. A mate. I’ll stay with him.”
I hadn’t been denied for a long time, either. It was a strangely poignant feeling, even as I admitted respect for it. “You cannot stay here,” I said, sharply.
“I can do what the hell I–”
I grasped his arm, letting some of my strength flow freely. He groaned with the pain. His eyes glistened, already turning red, a flash of colour against the monochrome that surrounded us. “You are no longer free,” I growled. “You cannot live here as a man with them, nor can you feed off the dead as they grow cold. You have to find your own way now. And one more thing you must surely know. You cannot die.”
With a gasp of exhaled breath, his body fell limp and he crumpled against me. He was strongly built but thin from malnourishment. His skin was clammy and his thick, ill-cut hair brushed my neck in a clumsy caress. I held him for a few moments, his weight no burden in my arms, but his shock was deep and he did not show signs of regaining consciousness for some time. I laid him gently on the ground beside his sergeant and turned his head against the dead man’s neck. Let him rest beside his handiwork. Beside his need. My hand trailed for a while longer, tracing the line of his jaw and down his pale throat. My fingers were reluctant to leave him alone. I wanted to slide my hand inside his uniform jacket, to touch his skin, but I knew it would still be cold. And–at least for the moment–he wouldn’t welcome it.
Before I straightened up, I placed a soft, pursed kiss on his lips and whispered into his ear. The words would simmer in his subconscious for as long as he remembered me.
“You cannot die.”