The storm swirled around me, pelting me with rain, whipping at my coat and hair. Lightning f lashed, turning the world white, revealing nothing but empty woods and shadows.
It f lickered again, and suddenly, the trees were full of them, hundreds of dead white eyes glaring at me as they shuff led forward. There were so many; like ants swarming out of a nest, and the air filled with their eerie wails and cries.
I gripped my blade and took one deliberate step forward.
With piercing shrieks, the rabids f lung themselves at me, a pale, chaotic swarm. Howling a battle cry, I lunged to the edge of the road and met the first wave with f lashing steel, cutting through limbs and splitting bodies in two. Claws slashed at me, tearing through my coat, into my skin. Blood misted on the damp air, both mine and the tainted blood of the monsters, but I didn't feel any pain. Roaring, I bared my fangs and surged into the wave, splitting them apart. Everything dissolved into a chaotic blur of blood and fangs and slashing limbs, and I lost myself in complete, savage destruction.
A scream drew my attention to the van. Zeke was pulling Caleb out the side door, when a rabid clawed its way out of the earth next to the van and slashed at them with curved talons. With one arm, Zeke swung Caleb out of its reach, bringing the machete down with the other. The blade struck the monster's skull, burying deep, and the rabid jerked away, twitching. I started toward them when suddenly, through the trees, the earth roiled, and another wave of monsters erupted from the ground. Eyes blazing, they gave chilling wails and f lung themselves at the van.
"Zeke!" I screamed, cutting a rabid's head from its neck, even as the claws ripped a gash in my sleeve, "get them out of there now!"
"Go!" Zeke bellowed, and the tiny group of six humans scrambled over the tree and took off down the road. Silent Jake led them, clutching the ax he'd picked up from our last stop, but the others were either too small or too old to carry weapons. Zeke hovered by the van, waiting until everyone was gone, before turning to f lee, as well.
A rabid came hurling out of nowhere, slamming into him before he could move, pinning him to the hood of the van.
Jaws snapping, it lunged for Zeke's throat, but Zeke's hand shot out, clamping around its neck, holding the teeth away.
The rabid hissed in fury and ripped at him with its claws, tearing at his chest, and for a horrible moment, I f lashed back to that night in the rain, where I had died, holding the monster away from my throat while its claws tore my life away.
"Zeke!" Breaking away from the horde, I started toward him. But Zeke brought his foot up, kicking the rabid in the chest, hurling it away. His blue eyes met mine through the rain.
"Help the others!" he spat, as the rabid bounced to its feet with a hiss and sprang at him again. It met the blade of a machete, slashing across its face, and lurched back with a shriek, blood pouring across its eyes. "Allison!" Zeke spared me a split-second glance. "Forget about me-help the others!
I watched Zeke bring his weapon up, the front of his shirt drenched with blood, watched the rabid close on him, and made my decision.
Whirling, I sprang after the rest of the group, catching up to them just as a pair of rabids lunged for Bethany, cutting them down before they touched her. But the circle was closing in; everywhere I looked, rabids were coming at us, leaping through the trees and rising out of the ground. Several jumped forward, but I sliced them apart before they reached the rest of the group. Still, it was only a matter of time before numbers overwhelmed us.
From the corner of my eye, I could see them, huddled together. Teresa and Silas had the kids between them, sobbing, and Jake stood behind me with his ax, silent and grim. Zeke was gone. The rabids were coming, wave upon wave of them.
There was nowhere left to go.
Run, my vampire instincts whispered. The rabids don't want you; they want the humans. You can still get out of this alive. Run now!
The circle of rabids closed in, hissing and snarling. I glanced behind me at the small group of humans, then turned to face the sea of death, edging forward from all sides.
Zeke, I thought, swinging my blade up one last time, this is for you.
Baring my fangs, I roared a battle cry and lunged forward.
Light pierced the darkness, sudden and blinding. The rabids froze, whirling around, as a monstrous vehicle roared through the crowds, crushing bodies and f linging them aside.
It skidded to a halt a few feet away, and several uniformed humans leaned out over the top and sent a hail of machine-gun fire into the mob.
Rabids shrieked and howled as the roar of bullets joined the deafening cacophony, tearing through f lesh, shattering concrete and making dirt and trees explode. I cringed back with the others, huddled as close to the truck as I could, hoping a stray bullet wouldn't hit anyone by mistake. Rabids pounced toward the vehicle but were cut down before they reached the massive tires, twitching as they were riddled with holes.
There was a shout, and something small f lew through the air, thrown by one of the humans. A few seconds later an explosion rocked the ground, sending rabids f lying.
Snarling, the rest of the pack turned and f led, bounding back into the forest or burying themselves into the earth. In a few seconds, the whole pack had disappeared, and the night was still except for the rain.
I tensed as a human leaped from the top of the truck and stalked toward us. He was big and muscular, dressed in a uniform of black and green, and held a very, very large gun in both hands.
"We saw your lights down the road," he said, matter-of-factly. "Sorry we couldn't get here sooner. Is anyone hurt?" Dazed, I stared at him. Other soldiers were springing down from the vehicle now, wrapping the group in blankets, leading them back to the truck. One of them picked Bethany up after throwing a blanket around her, and another helped Teresa hobble over the pavement. The lead soldier watched them a moment, then turned back to me.
"Is this everyone?" he asked briskly. "Once we leave, we're not coming back if we can help it. Is this your whole party?"
"No!" I gasped and whirled around, scanning the road behind us. "No, there's one more. We left him by the van-he could still be alive."
I started forward, but he grabbed my arm.
"He's dead, girl." The soldier's eyes were sympathetic, as I turned on him furiously. "If he fell behind with the rabids, he's dead. I'm sorry. But we should get those who are alive to Eden."
"I'm not leaving him," I snarled, yanking my arm out of his grip. My throat burned with anger at the unfairness of it all. That Zeke could come so far, get this close, only to fall at the end. I thought of the data he was carrying, the precious information that could save the human race, and backed away from the soldier. "You don't know him-he could still be alive. If he's dead-" I clenched my fists, my voice breaking a little. "I still have to know. But I'm not leaving him behind. We've come too far for that."
"I know it's hard-" the soldier began but was interrupted.
"Sarge?" One of the soldiers peered down from the truck.
"Sergeant Keller, I think you'd better see this." I whirled around. A lone figure was walking steadily down the road toward us, one hand holding his shoulder, the other gripping a machete at his side. He was covered in blood, clothes torn, and every step looked painful, but he was alive.
Relief shot through me. Breaking away from Keller, I ran to him, catching him just as he staggered, dropping his weapon to the pavement. He was shaking, his skin cold, and he reeked of blood, both his own and the rabids'. I felt his heartbeat, thumping frantically in his chest, the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard. One arm snaked around me, holding us together, and he rested his forehead against mine.
"Zeke," I whispered, feeling his shaky breath on my skin, the tension lining his back and shoulders. He said nothing, only held me tighter, but I pulled back a little to glare at him.
"Dammit, don't you ever do that to me again."
"I'm sorry," he whispered, his voice reedy with pain.
"But...the others? Is everyone okay?" I framed his face with both hands, wanting to laugh and cry and slap him all at once.
"Everyone is fine," I told him, and felt him relax. "We made it, Zeke. Eden is right around the corner."
He blew out a ragged breath, and sagged against me.
"Thank you," he whispered, just as the soldiers swarmed around us. We were safe now. I released him and stepped back, letting the humans throw a blanket around his shoulders, shine a f lashlight over his wounds and ask him a ton of questions.
"They're just scratches," I heard Zeke say, as Sergeant Keller peered down at him, frowning. "I'm not bitten."
"Get him on the truck," Keller ordered, waving his arm.
"They can check him out once we're behind the wall. Let's move, people."
Moments later, I sat beside Zeke in back of the monstrous truck, both of us wrapped in blankets, his hand clutched tightly in mine. Surrounded by so many humans, the Hunger stirred restlessly as the scratches beneath my coat slowly healed, but I ignored it. Caleb and Bethany clung to the adults they knew, eyeing the soldiers warily, but the rest of them were dazed with relief. As the rain slowly let up, I peered over the top of the truck and saw it approaching a pair of enormous iron gates at the end of the road. A fence stretched out on either side of it, reminding me of the Wall in New Covington, dark and massive and bristling with razor wire on top. The white beam of a spotlight spun slowly around just inside one corner of the wall, piercing the sky.
There were shouts from inside the fence, and the massive gates slowly swung open, allowing the truck to pass through.
More armed, uniformed humans lined the path beyond the gate, jogging after the truck as it cruised into a tiny compound with muddy roads and a few long cement buildings in the distance. Watchtowers rose along the wall every hundred feet or so, and the humans here seemed to be all military.
Caleb peered over the rim with wide eyes. "Is this Eden?" he asked plaintively. One of the soldiers laughed.
"No, little guy, not yet. Look." He pointed to where a dock stretched out over the dark waters of the huge lake. "Eden is on an island in the middle of Lake Eerie. There's a boat that will arrive to take you there tomorrow morning." So Jeb had been right. Eden was on an island. This place was just a checkpoint, the last stop before getting to the city.
"How far?" Zeke murmured from my shoulder, his voice tight with pain. Sergeant Keller glanced down at him, frowning.
"Not far. About an hour by boat. But first, we have to make sure you're not infected. You've all been in contact with the rabids. Everyone will get a thorough examination here, before you're allowed into the city."
Uh-oh. That didn't sound good for me. And Zeke's hand tightened on mine, showing he felt the same. The truck pulled through the camp and finally stopped at one of the long cement buildings near the edge of the lake.
A bald man in a long white coat waited for us near the back door and spoke urgently to Sergeant Keller as we piled off the truck. I saw the sergeant point to Zeke and myself, and the bald man glanced over anxiously.
A bed on wheels was brought out, pushed by two more men in white coats, and Zeke was loaded onto it despite his protests. In the end, he relented but still kept a tight hold of my hand as we swept through the doors into a sterile white room. Cots lined the walls, and men and women in white rushed toward us, ushering the others to different parts of the room. Caleb resisted a little, clinging to Jake, but was won over when the man pulled something tiny and bright out of his coat pocket. It looked like a green button on a white stick, but when Caleb put it in his mouth, his eyes widened, and he crunched down on it with a smile. The man held out a hand, and Caleb allowed him to lead him toward a counter.