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The Vampires’ I Ching : Robert Doyle

Ho Chi was going to die; he knew as soon as the coins hit the floor. There was no need to look up the hexagrams; they were the two he had feared most:

29.     The Abyss

In the abyss, one falls into a pit


36.     The Darkening of the Light

The man with the scarlet knee is coming:

You must offer sacrifice

Ho Chi threw the three coins again, asking the I Ching if there was any hope that his mission would succeed. The answer was strange.

23.     Splitting Apart

There is a large fruit still uneaten.

21.     Biting through

Bites on old dried meat,

And strikes on something poisonous.

The Great Oracle was telling him to stay home. Ho Chi put away his coins.

There had always been rumours of a creature that lived in the mountain, but now that the village cow had vanished and a healer’s little boy disappeared, the rumours had become facts of daily life.

Then there were the nightmares. Everyone had them. The villagers dreamed of ancestors returning from the Land Beyond, warning kinsfolk against a monster who feasted on men.

At first, it was thought that the creature must be a wolf. The men of the village asked Ho Chi to lead a hunting party. Then a merchant arrived from the Great City, and told them of the Ch’ing Shih, the dead who had not been buried with proper ceremony. The creature was of their number, and now lived a half-life. It walked in lonely places until the lust for flesh became too much.

The Oracle was consulted and the merchant’s wisdom was confirmed. The creature would not leave the village alone until it was defeated or it had taken the heart of the village.

All eyes fell on Ho Chi.

He accepted his fate with firm correctness. Ho Chi had been voted leader of the village, and had a duty to protect his people from whatever threat faced them.

But how to kill the creature?

The merchant was unsure, yet knew of two ways to hurt it – expose it to fire or sunlight, or to the constant ringing of a copper bell. He had never heard of a way to kill the creature, although he understood that it could be done.

The village healer had heard an old story of such a creature being killed by an arrow fired directly through the heart, but could not guarantee that this would work.

Ho Chi was not a good shot and dismissed the idea immediately.

Only the bravest warrior would even try, the merchant agreed, for the Ch’ing Shih turned the minds of strong men to weakness and despair.

Ho Chi was a clever man, but not brave. He appealed for other villagers to join him, but they turned away.

Ho Chi knew he was doomed.

As he cooked some rice for his final journey, Ho Chi remembered how the merchant had described the creature: red staring eyes, huge sharp talons, green fur, and clothed only in the rags of the clothes in which it had died. He shuddered at the thought of the creature’s appearance, and at what the merchant had told him privately, that the creature drank blood.

That night Ho Chi performed the ritual of the dying, to purify him on the journey to his ancestors. He prayed to them to give him luck enough to be laid in the ground before the monster’s curse fell upon him.

It was still dark when he left and, although no one had risen to cheer him off, he could feel eyes watching him from darkened doorways as he took down the village bell and put it in his rucksack along with his coins, book, wine and other provisions. The only human he saw was Wang Dechen, the farmer, who was already at his field, working hard to turn the soil now that the village’s main source of manure had gone.

“If the cow is alive, make sure you bring it back,” he called out.

Ho Chi thought it strange that that Wang Dechen did not mention the vanished boy.

It was a hot day, and Ho Chi walked for miles without stopping. At midday he found shelter from the burning sun and ate a little of the rice. A small cave close by had a cool stream running through it, and a pool of fresh water. Ho Chi had never tasted water so pure.

After the sun had done its worst, Ho Chi picked up his belongings and set out again for the mountain. The road was steep and lonely. No birds sang or creatures stirred.

Ho Chi had long lost sight of the village and felt for the first time all the sorrow and regrets that his life was soon to end. He would never know the happiness of old age when one sits in the sun, smokes a pipe, and drinks a cup of wine without having to work because a fellow has a family to take the burden on.

Even though Ho Chi had no children, that had been the fate in store for him.

He had become leader because he was a man that could be trusted with the wives of other men. It was expected that he must remain single to give the aura of respectability to his position. When he had reached old age, everyone in the village would have cared for him.

 Ho Chi had never wanted a wife. He found women, his own beloved mother the exception, tiresome creatures who meddled too much with the will of men. He had been picked out as a boy by the leader of the village and, despite his mother’s wailings was happy to live with the old master in his red home. Ho Chi had always imagined he would, like his master before him, take on an apprentice. What good were women, except for bringing children into the world? Ho Chi could pick a boy from the village or even the neighbouring village to be his apprentice. A woman was not necessary.

Ho Chi suddenly felt elated. As if drunk on wine. He remembered being a young man and travelling to the school on the far side of the mountain where other young men gathered to learn the will of the emperor and be trained in the ways of leadership that his own kindly master was not expected to be able to pass on. He had spent seven happy weeks there, enjoying his classes and the long summer nights where he and the other youths would drink rice wine and talk of their villages and their masters and boast of their strength and learning.

Ho Chi smiled to himself at the thought of those times.

The sun began its long dip into the earth, and Ho Chi decided to set up camp before night truly fell.

He was hungry and thirsted for more of the cool water he had stored in his skins, or for some of the wine he had brought with him for the journey, but knew it was best to make his shelter and build his fire before dark.

As he worked, he sang about the beautiful boys who lived at the bottom of the great river and the fate of men who longed to join them.

He felt tired, drained, almost gripped by an icy loneliness. He thought of his mother, the final kiss he had given her before she joined Ho Chi’s father in the Forever Place.

He wanted to drop down and sleep where he stood, but forced himself to find some dry wood and light it with his tinderbox. Fatigue spread through his muscles with the darkening of the light. He was ready to give up, when the wood began to twist and crackle as the flame caught hold. Ho Chi threw some leaves on the wood, and watched the fire take light.

Ho Chi suddenly began to feel very strange.

The air hissed, and a shape like a great bird flew above him.

Ho Chi threw himself to the ground, shouting out and curling himself into a ball.

When he looked, the night sky was clear. The whole thing had been a trick of the mind. He heard then the noises of the night, sounds he realised had been silent for hours, as if he had been underwater and only now had the water drained from his ears.

He wrapped himself up in his blanket and watched the dancing fire. He took hold of his penis and began to squeeze it, thinking aloud about the time he had spent at the school, the way he would persuade his close friend to drink more wine than he should. He sang out:

Drink, puppy, drink,

Let every puppy drink,

That is old enough

To lap and swallow.

He’ll soon be a hound,

So pass the saki round.

Drink now,

And forget tomorrow.

Ho Chi smiled. He took the flask of wine out from his bag and, holding it at an odd angle, let a drop trickle from his cheek, under his nose and onto his lips.

Whenever he tasted wine, he remembered those happy times. How he and his friend would talk about the sort of woman they would marry, as if such a thing were allowed. Then they would take it in turns to be the woman, make their faces white, their lips red, and sing Geisha songs until they fell asleep in each others’ arms, so drunk they could hardly move.

Ho Chi remembered everything. He remembered how he wished he had been a woman, how he wished to make real the night-time play-acting with his friend, but how he was rebuffed. He remembered his old master and felt as if he was with him now, putting a comforting arm around him as he did in the old days.

Dawn, Ho Chi woke, the fire still smouldering. He ate a little of the rice and drank the last of the water. He calculated that he would reach near the top of the mountain well before midday.

He set out again, thinking of the strange dreams that had sped his sleep, dreams of an old kingdom on the other side of the mountain where a great culture had been destroyed by decadence. He saw horrible visions of a king, draining men of life and throwing their skinny, bruised bodies into an underground river, where they became trapped by water spirits and existed in misery for all time. In his dreams, their sad faces had cried out to him, their hands reaching for his. He could not save them. If he touched them, he would share their fate.

Remembering the cries of the men, he shivered as he climbed the last steps towards the mouth of the cave where the monster was said to live.

Ho Chi took a deep breath and walked towards his destiny and the mouth of the cave.

The merchant had given him one good piece of advice and he took it now, placing a pile of rice at the cave’s entrance.

“If a Ch’ing Shih finds a mound of rice, he cannot pass until he has counted every grain. It may not be much help, but it’s better than nothing.”

He made a little hill with most of what was left of his food, and took the copper bell out of his rucksack. He held the clapper tight so it would not accidentally make a sound.

He had come this far and with correct purpose. He offered up a dedication to the Oracle and tiptoed into the cave.

Inside was damp and smelt of death. Objects crunched beneath his feet. When he bent down, he saw they were bones - animal bones he thought, although he could not be sure.

The cave reached far back into the mountain and Ho Chi needed to put down his bell to light a candle. His hands were shaking.

He kept stopping to wait and listen every time he fancied there was a noise. At one point he almost rang the bell, but what he had heard was only slime squelching beneath his feet.

Ho Chi inched forward by candlelight, careful not to disturb anything or make a sound. He walked deeper into the cave, his feet sinking into the ground, accompanied by a fetid stench. He continued on, anxious not to look at what he imagined was what remained of the village cow.

Finally the floor became hard and even. There was a chamber ahead, lit dimly by a candle almost burned to the end. There was what looked like an altar, a bed, and a neat stack of books.

He picked up one of the volumes, a journal of some kind, but it was the other book beneath it that made him gasp: The Book of Changes, the I Ching, but with a strange symbol added. He studied it in the dark light until his horrified eyes understood. The book was called The I Ching of the Vampires.

Ho Chi flicked though the hexagrams: the patterns were the same, but not the words. In their place were perversions of the ancient wisdom. Ho Chi looked again at the journal and flicked to the questioners last entry:

The present is embodied in Hexagram

5.    The Waiting

Waiting in the mud

Brings the arrival of an enemy.

Be not sad, like the Sun at midday.

The future is embodied in Hexagram

50.     The Cauldron

There is food in the cauldron.

The prince’s weapon is lost.

There will be fortune in feasting.

Horror came almost immediately. Ho Chi slammed shut The Vampire’s I Ching and put it in his rucksack with the journal. He ran for the cave’s entrance, losing his way in the rush and falling headlong into the filthy slush, scrambling and half running, half throwing himself back into the daylight, trampling his pile of rice into the ground.

He gasped for air and looked at the steep path before him. If he ran, he would make it as far as the little cave with the pure stream before dusk and, after that, he had to keep going. If there was any hope that he could arrive in time to save the villagers, he must hold on to it. In the dark, with no bell for protection, they would be defenceless.

Ho Chi brushed as much of the grunge off his clothes as he could and began to run down the mountain.

The sun was still lingering on the horizon when Ho Chi reached the cool water pool, cut and bruised from his many tumbles down the mountain path. He thrust his mouth into the water and drank until he began to choke, such was his thirst. When he could drink no more, he took out his water skin to fill for the rest of the journey and tried to rise.

His legs ached. His feet could barely move. He dropped down exhausted, unable to take the smallest step forward, but knowing that he must somehow find the energy. He felt sleep closing in on him with the darkness.

He would need a fire to survive even a few hours in the cold night. He felt it would be better to risk death in sleep, never to wake from rest again. He reached for his bag, hardly able to open it, and fumbled about for the tinderbox.

Ho Chi blinked. His fingers had gripped the handle of the bell and, from inside the bag, came a muffled ringing. He pulled it out with a great clang and heard behind him a scream and a rushing sound like a flock of birds.

A voice called out his name and cursed him. In the darkness, Ho Chi could see two fiery dots. He rang the bell as loudly as he could. From the direction of the red dots came a pitched whine.

“Away, away,” shouted Ho Chi, ringing the bell with all his might. “Be gone, trouble me no more.”

The whine grew louder; a black shape flew over Ho Chi’s head to the roof of the cave.

“Be gone, be gone,” shouted Ho Chi, wildly clanging the bell.

The shape fell from the ceiling into the pool below. Ho Chi lost his footing with fear and dropped the bell as the long twisted talons of the creature sank below the water.

The head appeared again, but it seemed to be a young man, one with ancient eyes. For a second Ho Chi recognised the face, but then changed his mind as the creature howled furiously, baring teeth like a tiger.

Ho Chi tried to run but he could not move. He looked for the bell, but found himself like stone.

The creature was clambering out of the pool, but something was dragging it back.

Ho Chi stared in amazement at what looked like dozens of rough male hands pulling the creature down.

The monster’s head disappeared below the surface, not to rise again, and all was quiet except the chuckling water that flowed into the pool.

Ho Chi collapsed into a dead sleep.

Daybreak, Ho Chi awoke with a start, and set out for home. All his rice gone, he staggered from hunger and fatigue.

His heart leapt when he saw his village and he found the strength to canter the rest of the way.

There was no one in the field and, as he reached the centre of the village, Ho Chi realised it was deserted.

He went from house to house, ringing the bell and calling out the names of all the people he knew, but there was no reply.

In the house of Wang Dechen the farmer, he found the clothes of the boy who had vanished.

In the distance, he saw the women. He ran towards them. They were mute with fear or raving mad, staring ahead or clawing at the dirt.

Every man in the village had been taken.

The women had seen the ravages of the creature, and most wished they themselves had not been spared.

Ho Chi made a fire and cast his coins for guidance on what he should do next. The answer was confusing, a nonsense. The I Ching had abandoned him. He turned to the equivalent hexagram in The I Ching of the Vampires.

21.     Splitting Apart

You have chosen

A cursed life.

48.     The Well

You will always

Be alone

Ho Chi sat quietly for a while, and then wept as the woman watched.