Between Life and Death
I felt something warm and soft pushing up against my cheek. When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was the canopy formed by coniferous trees looming overhead. And past that, I was able to see the night sky holding stars you wouldn't normally see in the city.
But the pleasant view didn't last long. A face with familiar light blue eyes obstructed my view, her usual annoying smirk on full display.
"You woke up faster than I expected. But I guess that's a good thing."
I gave an exasperated sigh. "You can stop caressing my cheek now," I said as I grabbed onto Claire's left hand to push it away. "It's a bit unsettling to see your hand completely fine after that."
Claire looked confused at first but eventually caught on to what I was talking about. "Yeah. It healed right after you passed out," she explained as she stared at her hand. "It's something that has happened several times now, so I rarely think about it."
"Well it's still weird for me," I reiterated as I stood up not being able to tolerate her cream colored hair tickling my face any longer.
"Did you like resting your head on my lap?" Claire asked with a stupid smirk.
"If you stripped away all of your vampiric utility, you would make a decent pillow."
“That’s a bit harsh,” she moped.
But I didn’t care much about how she felt because I was busy staring at my own arm. It was an amazing sight to behold. But at the same time it felt exceedingly unnatural, or more accurately, it felt inhuman. It just felt unsettling to see my arm fully restored after having been blown off. Knowing that I now had vampire blood in me didn’t help either.
“How long was I asleep?” I asked Claire as I continued to examine my arm.
“Not long. After I poured my blood all over your shattered shoulder, your arm started growing back. It only took a minute for it to completely be restored. You were only asleep for two minutes after that.”
“That’s quite a useful use for your blood.”
“Yes, but it can't bring you back from the dead. That requires more permanent measures.”
I understood what she was trying to allude to but I didn’t care. More importantly.
“It seems to have worked. I can see you clearly now.” In fact, I could see everything in the forest quite clearly. It was as if I had turned up the brightness on my television. It practically looked like it was daytime. I could even see further than I once could.
“That’s good. But night vision isn’t the only thing that comes with the vampire blood. Not only are you stronger and faster, you also heal much faster. You could get shot and you’d probably survive. You’re likely the most unkillable human in the world right now. Still, that doesn't mean you can't be killed. Be sure to keep that in mind as we proceed."
"Sure." I nodded as I picked up my sweater and put it on.
I hadn’t taken into account just what ripping my arm off entailed, so I didn’t think to throw my sweater far. And now because of that lapse in judgment, my sweater was splattered with blood. But I guess it was better to walk around in that rather than in a shirt that was almost completely died red. Some blood was still dripping from the hem, probably from having been steeping in a pool of my own blood.
"So, why are we here?"
"This is where Nina was brought to."
"Wait! So you think she's buried somewhere around?!"
"No, no. That's not what I meant," Claire tried to assure me. "Though, I can’t confirm if she's still alive."
"Then why are we all the way in the middle of the forest?"
Claire looked around for a second. Once it seemed she had found what she was looking for, she turned to me and prompted me to follow with a nod of her head.
"You see, only 33% of this country is habitable. The rest is a bit unforgiving due to it being quite mountainous. You can see that sort of thing when you travel by car. And even if you’ve never noticed it, most major cities are located at the coast because of this, among other things. Other than that, you’ll only find cities in valleys. The point being that the mountains make it almost impossible to find someone hiding here. It’s perfect for a cult.”
“A cult?!” This far out into the mountains. I guess it makes sense based on what Claire said. Looking around, it seemed like the forest was quite dense and we were constantly having to traverse through rocky hills. In a place like this, you’d quickly get lost if you weren’t careful. And if that’s the case, it means you could easily hide yourself here.
“It’s not a big one but it has some authority. It’s also quite a dangerous one. They are the ones who took Nina.”
"What do they want with her?"
A little apprehensive, Claire said "I'm the one at fault for that. You see, the cult is a sect of a larger one further north. Both of them worship vampires."
"Is that where you become involved?" I asked as I struggled to match Claire pace through the rocky terrain.
"Yes. Though they both worship vampires, this smaller sect believes that they can harness a vampire's power, kind of like what you and I did just now."
"And how does Suzuhara fit into all of this? It's not like she's a vampire." Unless Suzuhara was hiding something big from us all along.
"No, she's not. But that's also my fault." She took a breath before continuing. "A few days before she was kidnapped, I was out for a stroll early in the evening when I felt the need to yawn. Little did I know that a cultist was walking in my direction and noticed my fangs. Being the deranged fanatics that they are, he approached me with a knife, probably one blessed by a priest. I had my guard down, and so he took that opportunity to grapple onto me in an effort to get me somewhere secluded. He even groped me. But the moment he did, I punched him in the chest and sent him crashing onto the other side of the street...where Nina happened to be walking by. I'm sure I broke most of his ribs and he surely had gotten a concussion. So when he opened his eyes in a daze and saw Nina, he must have confused her with me and passed on that information to the rest of the cultists. Or at least, I assume that's why they took a liking to her."
So it was merely a case of misinformation, one that resulted in Suzuhara's kidnapping. We didn’t even if she was still alive.
The way Claire shifted the blame to herself, others might join her in accusing herself. But she wasn’t at fault here.
"It wasn’t your fault, you know." I just thought I should point it out.
She scoffed under her breath. "You say that but even now you can help but point the finger. Whether it's toward you or me. And regardless, she got kidnapped because of something I did."
I can say whatever I want, but in the end, I always find myself pointing the finger. Claire could have been more cautious like I've told her before. Or I could have insisted on having walked Suzuhara home.
I was right when I said it wasn’t our fault. But it just felt like a lie to us.
Trying to get away from the subject, I brought up something that didn’t make sense. "But Suzuhara was kidnapped in clear weather. How could they confuse her for you when she would be burning up if she were a vampire?"
"It's like I said, they're fanatics. And because of that, the chances of her being alive are slim."
"Why do you say that?" That was the last thing I wanted to hear.
"Think about it. If you were the cultists and you kidnapped someone because you thought they were a vampire only for it to turn out to be false, what do you think would happen next?"
"They'd have no use for her, so they'd get rid of her."
"And that's why I want you to not get your hopes up," Claire said grimly. "It has been roughly two months. There's no reason for them to keep her alive."
After such a harsh revelation, I couldn’t find any words to say. I knew that what Claire said was the most likely possibility. Suzuhara served no purpose to them, so she was likely disposed of. Still, what kind of person would I be if I lost hope. I couldn’t help but pray for a reason for her still being alive. Though, that might be a more cruel and harsher fate.
I couldn’t bear the silence that had fallen between as we just wandered through the dark. So I just let my thoughts pour out.
"You and Suzuhara look nothing alike," I mumbled, thinking they could confuse Suzuhara for Claire.
"We do have quite a lot in common. Our height is the same, as well as our build. Our faces have similar features, and our hair is in the same style."
"So now you're just making stuff up, huh?" I said, trying to rebut her claims. "First of all, though you both have long hair, hers is brown while yours borders on white. Secondly, your faces are not that similar at all. And lastly, what you said about having similar builds, that's complete bul--"
"Oh?! You have something to say about that."
Before I could even finish, Claire silenced me and shot back a glare that could practically kill. Even if I didn’t have night vision, the chilling sensation it gave off was enough to know it was there without having to look. If I finished my sentence, I'm sure it would mean certain death.
"Y-you know…" I back peddled. "Now that I take a closer look with this vampiric vision, I can definitely see the similarities. Ha ha ha." I feared for my life.
Fortunately, her glare subsided and she smirked. "Good. Now we're on the same page." Then she turned around and kept walking.
Phew. Never has Claire acted more like a vampire than just now. If it wasn't for the extra vitality from her blood, her glare would have killed me. Still, she may be able to silence my words but she is unable to silence my mind. Suzuhara is definitely cuter and bigger than Claire. I never would have thought that Claire would be concerned about such a thing.
Though it might not be the best time to be making jokes given the gravity of the situation, it helped me calm down. Knowing that someone you knew was likely dead will shake you up a bit, especially if you place some of the blame on yourself.
Those sorts of thoughts circled in my mind, keeping me from paying much attention to my surroundings. Suddenly, Claire grabbed onto my wrist and jerked me toward her. The sheer force almost caused me to tumble over, but she managed to catch me before I did. She was crouching behind a bush, and so she pulled me down to her level.
"Why are we hiding?" I asked as she pulled me closer to herself.
"Look over there." She prompted with her finger pointing beyond the bush. "There's not much but I still want to be careful."
When I peeked over the bush we were using as cover, I realized that we were at the edge of a clearing. A large glade only covered by long grass and wildflowers lay before us. For at least one hundred meters, the clearing spread out without obstruction, with only the surrounding trees serving as its border. But as you gazed deeper into the glade, you could make out several buildings.
"Is that...a town?" I asked, not being able to understand why there was a small settlement in the midst of such a mountainous region.
"This is where the cult that took Nina hides," Claire explained. "To get away from any form of authority that could put a stop to their operation, they settled in the most inhospitable location they could find."
"Okay. So where do you think they would be keeping here?"
From what I could tell, there seemed to be around a dozen small homes, a few of which bits of warm light seeping from behind some of the windows. At the east end of the settlement, there were two large buildings, one resembling a sort of town hall, while the other I had no real ideas for what it's purpose might be.
But the building that caught my attention the most was the one situated on the settlement's west end. There stood a small church built out of heavy looking stone blocks. Its sides were adorned by stained glass windows, and at the front of the church, on its roof stood a bell tower. The church was reminiscent of one you would find in a hamlet in Europe in the 1800s. In fact, you could say that about every other building in the settlement.
"See that there." Claire pointed toward the church that had caught my attention. "There's a good chance Nina is in there. It would make sense for them to keep something they worship in a place of worship."
"Well if she is in there, it'll be risky trying to get inside."
Unlike the rest of the building which gave of a faint glow in terms of light, the church was completely lit up on the inside.
"...That complicates things," Claire said as she guided my gaze toward the front of the church. Two figures wearing dark purple robes almost as black as night entered through the front doors. They walked to the front of the pews, where a priest would usually stand, and started having a conversation.
"What are we going to do about them?"
"If I'm careful, I should be able to do something about them."
"That just now sounded a little menacing. And also, you've never been the sort of type to be 'careful'."
"Then you better pray I am today." She finished with a smirk.
With that, Claire broke from her cover and walked out from behind the bushes and into the glade. "We'll sprint toward the south wall of the church. There shouldn't be anyone outside, but regardless, try to stay vigilant." And before I could ask for further clarification, Claire started sprinting toward the church, prompting me to follow with a nod.
It was quite an amazing sight to see her run. She was running at 180 kilometers per hour after all. With speed that was easily five times faster than the fastest human alive, you just could help but look. But at this rate, she was going to leave me behind. So I left the cover of the forest and followed after her as fast as I could.
Something felt different as I ran, though. I sort of felt lighter on my feet, and the wind swept through my hair more than before. There was no doubt about it—I was running faster than I normally could. My speed was nowhere near Claire's but I could still tell I was run much faster now.
Vampire blood was quite the peculiar thing. Though, I don't know how I feel about being in my body.
Soon enough, I made it to the wall of the church where Claire was waiting for me.
"What's the plan now?"
"Simple. I'll rush in through the front door and take care of the two in the church," she explained as she peeked through the window.
"What happened to being careful?" We had literally gone over this a moment ago. It was like it had gone in through one ear and come out the other. "And what do you mean by 'take care' of them? Let me just establish something before we proceed. You can't kill anyone."
"You know that makes things harder? I don't often kill humans unprovoked, but those two will pose a problem."
"Then just, you know, knock them out. You have super speed and super strength. It should be quick work for you."
Claire thought about it for a second before letting out a sigh of resignation. "Fine. But this method isn't thorough."
"Just as long as there aren't any unnecessary casualties."
Claire nodded. "Then stay here until I give you the signal."
Without making a sound, Claire rounded the corner and snuck up to the front doors of the church. Slowly, she opened the door. I was worried that an old looking door like that would make a bunch of creaking noises, but Claire was able to slip by without being seen. By the time the two cloaked figures had noticed the door was open, Claire was already sprinting toward them. They both reached for something underneath their cloaks, but Claire was just too fast. She ran up between them, and with two quick jabs to their heads, she rendered them unconscious.
Looking out the window, she gave me an all clear signal and I ventured into the church while she hid the bodies behind the pews.
I examined the area thoroughly. This section just consisted of the main hall filled with a dozen pews and the podium at the front where a priest would speak. "There aren't many places to hide a missing girl here," I pointed out. But while I didn't think they would try to hide Suzuhara in this area, there were two doors at the back end of the church. "A lot of churches act as offices and whatnot, right? So I wonder if we'll find Suzuhara behind one of those doors."
"It's like I said, they're likely to keep the thing they worship in their house of worship. But you have to remember that this is a cult. Anything could be behind those doors."
I nodded. I understood what I was walking into from the very beginning. Whether she was dead or alive, I needed to find out what happened to Suzuhara.
After confirming that I was adamant in continuing, Claire opened one of the doors in the back while I followed closely behind. From over Claire's shoulder, I peered into what lay beyond the door. Even with my vampiric night vision, it was quite difficult to make out what I was looking at. If outside it had been pitch black, then this was something even darker. Regardless, it wasn’t long before my eyes adjusted and I was able to see what was in front of us—a dark corridor with a single door to the right and stairwell at its end.
"Stay behind me," Claire instructed with cautious eyes.
With that she stepped into the corridor, her feet not making even the slightest of sounds as she approached the door on our right. There was nothing peculiar about the door. It just seemed to be made of some type of cheap wood. And sure enough, when Claire slowly pushed open the door, there was nothing of interest inside. Just was seemed to be an office. Bookshelves lined the walls and stacks of papers lay on the desk at the center.
After confirming what was inside, my body loosened up. The dread of opening a door while fearing what might be behind it can get overwhelming sometimes. You can't help but sigh when you realize you were worried for nothing.
"That really got my heart racing," I murmured.
"No. That's just my blood. I'll make your heart beat faster temporarily."
But why?! Having her blood in me already makes me feel weird as it is. I don't need any strange side effects to go along with that feeling.
"Well, there's nowhere else to go but down," Claire said as she stood at the top of the stairs.
Standing at her side and looking down, I could already tell that it was much darker than the corridor behind us was. A chilling breeze even made its way out from the stairwell.
Claire took the first step while making sure that I followed closely behind her. I don't why but I felt as if Claire was being overprotective of me. I couldn’t understand why. She was a vampire, after all, and from what I've seen her do, we shouldn't face any problems. I wouldn't doubt it if she told me she could punch through a concrete wall. That's what I couldn’t understand. I didn’t know why she felt she needed to be so protective of me. With every step she took down the stairs, you could make out her hesitation in the echoes that followed.
If not for Claire's Blood, I would have made the descent down in what I sensed as being darker than pitch black. The stairwell would have seemed endless without night vision. But eventually, we touched off the last step and reached level ground. Claire looked to her side and found a light switch. We didn’t need the lights on but it was dark even for us. So Claire flipped it on.
The echo of the switch making a click reverberated off every wall. In an instant, an incandescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling filled our surroundings with light. Then, farther away, another lit up, and another, and another. One after another they all turned on along a long hallway. We were flanked on both sides by doors. First they started out made of wood. And as you continued down the corridor they turned into metal. And at the far end, they turned into something else.
Iron bars. Jail cells to be specific.
"If Suzuhara is still here, then that's where they must be keeping her," I said as I started walking.
Claire didn't try to stop me but she followed closely as we made our way toward the jail cell. Every step we took felt unbelievably tense with their sound echoing throughout the corridor. Like in a horror movie, my body dreaded stepping closer to the cell. Whether it was because of what I might find or something. Regardless, I wasn’t planning on leaving without finding out Suzuhara's whereabouts.
We stopped a few meters away. Behind the bars we could see a small figure lying on the concrete with its back go us as if it were dead. It was definitely a human, though.
Suddenly, the person twitched and slowly struggled to look over their shoulder. But they stopped just before we could see their face. And then…
"...P-please… I need...more food…"
The voice couldn't be any less quiet. It was on the brink of death, barely having the strength to travel through the air. But I knew exactly that voice belonged to.
"Claire, get Suzuhara out of there," I told her not wanting to see Suzuhara lying on the ground any longer.
Without pause, Claire grabbed the cell door by the iron bars and pulled in one swift motion. The lock shattered and the door pivoted freely on its hinges. I rushed in to pick up Suzuhara when I noticed something that stopped me in my tracks.
It was...peculiar. Something that should not have been there.
Suzuhara lay on the ground, a striking white tail attached to her along with a pair of ears atop her head.
"Claire, what the hell is this?"
I turned back to get an answer for when…
"Usually, the church cares not for the Manifestations of pagan gods, but this one is of particular interest."
I expected Claire to answer me, but what I got in return was a cold, piercing voice. It sounded as sharp as the sword it's owner carried.
"I think they are simply called kitsune here, no?"
Even Claire flinched when the voice spoke and her whole face went whiter than it already was. For the first time since I met her, I can say that at this moment she was anxious.
The voice's owner—a tall woman, wearing simply a white t-shirt and black jeans—strode towards us with quite an amused expression, her hand resting on the pommel of the sword at her hip. Once about three meters away she stopped and flipped her pitch black hair, and sighed.
"I was hoping this wouldn't happen," the woman began. "I knew you were in a city nearby but I didn’t think you would hunt us down. It was...an oversight of mine."
Even before I walked up to Claire, I could feel just how tense she was. But the moment she noticed me at her side, her expression grew grim in an instant, like if she had just witnessed a murder.
Off in the distance, I heard the woman say "I'm Elise Auclair. The Seventh Adjudicator of the Church. Nice to meet you."
The moment Miss Auclair flashed an insidious smile, Claire turned to me and yelled "Yuuta, get the hell back!!"
I had never heard Claire scream like that.
I had never seen her so scared.
But before she could push me away, my entire body shot backward, not stopping and only accelerating until I hit the concrete wall behind me. All the air in my body immediately escaped upon impact, and I could hear by back cracking. I couldn’t move and so my body just slid onto the ground. It wasn’t until then that the pain from my back registered. It was unbearable. There was no way I didn't break any bones.
But that was the least of my problems. I started coughing uncontrollably, each one bringing with it pain. And suddenly, I found myself curling up into a ball and clutching my abdomen. Something happened. Something brought about an unbearable pain to my stomach. It was even worse then what I felt when tore my arm off A searing pain ran across my body and I could help let out a shriek.
I could barely make out Claire's desperate cry over the sound of my own screaming. While I thrashed on the ground, praying that the pain would somehow go away, my face was smeared with something warm as I moved around. I forced my hand away from my stomach and brought it close to my face. Even through blurred vision, I could still make out the crimson liquid my hand was drenched in.
With every second that passed, more and more blood gushed out from where my abdomen had been sliced open. My blood had pooled all around me and my clothes had become completely soaked in red.
I couldn’t help but think of what mom would tell me if she saw that I had stained my clothes. She'd probably yell my ear off and tell me to go do my laundry by hand.
As I laughed at the thoughts going through my mind, through my blurred vision I could see Suzuhara lifting her head off the concrete and focusing on me. Her expression switched to one of horror as she rushed to my side. I could barely feel the warmth of her hand as she grabbed on to me. The voices of both Claire and Suzuhara faded and the room began to go dark.
But as I lay there, having found Suzuhara…
I couldn’t help but smile.