I ignored the voice. What was I supposed to do? I certainly couldn't leave a child out here alone. Not even I was that callous. I'd drop him off with his parents or guardians or whomever, and then...
I repressed a shiver. When was the next time I might run into humans? If I returned this child to his guardians, they would probably be relieved. They might ask me inside, offer to let me spend the night. It would be easy enough, while they were sleeping, to slip up beside them, to...
Horrified, I shut those thoughts away. But what could I do?
I was a vampire, and if I didn't keep the Hunger in check, I would revert to that snarling, mindless creature on the road.
If I had to feed, at least it would be on my terms now. "Well," I asked the boy, holding out my hand, "are you coming or not?"
The kid brightened. Standing up, he reached for my hand and clung tightly to my fingers as I led him away. He didn't cry or even sniff le as we wove through dark alleys, between rotting buildings, and around smashed, rusty cars. Either he was too frightened to say anything, or he was used to walking around scary, unfamiliar places in the middle of the night.
"What's your name?" he asked as we made our way down another sidewalk, stepping over glass and fallen streetlights. He seemed calm now, relieved to be in the presence of a grown-up, even if she was a stranger.
"Allison," I muttered back, scanning the darkness and shadows for any signs of movement, human or otherwise. A gray fox glanced up from where it scavenged along a wall and darted into the weeds, but other than that the night was still.
I nodded and turned down another road, finding the edge of what was once a plaza. Moss covered the remains of benches along the cracked sidewalks, and the stone fountain in the center of the square was dry and crumbling to gravel. Leaves crunched under our feet as we followed one of the paths past a gazebo with a fallen roof, toward the other edge of the plaza.
Suddenly, I paused, pulling Caleb to a halt. Behind us, amid the broken wreckage of the gazebo, I heard the quiet thump of a heartbeat.
"Why are we stopping?" whispered Caleb.
"Turn around," said a voice, somehow, impossibly, at my back. "Slowly."
Still keeping a tight grip on Caleb's hand, I turned.
A human stood behind us, a few yards from the gazebo.
He was lean, a few inches taller than me, with blond hair, and his eyes-a bright, piercing blue-never left my face.
Neither did the barrel of the pistol trained on my head.
"Zee!" Caleb cried and rushed forward. I let him go, and he hurled himself at the stranger, who bent down, hugged the child to his neck and stood. All without taking his eyes, or his gun, off me.
"Hey, rug rat," he murmured, speaking to Caleb but still watching me intently. "You are in a ton of trouble, little man.
Your sister and I have been looking everywhere for you." His eyes narrowed. "Who's your friend?"
A scream interrupted him, and a slender, dark-haired girl of maybe sixteen rushed up to us, holding out her hands.
"Caleb! Oh, thank God! You found him!" She took the child from "Zee," hugged him tightly, and set him on the ground to glower at him. "Where did you go? You scared us all to death, wandering off like that! Don't ever, ever do that again, do you understand?"
"Ruth," the blond boy said quietly, still keeping me in his sights. "We have company."
The girl's head jerked up, her eyes widening when she saw me. "Who...?"
"That's Allison," Caleb chirped, turning to smile at me. I smiled back, but my gaze was still on the boy with the gun.
"She helped me find you when I was lost."
"Is that so?" The boy frowned, shifting forward to put himself between me and his charges. "And what is she doing out here, wandering the town all alone in the middle of the night?"
"That's what I'd like to know," the girl, Ruth, added, glaring at me over the boy's shoulder. "And just what were you planning to do with my brother?" she demanded-very brave, I thought, for someone hiding behind a gun. "Who are you, anyway?"
I ignored her, knowing the boy was the one I'd have to convince. He watched me calmly, blue eyes taking in my every move. Now that I saw him clearly, I realized he was probably no older than me, with dusty jeans, a tattered jacket, and jagged blond hair that fell into his eyes. He returned my smirk with the unmistakable air of someone who knew how to handle himself. But maybe that was due to the weapons he was carrying. Besides the gun, still pointed at me, he wore a hatchet on one hip, a dagger on the other, and a strap across his chest, the hilt of a machete poking up behind his shoulder.
I had no doubt he had a couple other weapons hidden some-where, a knife in his boot or up his sleeve. I also suspected he knew how to use each and every one of them. A small silver cross dangled from a chain around his neck, glimmering against his ragged shirt.
His eyes f licked to the hilt over my shoulder, then to my waist, looking for weapons. I kept very still, wondering if I could reach him and yank the pistol away without getting shot in the face. If it came to that. The strange boy seemed wary but not openly hostile. I suspected he didn't want a fight, and I didn't, either. Not after...
I shoved that memory down and focused on the humans, still eyeing me cautiously. "So, are you going to shoot me?" I asked after we spent a moment sizing each other up. "Or are we going to stand around looking at each other all night?"
"Depends," the boy said with an easy smile, not lowering the gun. "Who are you? There aren't many people who go wandering around at night with the rabids. And you're not from around here, I know that much. Where did you come from?"
He frowned, not recognizing the same. "One of the vampire cities," I elaborated without thinking better of it.
Ruth gasped. "A vampire city! Zeke, come on!" She tugged at his sleeve. "We should get back to the others, warn them!" Her dark glare stabbed at me behind his arm. "She could be one of those pets Jeb told us about! She could be out hunting for new blood slaves."
"I'm not a pet," I snapped at her. "And pets don't bother hunting for blood slaves-they let the raiding parties do that.
Do you see anyone else around here?"
The boy, Zeke, hesitated, shaking off Ruth's arm. "If you came from a vampire city, what are you doing here?" he asked in a reasonable voice.
"I left." I raised my chin and stared him down defiantly.
"I got tired of being hunted, of watching the vamps do whatever they want to us, because we're just animals to them.
Better to take my chances outside the Wall and free than stay in the city as a slave to some bloodsucker. So I got out. And I'm never going back. If you want to shoot me for that, you go right ahead. It's better than what I left behind." The boy blinked and seemed about to say something, when Caleb let out a soft cry and rushed forward, hitting his leg.
"Don't shoot her, Zee!" Caleb ordered as the boy f linched, more in surprise than pain. "She's nice! She helped me find you." He pounded the leg again with his small fists. "If you shoot her, I'll be mad at you forever. Leave her alone!"
"Ow. Okay, okay. I won't shoot her." Zeke winced and lowered his pistol, as Ruth grabbed Caleb by the arm, dragging him away. "I wasn't going to, anyway." He sighed and sheathed the gun in a back holster, turning to me with a resigned shrug. "Sorry about that. We were all freaking out when we couldn't find the rug rat, and we don't run into many people out here. I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's fine," I said, and the tension diffused. Ruth was still glaring at me, with Caleb in her arms now, squirming to get down. But she seemed petty and unimportant compared to the boy across from me.
He smiled and suddenly looked younger, far less threatening. "Let's try this introduction thing again," he offered with a rueful look. "Thank you for bringing Caleb back. I'm Zeke
Crosse. This is Ruth-" he nodded to the girl, who narrowed her eyes even more "-and you've already met Caleb."
"Allison. Or Allie." I nodded at them, looking around for other humans besides the trio, finding none. "What are you doing out here? Is it just the three of you all alone?" He shook his head, raking bangs out of his eyes. "Just passing through, like you said. We stopped here to look for supplies before we move out again."
"How many of you are there?"
"About a dozen." He blinked, regarding me intently. I raised an eyebrow and gazed back. "You really came from a vampire city?" he asked in an awed voice. "And you've been traveling since then, all alone? Do you know how dangerous it is out here?"
"Yes." I reached back and touched the hilt of my katana.
"And you don't have to worry. I can take care of myself." Zeke whistled softly. "I don't doubt it," he muttered, and I thought I caught a hint of respect below the quiet surface.
He blew out a breath and smiled at me. "Listen, I have to get these two," he nodded at Caleb and Ruth, "back to the others before Jeb goes through the roof. Do you need anything? We don't have much, but I'm sure we can spare a bag of chips or a can of beans or something. You don't look like you've eaten much lately."
I blinked in shock. His offer seemed genuine, which caught me off guard, making me wary again. Humans never gave food away to complete strangers. But before I could say anything, Ruth put Caleb down and stalked forward, eyes blazing.
"Zeke!" she hissed, tugging his sleeve again. He sighed as she bent close. "We don't know anything about her," she said in a whisper, though I could hear every word. "She could be a thief, or a pet or a kidnapper for all we know. What will Jeb say if we come back with a complete stranger? Especially one who lived with vampires? "
"She just helped us find Caleb," Zeke replied, frowning.
"I don't think she was going to spirit him off to New Covington or wherever she's from. Besides, you weren't worried when we let Darren join us, and he was from a bandit camp.
What are you afraid of ?"
"I want her to come," Caleb said, clinging to Zeke's pant leg. "Don't make her leave. She should come with us." Well, this was entertaining, but it was probably time I left.
There was no way I could travel with a group during the daylight hours. Though if I hung back and waited until they went to sleep...
"I really don't need anything," I told the trio in a f lat voice.
"Thanks, anyway. I was just leaving." Caleb pouted. Zeke glared at Ruth, and she f lushed, backing away. "It's up to you, Allison," Zeke said, glancing at me again. "But it's not any trouble, really. We're sort of used to picking up strays, isn't that right, rug rat?" He tousled the kid's hair, making Caleb giggle, before looking seriously back at me. "You're welcome to join us, at least for tonight. Jeb doesn't turn away anyone in need. In fact, if you want," he continued, cocking his head in a thoughtful manner, "you can even travel with us for a little while. We seem to be going the same direction. You'll have to get used to our weird hours, though. We sleep during the day and head out at night."