I blinked, hardly believing my ears. "You travel at night? " I asked, just to confirm it, and he nodded. "Why?" A shadow crossed Zeke's face, and Ruth paled, glancing at Caleb. Both of them got very quiet for a moment. "That's...a long story," Zeke muttered, sounding uncomfortable, or sad.
"Ask me again later." He jerked his head toward the child clinging to his leg, indicating: ask me when Caleb isn't around to hear it.
Definitely a story there. The grim look on his face spoke louder than words and made me curious. I wonder what happened to them? What was so terrible that he doesn't want Caleb to hear?
"So," Zeke continued as Ruth scowled, "the offer still stands, Allison. Are you coming or not?" I shouldn't. I should just turn around and walk away without looking back. According to Zeke, there were at least a dozen humans wandering around, smelling like prey and blood, blissfully ignorant of the vampire lurking so close to their little community. If I accepted his offer, how long before they realized I wasn't human, especially with Ruth hovering like a suspicious vulture, waiting to expose me? And how long could I possibly go without wanting to eat them?
But then, if I stayed away from humans, isolating and starving myself, I'd eventually lose control again. And then I would kill someone. Maybe a child, like the boy on Zeke's leg. What if I had found him first, instead of those two men? The thought made me sick. I couldn't do that again. I couldn't.
Maybe...maybe if I took just a little blood at a time, I could keep the demon bottled up. There had to be a way. No one could find out, of course, and I'd have to be really, really careful, but that seemed a better plan than stalking them through the darkness, waiting for the Hunger to overcome me again.
"Please, Allie?" Caleb looked at me with large, pleading eyes as I still hesitated. "Please come with us? Pleeeaaase?"
"You heard him." Zeke smiled, handsome and charming in the moonlight. "You have to come now, or you'll make him cry."
Ruth pressed her lips together, glaring at me with darkest hate, but she was no longer important. I sighed, both because I felt like it and to give the impression that I still breathed.
"All right," I said, shrugging. "You win. Lead the way." Caleb grinned, skipped up to me, and took my hand. Ruth made a disgusted noise and stalked away into the shadows, muttering to herself. Shaking his head, Zeke gave me an apologetic glance and motioned us forward.
As I followed them, my fingers clutched firmly in the child's grip, I couldn't help but feel uneasy. This was probably an insanely bad idea, but I couldn't stop now. The cards had been dealt, and I was going to have to bluff my way through.
Besides, I didn't want to admit it, but I missed talking to someone. Those long, silent nights in the wilderness made me realize how much of a social creature I really was. Talking to Zeke was easy, and I wasn't quite ready to be alone again.
Even though, just a few minutes into our trek, he started to ask the hard questions.
"So, Allison," Zeke said quietly, as we picked our way over a stretch littered with nails, boards and shards of glass, sparkling in the moonlight. Caleb was in his arms, clinging tightly to his neck as he maneuvered through the debris, and Ruth lagged a few steps behind, her glare burning into my back. "How long did you live in a vampire city?"
"All my life," I muttered. "I was born there."
"What was it like?"
"What do you mean, what was it like?"
"I mean, I've never been to one," Zeke answered, shifting Caleb to his other side, shaking out his arm. "I've never seen the inside of a vampire city-I've just heard the stories and rumors. And of course, no two are the same, you know?"
"Not really." I looked away, wondering how I could get him off the subject. "What have you heard? What kind of stories?"
He gave me a crooked grin. "I could tell you, but I think it would be too scary for certain little ears." He used his free hand to point at Caleb, who seemed blissfully unaware. "Let's just say a few of them involve giant freezers and hooks on the ceiling."
I wrinkled my nose. "It's not like that," I said, giving in.
"Basically it's a big city with lots of old buildings, vampires and poor people. There's a big wall that keeps rabids out, and a wall surrounding the Inner City, where the vampires live, and in between there are the humans. Or, at least, the ones that haven't been Taken into the Inner City to work for the vamps." I paused to kick a broken bottle, which went clinking over the pavement into the weeds. "Nothing special about it."
"Have you ever seen a vampire?"
I winced. That was another question I didn't want to answer. "They really didn't leave the Inner City very often," I said evasively. "Why, have you?"
"I've never seen one," Zeke admitted. "Rabids, yeah, I've seen a ton of those. But never a real vampire. Jeb has, though.
He says they're vicious, soulless demons that can tear a man in half and punch through steel walls. If you ever meet a real vampire, the only thing you can do is pray and hope it doesn't notice you."
My apprehension grew. "You keep talking about this Jeb person," I said, not liking the sound of him at all. "Is he like your leader or something?"
"My father," Zeke replied.
"Not my real one." Zeke smiled, easing my embarrassment.
"He died when I was three. My mom, too. Killed by rabids." He shrugged, as if telling me it was a long time ago and that I didn't need to act sympathetic. "Jeb adopted me. But, yeah, I guess he is our leader. He was the minister of our church, anyway, before we all decided to leave to find Eden."
I nearly tripped over a broken crate. For a second, I didn't think I'd heard him right. Did he just say they were looking for Eden? I wasn't religious at all, but even I knew what Eden was. What it was supposed to be.
I stared at the boy walking casually at my side, wondering if delusions could strike someone so young and handsome.
Zeke rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, I know." He gave me a sideways look, cocking an eyebrow. "It sounds insane. Crazy fanatics off looking for the Promised Land-I've heard it all before. No need to rub it in."
"It's none of your business, anyway," Ruth added sharply.
"We don't need you to tell us how stupid it sounds."
"I wasn't going to say anything," I said, though that's exactly what I'd been thinking.
"But we're not looking for the biblical place," Zeke continued, as if I hadn't said anything. "Eden is a city. A huge city.
One with the technology of the old days, before the plague.
And it's run completely by humans. There are no vampires in Eden."
I stopped to face him. "You're joking." He shook his head. "No. According to rumor, Eden lies somewhere on a huge island, surrounded by an enormous lake. The lake is so big and vast, no rabids would dare cross it, and the vampires don't know it exists."
"A magical island with no rabids or vampires." I curled my lip in disdain. "Sounds like a fairy tale to me." I heard the bitterness in my voice, though I wasn't sure where it came from. Perhaps it was because the news that a city completely made up of humans, with no vampire inf luence and no threat of rabids, had come just a little too late for me. If I had heard this rumor earlier, when I was still alive, I might've gone looking for it, too. Or...maybe not. Maybe I would've laughed it off as a wild fantasy and continued life as I knew it. But at least I would've heard about it. I'd want the chance to know, to decide for myself. Eden didn't do me any good now.
Behind us, Ruth gave a disgusted snort. "If you don't believe him, leave," she challenged, stepping beside Zeke to glare at me. "No one is stopping you." I resisted the urge to snap at her, focusing on Zeke, instead.
"Is it really out there?" I asked, trying to give the notion of a vampire-free utopia the benefit of the doubt. "You really think you'll find it?"
Zeke shrugged, unconcerned, as if he'd heard it all before.
"Who knows?" he said. "Maybe it doesn't exist, after all. Or maybe it's out there somewhere and we'll never find it. But that's what we're looking for."
"We'll find it," Caleb chimed in, nodding seriously. "We'll find it soon, Jeb says so."
I didn't want to crush his expectations, so I didn't say anything to that. A few minutes later, we walked past a rusting iron gate into the courtyard of a small apartment complex.
Another human, a few years older than me, black-haired and lean like a wolf, stood guard near the entrance. He nodded and smiled at Zeke, but his eyes widened when he saw me.
"Zeke! You found him. But...who's this?"
"Another stray, wandering in the wilderness," Zeke replied with a wry grin at me. "Allison, this is Darren, our other stray.
You two will have a lot to talk about."
Everyone straightened. We all turned as another human came striding up, dressed in black, his entire frame locked into a sense of determined purpose. Everything about him seemed sharp and hard, from the pinched, angled face to the bony shoulders, to the jagged white scar running from temple to chin. His long hair might've been jet-black once, but it was now the color of steel, tied behind him in a neat tail.
His eyes, the same color as his hair, took stock of us all in a glance, before turning to Zeke.
"You found him, then." The clipped voice fit the man. It wasn't a question.
"Yes, sir. Actually-" and Zeke nodded to me "-she found him. I was hoping we could...let her stay with us for a while." Those sharp gray eyes raked over me, missing very little.
"Another stray?" he asked. "You've spoken to her then, Ezekiel?"
"And does she know our situation? What we are searching for?"
"I've told her, yes."
I expected Ruth to pipe up, voicing her suspicions to what was obviously the leader of the group. But Ruth was quiet and still as she stood beside Darren, staring at the ground.
Caleb, too, clung to her hand and remained silent. Only Zeke seemed truly at ease, though he stood straight and tall with his hands clasped behind him, like a soldier awaiting orders.
What have you gotten yourself into, Allison?
The human continued to observe me, betraying no emotion. "Your name?" he asked, like a pet barking orders to his underlings. I swallowed a growl and met his piercing stare head-on.
"Allison," I replied, giving him a smirk. "And you must be Jeb."
"I am Jebbadiah Crosse," the man continued with a slightly offended air. "And Ezekiel knows I turn away none in need, so you are welcome here. However, if you choose to stay, there are rules everyone must follow. We travel at night, and we move fast. Those who fall behind will be left. Everyone contributes-there are no free meals here, so you will be expected to work: hunting, gathering, cooking if there is need.
Thievery of any sort will not be tolerated. If you think you can follow these rules, then you are welcome to stay."
"Can I now?" I said as sarcastically as I could. "Thanks so much." I couldn't help it. Throwing rules in my face, expecting me to follow just because someone said so, never sat well with me. Ruth and Darren blinked at me, shocked, but Jebbadiah didn't so much as twitch an eyebrow.