"We don't see many bitches out here," he agreed, running a tongue along his bottom lip. "Why don't you keep us company for a while?"
I bristled, backing up a step, fighting the urge to snarl at them. This had been a mistake. They were human and, worse, they were men. I knew what they wanted; I'd seen it on the street countless times, and it made my gut tense. I should've stayed hidden, should've let them go by. But it was too late.
I could taste the violence on the air, smell the lust and sweat and blood pumping below their skin. Something inside me responded, rising eagerly, the Hunger a dancing f lame in my gut.
There was a metallic click, and the first man drew a gun, pointing the barrel at my face. "Don't even think of running," he crooned, baring yellow, uneven teeth in a wide grin. "Just come over here and make it easy on yourself." When I didn't move, he nodded at his companion, who stepped forward and grabbed my arm.
The second his hand touched my skin, something inside me snapped.
Prey! Food! With a wild screech, I turned on the human, fangs bared, and he jerked back with a screaming curse. I snatched at him, sensing the heat and hot f luids below his skin, pumping in time with his heart. I could smell his blood, hear his frantic heartbeat, and my vision went red with Hunger.
A howl and a roar behind me. The vivid scent of fresh blood, and the human jerking against me, gasping. I spun, furious now, searching for my prey. It stood against the light, smelling of blood and fear, the gun leveled at my chest. I roared, dropping the limp human, and lunged. The gun barked twice, missing, and I slammed into the prey's chest, driving him to the ground. He swung wildly at my face, elbows glancing off my cheek, as I yanked him up and sank my fangs into his neck.
The prey stiffened, going rigid, and I sank my fangs in deeper, piercing the vein and causing the blood to f low more freely. Warmth filled my mouth and throat, f lowing down to my stomach, easing the horrible ache that had been there so long. I growled in pleasure and tore impatiently at the surrounding f lesh, causing even more blood to f low. I drew that power into myself, easing the pain in my stomach and shoulder, feeling my wounds close and the Hunger fade. The rest of the world disappeared, all sounds vanished, all sensa-tions shrank down to this-this perfect, intoxicating moment where nothing mattered but power.
Beneath me, the human made a choking, shuddering sound, like a whimper, and I suddenly realized what I was doing.
Shaking, I released him, staring down at the man, the human who, for a few insane moments, had been nothing but prey to me. His neck was a mess of blood; in my eagerness, I'd done more than simply bite his throat-I'd shredded it.
Red soaked his collar, but the wound wasn't oozing blood.
Experimentally, I shook his shoulder.
His head lolled to the side, and his eyes stared ahead, unseeing and glassy. He was dead.
No. I put both hands to my mouth, shaking so hard I thought I would puke. It had happened, just like Kanin had said it would. I had killed someone. I had murdered a human being. The second I'd tasted blood, the demon had taken over, and I'd lost my mind. I'd lost control to the Hunger. And in those mad few heartbeats, with the blood f lowing hot in my mouth and through my veins, I had loved every second of it.
"Oh, God," I whispered, staring at the body, the corpse that, a few minutes ago, had been a living, breathing being.
I'd killed him. I'd killed him. What did I do now?
An agonized groan interrupted me. I looked fearfully to where the other human lay sprawled on the pavement, gazing up at the sky. He was breathing in short, panicked gasps, and his eyes widened as I stood and walked toward him.
"You!" he gasped. His legs twitched as he tried to get up. Blood seeped from his chest, where he'd taken a bullet meant for me. He didn't have long, even I could see that. But he didn't seem to notice, staring up at me with glazed eyes.
"Didn't know...you were a vampire."
The man gagged, blood spilling out of his mouth, running down to the pavement. His blank stare cut me like a thousand knives. "I'm sorry," I whispered, not knowing what else to say. But that only seemed to push him over the edge, for he started to laugh.
"Sorry," he repeated, as his head lolled to the side. "Vampire kills my mate, then says she's sorry." He collapsed into uncontrollable giggles, choking on his own blood. "This is...a joke, right?" he whispered, as his eyes rolled up in his head.
"A vampire...joke? Jackal...would've...laughed..." He didn't move again.
I might've stayed there, kneeling in the cold grass, the smell of blood clogging my nose and mouth, except the sky over the hills was lightening, and my internal clock warned me dawn wasn't far away. For a moment, I wondered what it would be like if I just...stayed aboveground. Met the sun, as Kanin once said. Would it burn me to ash? Would it take very long, be very painful? I wondered what lay beyond; I'd never been very religious, but I'd always believed vampires had no souls, and no one knew what happened to them when they finally left the world. It didn't seem possible that I, a monster and a demon, could ever have a shot at heaven or eternity or whatever happened when humans died. If such a thing existed.
But if heaven existed, then so did...the other place.
Shuddering, I crawled into the grass and burrowed deep into the earth, feeling it close around me like a grave. I might be a demon and a coward, and I might deserve to burn, but in the end, I didn't want to die. Even if it damned me to hell, I would always choose to live.
Though, for the first time since the attack that terrible night in the ruins, I wished Kanin hadn't saved me, after all.
The bodies were still there, stiff and waxy, when I rose the next evening. They had already attracted a f lock of crows and other carrion birds. I shooed the scavengers away and, feeling it was the least I could do, dragged the bodies off the road into the tall grass, leaving them to nature. The vehicles they'd been driving had run out of fuel or electricity or whatever powered them, for their lights were dead, and they were cold and still. I wondered if I could've ridden one of them, but I'd never driven anything in my life, and the machines seemed very complicated even if they still worked. So I left them sitting on the side of the road as I continued my journey to wherever I was going.
Another night or two passed with no distractions. I walked through towns and settlements, all dead, all overgrown and empty. I came upon several crossroads, where other roads stretched away in opposite directions until they were lost to the darkness, but I kept to the road I was walking. I became used to the silence, the emptiness and the vastness of the sky above. The stars were my only constant companions, though I did see deer and small animals and herds of shaggy horned beasts roaming the plains. When the sun threatened the horizon, I burrowed into the earth and slept, only to rise and repeat the same thing the following night. Everything I did became habit: rise, shake the dirt out, face the same direction as the night before and walk. I didn't think of the city.
Or Kanin. Or anything behind me on the road. Instead, I occupied myself with what I might find over the next rise, the next hill. I sometimes imagined a distant city, sparkling with lights, or the glow of a vehicle, coming toward me. Or even the silhouette of another traveler, walking toward me in the darkness. Of course, nothing like that ever appeared; no lights, no vehicles, no humans. Only empty f latlands and the skeletons of what had been houses or farms. The encounter with the two men seemed a hazy, half-remembered dream, something that hadn't really happened to me, as it soon felt as if I was the only person left in the entire world.
I didn't run into any rabids, which was surprising at first.
I'd been expecting to fight my way past at least a few by now.
But maybe rabids only hung around cities and towns where their human prey would be. Or perhaps, like the bear, they didn't bother hunting vampires. Maybe their prey had to be alive and breathing to catch their attention.
Maybe they thought vampires were just like them.
Finally the road took me through another dead town. It was much like the few others I'd seen-empty and overgrown, buildings crumbling to rubble, abandoned cars rotting in the streets. As I passed the remains of an old gas station, I wondered if it had already been raided for food and supplies.
Then I realized I didn't need to check, which I found ironic and a little sad. The old Allie would've seen a place like that as a potential treasure trove. Old buildings, abandoned stores, empty gas stations-there were a ton of supplies out here just waiting to be scavenged. I didn't need food or water or any of that anymore. The only thing I needed was the one thing that wasn't here.
I sighed, just for the hell of it, and continued into the town.
As I passed a tree growing through the hood of a car, I caught a faint rustle in the grass and a quiet whimper. Not an animal noise, either. This sounded human.
I paused. It had been four days since the...incident...with the men on the road. Was I still a danger to humans? Could I control myself in the presence of my prey? The Hunger seemed sated for now, held in check, but I'd still have to be very careful.
The sound came again. Wary of rabid wildlife, I drew my sword and eased around the car, ready to slash at anything that came f lying out of the weeds. When I saw what was hiding behind the tree, however, I relaxed.
A small, frightened face gasped and recoiled, wide-eyed, tears streaking his cheeks. He had dark hair, smudged, dirty skin, and was probably no more than six years old.
A kid? What's a kid doing way out here, alone?
Still wary, I lowered my sword. The child sniff led and gazed up at me, teary-eyed but silent. I looked for wounds on his small body, bite marks or scratches, but he was clean.
There wasn't any blood, though he was frightfully thin, a trait that was all too common where I came from. "W-who are you?" he sniff led, pressing himself against the trunk. "I don't know you. You're a stranger."
"It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you." Sheathing the blade, I knelt beside the kid, holding out my hand. "Where do you live?" I asked gently, stunned that someone would let a child roam around these streets at night. Did they want him eaten by rabids? "Where's your mom and dad?"
"I d-don't live here," he whispered, hiccuping with the effort not to cry. "I don't h-have a mom or a dad. I live with e-everyone, but now I can't find them!" He wasn't making much sense, and the last sentence had finally dissolved into a frightened wail, setting my teeth on edge. We'd never get anywhere like this, and his howling could attract rabid animals at the least. They might ignore me, but if they sensed this child, we'd have a problem.
"It's okay," I said quickly as the child stuffed his small fist into his mouth. "It's all right, we'll find everyone else. There are other people here, right? In the town?" He nodded. "They were looking for food and stuff," he said, pointing a grubby finger in an indiscriminate direction.
"Over there, I think. I had to go potty, but when I came back they were gone."
So, hopefully, they'd be close. Whoever they were. Probably an aunt or a relative or something, since the kid didn't have any parents. His bottom lip trembled, and I scrubbed my eyes. "Let's go look for them," I said, standing up. "Come on. I'm sure they're looking for you, too." What? The Fringer street rat in me recoiled, aghast. What are you doing, Allison? You don't know this kid. Why are you getting involved?