April 1916. Fire… Fire… Smoke and flame. It was everywhere, choking us—my brave comrades and I—like a thug's meaty hands around our throats. My eyes stung and watered at the oppressive presence of gunpowder and burning wood in the air. The heat, too, was intense. Bright tongues of red, orange, and yellow danced around us like tormenting demons against a thick grey haze, illuminating our otherwise dark surroundings. It was hellish. Or perhaps it was Hell itself. After all, we would march right to the Gates of Hell if it meant that our beloved Éire and my beloved Josephine could live hereafter in a Paradise free of English oppression. Embers swirled in the sulfurous air like golden and crimson little Fairies and the booming of canons and crumbling stone filled my bleeding ears. A bullet zoomed past me, missing me by an inch. It struck a window of the damaged GPO and shattered the glass, sending shards flying every which way. Another struck a wall behind me. I also heard what sounded like machinegun fire. I was certain it came from Sackville Street. It was one of the areas where the fighting was heaviest, with casualties on both sides.
Another bullet whizzed through the air, striking a friend of mine, Mick Cassidy. The speed and the impact of the bullet split his skull open and hot blood, flesh, skin, bone fragments, and brain matter sprayed onto my face. I spat and cursed, wiping the blood out of my eyes. Mick, now headless, fell to his knees momentarily on the pavement and promptly keeled over backwards thereafter, painting the street a deep crimson with his blood. He was an old neighbour of mine that I had known from childhood, and despite our age difference, we became fast friends. He looked up to me as a young boy looked up to his older brother. He copied everything I did and went everywhere I went. He wanted to be what I became—a patriot fighting for Éire. His mother thought it was foolhardy of him to join the Irish Volunteers and a mistake. She said I was a malign influence on the young man. In the end, I convinced her to let him go. I promised her that I'd protect him, take care of him, keep him safe. I couldn't. But as shocked and devastated as I was, I had no time to mourn my fallen friend and brother. I would have to do that later. My comrades and I had to hold the line as best we could and cover for our retreating leaders. We needed to buy them ample time to reconvene at a safer location. That meant we had to draw the enemy's fire. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our commander-in-chief, Padraig Pearse, "that brave and splendid Gael", as he had once called O'Donovan Rossa. If anyone else besides Rossa deserved that title, it was Pearse.
You would think that seeing our leaders retreat would dishearten us and cause us to turn tail and run or to hide like cowards. No; on the contrary, it had the opposite effect. My companions and I were reminded of Pearse's courage and everything he'd given for the cause, so much so that we redoubled our efforts. We were like wounded and cornered beasts that grew stronger and angrier with each inflicted wound. Roaring like a lion, I charged at the line of British soldiers before us, determined to take as much of them down with me as I could. If I was going to Hell, they were coming with me. That was my last mistake.
"God save Ireland!" I cried, and my companions picked up the cheer. "God save Ireland!"
In the thick of the fighting, a bullet struck me on the left side of my chest, just below the shoulder. It felt like fire as it tore through my flesh and bone, ripping and shattering everything in its path. I gasped. Still, I fought on despite the excruciating pain, firing my rifle left and right. The pain in my shoulder and the burning rage in my heart only served to fuel my courage. It was as though I had been possessed by the spirit of Cu Chulainn. I thought of my country and the cruel things she had suffered under English tyranny. I thought of Mick, lying there on the street, drenched in a pool of his own blood. I thought of his grieving mother back home. I thought of my dearest Josephine, wife of my heart, and the life we could have had. I thought of her father and the injustices her family had suffered under greedy English landlords. I thought of Joseph Plunkett who, like me, was engaged to be married to a beautiful lass. A good number of British soldiers fell by my hand that day. It would not last long, however. Another bullet struck me; this time, in my side. I was no medical expert, but I was sure the bullet had struck a vital organ. I coughed and spit out blood. I could taste its distinct metallic flavour in my mouth as I ran my tongue over my teeth and the wall of my cheeks. I ignored the pain and the sickening taste and went on fighting. If I was to fall, I would fall fighting for Ireland. The last fatal bullet struck me in the centre of my chest, right where the heart is. It was quick. I fell to the ground on my back and coughed up more blood. Through the thick haze of black and grey smoke, I saw a sliver of blue and a ray of sunshine and then Death came for me and Darkness welcomed me into her open arms. Before I lost consciousness, I felt another intense searing pain. This time, in my neck. It was as though a sword had pierced me through. I coughed and made one last gurgling sound. And then there was nothing but the cold and Darkness.
But it was not over. My death, as it turned out, was only the beginning. I awoke with a strange sort of thirst. My throat burned with the sensation. I only knew one thing right then and there—it had to be quenched. Immediately. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, I began to take stock of my surroundings. Where was I? It appeared that I was in a very small room with wooden walls and floors and a low wooden ceiling. And then as I felt around, realization dawned on me. I was not in a small room, I was in a box. More accurately, I was in a coffin. Panicked, I flailed about in an attempt to escape my wooden prison. The thirst got more and more intense by the second until it was unbearable. I clawed at the lid of the coffin and it fell apart as my nails shred it to ribbons. I held my breath and repeatedly punched what was left of the wood, preparing for the onslaught of black earth that would rain down upon me. I then dug my way to the surface, and as I emerged from the soil, I recoiled in sudden horror. I was in Glasnevin Cemetery. An all-too familiar place. I was here that day when Padraig Pearse delivered his rousing speech. It was also the place where so many of my kin were laid to their final rest. I could not understand why a sight so familiar to me was now making me fear for my very life. Instinctively, I hissed like an angry cat at those imposing stone crosses casting their looming shadows on the moonlit ground. I ran through that silent necropolis, weaving between headstones and mausoleums, until I reached the gates. A wave of relief washed over me as I emerged from the cemetery. I was no longer terrified. Now that fear was once again replaced by that gnawing and needy thirst—that fiery thirst that made me choke and made me want to claw at my throat to ease the pain. I ran through the ruined streets of Dublin as far as my legs could carry me to search for nearby water sources. In my desperation, I made my way down to the Liffey and attempted to quench my thirst. It did not help. One strange thing I noted was that I could not see my reflection in the water. Perhaps it was a trick of the moonlight and shadows. But I had no time to dwell on it then. Next, I looted an empty pub that had been damaged during the fighting. The whiskey only served to intensify the searing heat in my throat. Nothing on earth could quench this horrible thirst, it seemed. In my frustration, I smashed all the bottles, crushing them with my bare hands. Some I threw against the wall or on the floor. Some I swept off the bar. I trashed the place, screaming like a feral animal. Two British soldiers entered the pub to see what was going on.
"Oy! You!" the soldier on the left said, pointing his pistol at me. "What the bloody Hell is going on here? What are you doing?"
Like a flash of lightning, I was on top of him, pinning his body to the ground. From afar, he smelled gloriously enticing, like a freshly baked pie left out on the sill of an open window to cool on a summer afternoon. Up close, his scent was overpowering and intoxicating. I sniffed at his neck and felt my teeth sharpen into fangs. I was drowning in the delicious, sickeningly sweet scent of his blood. I could hear it rushing through every vein and artery under his skin. At that moment, I realized what I was—what I had become. A vampire.
"What is the meaning of this?" he protested, trying his hardest to fight me off. "Get off of me!"
"L-l-let him go or I will b-bl-bl-bl-ow your b-brains out, reb-rebel s-s-scum!" the second soldier said in a shaky voice. I could sense his fear. He tried to mask it with his bravado and commanding tone as best as he could but failed. He could not hide it—not from me.
I smiled and opened my mouth wide, latching onto my prey's neck as his comrade watched. As my fangs sank into his skin and flesh, I felt the refreshing surge of hot life-giving blood spurting from his wounds. For Mick. For Josephine. For Ireland. These were my thoughts as I drank deep and drained my victim lifeless. I drank in gulp after greedy gulp, again and again, until my thirst was satiated and the burning pain in my parched throat was soothed. I felt him thrash beneath me, his legs jerking and twitching as though he had been struck by lightning or had been electrocuted. These spasmodic movements assured me that he was at Death's door—that and his weakening heartbeat. No longer content to just puncture his neck, I bit down hard and completely ripped the flesh from his throat. Blood poured from my mouth and gushed down my chin and neck like a crimson waterfall, staining my already bloody and soiled uniform even more. Some of the blood that sprayed from his throat also coated my uniform. As his pulse grew weaker so did his movements, until he stopped completely and his heart gave out. Seeing this, his companion dropped his pistol and fled from the scene, exclaiming, "Mother of God!" as he backed away.
Soon after, I heard a woman's voice. She spoke with a Russian accent.
"Stop! Enough! You'll kill him!" she commanded.
"Just what I intend to do, lass," I said with a snarl, my bloody lips pulled back and my fangs bared. "So stay back. This man is mine."
"That man is dead," she corrected me. I snarled and glared at her one last time before rising.
"Aye, so he is," I said, wiping the blood from my lips with the sleeve of my uniform's coat. "And who might you be?"
"I am Nikolina," she said, curtsying like proper nobility. "Nikolina Yahontov. I have been searching for you. When you did not rise shortly after the Exchange, Janus feared that ritual was in vain."
"I'm sorry, but ye'll have to clarify for me," I said. "Who is Janus and what exactly is the Exchange?"
"Janus is our Maker," Nikolina explained. "When he found you in the streets of Dublin, in order to save you, he fed on you as you fed on that man only moments ago. But instead of draining you of blood, he only took enough to satisfy his thirst, and in exchange, he gave you his blood to drink. That's how he saved me once, long ago."
"Where can I find this master of yours?" I asked. "This…Janus?"
"Come," Nikolina said, offering me her hand to take. "I will take you to him."
Drawn by her hypnotic voice, I interlaced my fingers with hers and followed her through the broken, jagged streets of Dublin City to meet Janus, the vampire who had turned me into his kind.