But I wasn't human anymore. And I wasn't as afraid of them as I once was. I was part of their world now, part of the darkness.
I was still scared. I hated the thought of leaving home and the relative safety of the city. But there was a part of me that was a tiny bit excited, as well. Maybe everything in my short miserable life had led up to this. I was outside the walls. I was far from vampire inf luence. True, I was dead, but there was a strange freedom in that. Everything in my other life was gone. I had nothing to go back to.
Go out there, and live, and get stronger.
"All right then, Kanin," I muttered. "Guess I'll just go see what's out there."
Turning, I gazed through the trees, back toward the ruins and the city, sparing one last look at the lights of my old home. Then, with nothing but my sword and the clothes on my back, I put New Covington behind me and stepped forward, into the wilderness. And I didn't stop until I was certain I would see nothing but trees if I looked back.
Part III Monster
That first night, I walked through trees and brush and tangled undergrowth, shaking my head at the vastness of it all, wondering if it would ever end. There was no road to follow, at least, not where I had come out. After spending my entire life within the city walls, this alien, green-and-brown world felt hostile and dangerous, like it was trying to drag me down and swallow me whole. I did stumble upon a few leftovers of human civilization-old houses crumbling under carpets of weeds and moss, a few rusty car skeletons choked with vines-but the farther I got from the city, the wilder the forest became. I'd had no idea it was this big, that trees could just stretch on forever and ever. I thought of New Covington and wondered how many years it had left, how long until nature crawled up its walls and smothered it completely.
And unlike the empty city, with its silent streets and cold, dead buildings, the wilderness was alive. Everything moved out here. Branches sighed in the wind. Insects buzzed through the air. Things rustled in the bushes just out of sight. At first, it was unnerving; I'd grown up on the street where every noise or sudden movement made you f linch and tense to run. But after a couple nights of this, listening to things f lee from me, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing beyond the city that could really put me in any danger. I was a vampire.
I was the scariest thing out here.
I was dead wrong, of course.
Just after dusk one evening, I stumbled upon a slow-moving stream and followed it for a while, wondering if it led anywhere. I caught glimpses of several deer and a raccoon at the water's edge, and figured more animals would be drawn to the water. But I'd grown so used to seeing wildlife by now that I didn't think much about it.
There was a low growl in the shadows ahead, and I froze.
Something massive and dark lumbered out of the trees, coming to a stop a few yards away at the edge of the water.
It was the biggest animal I'd ever seen, with shaggy brown fur, huge shoulders and enormous yellow claws. It snuffed at me, then raised its lip, revealing a set of huge teeth, some as long as my fingers.
My stomach dropped. I'd heard the stories the old-timers of the city would throw around sometimes, of the wild creatures that lived beyond the walls, breeding and populating without restraint. But the word bear didn't do the real animal justice. This thing could tear a rabid in two without thinking about it. It could probably give a vampire a run for its money.
Which meant I might be in a bit of trouble here.
The bear stared at me with beady black eyes, huffing softly, shaking its huge head as if confused. I stood rigidly still and tried to remember what you were supposed to do if you met a bear out in the woods. Fall down? Play dead? Yeah, that didn't sound like a good idea at all. Slowly, I reached back and grasped the hilt of my sword, ready to draw it if the bear charged. If I landed one good, solid blow on the neck, behind its head, maybe that would be enough to kill it. Or at least slow it down. And if that didn't work, I could always climb a tree...
The bear snorted at me, nostrils twitching. It swayed back and forth, making low groaning sounds in its chest, scraping the dirt with its claws. I got the distinct impression that it was confused. Maybe I didn't smell like prey. Maybe I didn't smell alive at all. But it turned and, with one last grunt in my direction, lumbered away into the woods. I waited until I could no longer hear it plowing through the undergrowth, then hurried away in the opposite direction.
Okay, so there were bigger, scarier things out here than rabids. Good to know. I wondered why it hadn't attacked me. Had it sensed another predator, like itself, and decided to look for easier prey? I didn't know. But I could guess that the bear thought I was something unnatural, something that didn't belong in this leafy world with its endless trees. The wildlife out here probably didn't meet many vampires. I also wondered what the rest of New Covington would say if a bear came waddling down the street into the city. I smirked at the thought. They'd probably crap their pants. If Stick saw one, he'd faint dead away.
My smile faded. Where was he now? I wondered. Was he still living in the warehouse with the other Unregistereds?
Or had he sold me out to move into the vampire towers, to be fed and taken care of, beginning a new life as a pet?
I growled and grabbed a branch, tearing it away from the trunk. He wouldn't do that to me, I told myself angrily.
It couldn't have been him. We looked out for each other, watched each other's backs. I had saved his life countless times.
He wouldn't just throw all that away, as if all those years meant nothing to him, as if I was dead to him now. The enemy. A vampire.
Stop kidding yourself, Allie. Who else could it have been? I sighed and kicked a rock, sending it f lying into the undergrowth.
The way Stick had looked at me that night in the warehouse, that was true terror. I'd seen it in his eyes: Allison Sekemoto, the girl who looked after him for years and years, was dead.
My emotions still held a stubborn hope that humans could be loyal, that they could hold out against the promise of an easy life. But I knew better. Unregistered or not, if offered a way out of being hungry and cold and dumped on, Stick would take it in a heartbeat. It was just human nature.
The wilderness went on, and I wandered for several nights, not knowing or caring where I was going. When dawn tinted the skies pink, I burrowed into the earth, only to awake the following night with no sense of where I was or where I should go next. I met no one in my travels, human or vampire, though the woods were teeming with wildlife, most of which I had never seen before and knew their names only through stories. Fox and skunk, rabbit and squirrel, snakes, raccoons and endless herds of deer. I saw larger predators, too: a wolf pack loping silently through the trees one evening, the tawny form of a huge cat, its eyes glowing in the darkness.
They never bothered me, and I gave them a wide berth as well, one predator to another.
On the sixth night, I climbed out of my shallow grave with a sense of purpose, feeling my fangs pressing against my bottom lip. I was hungry. I needed to hunt.
The small herd of deer feeding in the meadow scattered when they saw me, but I was faster, pouncing on a stag and bringing it, kicking and bleating, to the ground. The blood that f lowed into my mouth was hot and gamey, but though I felt it spread through my stomach, the gnawing ache was still there. I ran down another deer and gorged myself on its blood, to the same effect. I was still hungry.
Other animals couldn't fill the Hunger, either. I went to sleep famished, and each night, rising from the earth, I went hunting, chasing down and draining anything I came across.
Nothing helped. My stomach was full, sometimes overly so; I could feel it pressing against my ribs. But the Hunger only got stronger.
Until, one night, starving and desperate, I chased a doe out of the briars, lunged forward to grab it, and landed on a stretch of pavement.
Blinking, I stood, letting the deer bound away into the trees. I was in the middle of a road, or what had been a road.
Most of it was covered in weeds and brush, and grass was pushing up through numerous cracks in the pavement. Forest was closing in on either side, threatening to swallow it whole, but it was still there, a narrow strip cutting through the trees, vanishing into the darkness in both directions.
I stif led a f lare of excitement. There was no guarantee the road led anywhere now. But following it was a lot more promising than wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, and right now, I'd take what I could get.
Picking a direction, I began walking.
I slept one more day, burrowing into the earth on the side of the road and waking the next night completely starved.
My fangs kept slipping out on their own, and I found myself perking at every rustle, every movement in the darkness around me. The urge to hunt was almost overwhelming, but I'd only be wasting time and energy, and it wouldn't stop the awful Hunger gnawing at my insides. So I kept walking, following the road, my mouth as dry as grit and my stomach threatening to eat its own lining.
A few hours from dawn, the woods finally began to thin out. Not long after that, they turned into rolling grasslands, with barely a tree to be seen. I was relieved, for I had seriously started to think the woods went on forever.
The road widened as it cut across the plains. It was quiet out here, unlike the forest, with its constant rustle of small creatures in the brush, the hiss of wind moving through the leaves. Except for my soft footsteps against the pavement, the world was silent and still, and the stars blazed overhead, stretching on forever.
So I heard the rumble of engines a very long ways off, probably several miles in the distance. At first, I thought I was hearing things. Coming to a stop in the middle of the road, I watched, fascinated, as headlights appeared and the rumbles grew louder.
Gliding over a rise were two short, sleek machines. They weren't cars or trucks or any type of vehicle I'd seen before; they had two wheels and moved faster than a car, but it was difficult to see anything else beyond the headlights. Watching them approach, I felt a ripple of excitement. If there were strange vehicles like these on the road, then maybe humans lived outside the Wall, after all.
The headlights drew closer, shining in my eyes, nearly blinding me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the old Allison, the wary, cautious street rat, was telling me to get off the road, to hide, to let them go by without knowing I was there. I ignored the voice. My gut told me that whatever powered these strange machines was human. I was curious.
I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to see if humans could live outside the city, away from vampire inf luence.
And...I was hungry.
The vehicles pulled to a stop a few feet away and the rumble of engines kicked off, though the lights remained, shining in my eyes. Raising a hand to shield my gaze, I heard a rusty squeak as something stepped off the machine, coming to stand beside it.
"Well, well." The voice was deep and mocking, and a large, rough-looking man stepped forward, silhouetted against the light. He was tall and barrel-chested, with tattoos covering his arms like sleeves. Another covered half his face, the image of a grinning dog or wolf or coyote, baring its fangs at me.
"What do we have here?" he mused. "You lost, little girl?
This is a bad place for you to be stranded, all alone, at night." A second man joined the first, smaller and skinnier, but no less threatening. Unlike the first, he seemed more eager, less cautious than his companion. He had the same dog tattoo on one shoulder, and a bright, hungry gleam in his eyes.