"Don't be smart," Ruth hissed back, all subtlety gone. "You think you're so special, just because you're from a vampire city. You think I don't see it? How you sleep away from the rest of us? How you try to be so mysterious, not saying anything about where you came from?" She curled a lip in pure, hateful disgust. "You just want attention-ours and Zeke's.
I can see right through your act."
This time I did laugh at her. "Wow, you are a paranoid shrew, aren't you? Does Zeke know what an absolute bitch you can be?" I snickered, and her face f lushed bright crimson.
"You know, I don't have time for this. Have fun with your theories, spread your poison around as much as you want. I'm going to do something useful now. Maybe you should try it."
"You're a freak, do you hear me?" Ruth called as I turned my back on her. "You're hiding something, and I'm going to find out what!"
I tried not to let her get to me as I jogged away from the camp, already scanning the horizon for moving prey. I tried not to think about turning back around, stalking her to the edge of camp, dragging her kicking and squirming into the night, and tearing out her throat. It wasn't that she was annoying, because she was, really, really annoying. It was because she was a threat, and my vampire instincts were telling me to kill, to silence her before she exposed me.
I tried channeling those thoughts of death and violence into my current task, eager to be hunting again. I found a herd of the huge shaggy animals huddled together in a shallow basin but decided they were too big to bother with. Not that I doubted I could kill them; lose enough blood and they'd die just like anything else. But if I went back to camp with one of those giant creatures slung over my back, I might draw suspicion.
Instead, I prowled the rolling hills until I found a herd of small deer, browsing along a grassy ridge. Putting down the bow, I crept forward through the grass, staying downwind, until I could see the gentle rise and fall of their sides, smell the blood pumping hot in their veins.
It was over very quickly. The small buck I'd singled out didn't even know something was wrong until I was nearly right on top of him, and by then it was too late. The rest of the herd scattered as I charged into their midst, but I grabbed the deer's antlers as it was lunging to its feet, wrenched the head around, and quickly snapped its neck, killing it instantly.
As it fell twitching to the ground, I resisted the urge to sink my fangs into its throat, knowing the stag's blood would do nothing for me. Hefting it to my shoulders, I walked back to where I'd left my bow and quiver. Dropping the carcass, I took an arrow from the quiver and drove it into the stag's body, sinking it between the ribs. Maybe I was being paranoid, but explaining to someone why the deer had a broken neck and no arrow wounds could be awkward.
Grabbing it by the horns, I started to drag it away, when a faint yet familiar rumble drifted over the grass, coming from the nearby road. As I froze, wondering where I'd heard it be-fore, two headlights crested a hill and came roaring down the other side. My stomach twisted, and my blood went cold.
Ducking into the grass, I watched the strange machines slow, then pull to a stop on the side of the road. A large bearded man swung off the vehicle, killed the engine and spat into the grass. His companion, a smaller human, pulled his machine to a stop, as well. For a moment, my mind went blank, and I had to kill the urge to f lee into the darkness and not look back.
No. It's not possible. I killed them.
"Hang on a second," the larger human muttered, staggering unsteadily to the edge of the pavement. The other man sighed.
"What are you doing, Ed?"
"I'm taking a piss. That okay with you?" The bearded man turned away from his companion, and a moment later there was the sound of falling water hitting the dirt.
Staring at them, I felt myself sag in relief. They weren't the same men. This human had a shaggy brown beard, not yellow, and he was a little broader in the shoulders. But then I saw something else: a tattoo on his left shoulder-a grinning canine, sharp-toothed and pointy.
The same as the ones before.
The other man muttered something and swung himself off the vehicle, digging into his jacket pocket. Pulling out a small white box, he dragged a cigarette out with his lips, lit the end and settled back against his machine, smoking lazily. Ed finished zipping up, turned and caught the box as his friend tossed it to him.
"Any beer left?" he asked, shaking out a cigarette.
"Well, let's have it."
I watched them, my mind racing. From personal experience, I knew these men were bad news: violent, armed and ruthless. If they caught up with the rest of the group...I shivered.
I had to stop them. Or at least get back to warn the others.
But, as I crouched there, watching the men pass a silver can back and forth, I knew that-even running my fastest-I wouldn't have enough time. I'd seen how quick those vehicles were. They would reach the group before I was even close. There had to be another way.
Another way. Of course, there was the most obvious choice.
The option I couldn't help but think of, no matter how much I tried ignoring it.
Should I...kill them? The thought was tempting, and I felt my fangs lengthen in response. I could kill them, feed on them, hide their bodies and their vehicles, and no one would know. Who would miss them, way out here in the dark? But, as I inched closer to the unsuspecting humans, I remembered the last two I'd met on a lonely road like this one. I remembered their screams, their terror, the panic on their faces. I remembered the glassy eyes and limp bodies, and clenched my fists. I couldn't do it. I was trying not to be that monster. Every death, every life taken by the Hunger, pushed me closer to my demon. If I started killing indiscriminately, it would completely take over, and then what would stop me from stalking Caleb or Zeke into the darkness and ripping out their throats?
Maybe I could creep close enough to damage their vehicles in some way; slash their tires or drain their fuel. But I'd have to get awfully close, and even with my vampire powers, there was the risk of being seen. Even if I did manage to pull it off, they'd probably know someone was here and would be on the lookout for people in the area. That wouldn't be good for the group. I growled in frustration.
Dammit, there had to be something I could do. Something to slow them down, just long enough for me to get back to the others and warn them. I looked up and down the road, searching for ideas, and noticed, in the distance, a large tree on the edge of the pavement.
Breaking away from the humans, I hurried toward the tree and found a thick, gnarled old trunk that looked as if it had been struck by lightning several times. Its branches were twisted and bent, empty of leaves, and it looked more dead than alive.
The roar of engines pierced the silence again. The men had started their vehicles, and were coming, their headlights gliding down the road. I put my shoulder to the trunk and pushed, digging my feet into the slippery grass and dirt, shoving with all my might. The stubborn tree resisted a moment, then with a brittle crack, its trunk split and it toppled slowly to the ground, landing half on and half off the road.
The growl of the vehicles drew closer. If they got past this block, they would reach the group first, and I'd have no time to warn everyone. Cursing, I grabbed the branches and dragged the old tree farther onto the road, expecting the men to come racing over the rise at any second. Bright lights lit up the darkness, illuminating the tree, and I dived into the grass.
The vehicles skidded to a stop. The men swung off, and one walked to the tree, giving it an angry kick that made the branches rattle. The other scratched his beard and gave it a disgusted look.
"Dammit," he muttered, peering into the darkness. "Think we can go around?"
"I ain't pushing my bike through that," the other snarled, stabbing a finger at the heavy weeds and brambles at the edge of the road, very close to where I was hiding. "Last time I got a f lat, and it was a pain in the ass to get it fixed. Besides, the others will be coming through soon."
"Well, then shut up and help me move the thing." The other let off a string of expletives but moved forward to grab the trunk. I left the men struggling with the old tree, crept silently away and, as soon as I could, took off through the grass.
I raced back to the camp, which was already packed up and on the verge of departure. I saw Darren and Zeke standing near the front with Jebbadiah and Ruth. Darren had a couple of skinny rabbits in one hand, looking uncomfortable, while Zeke seemed to be in an argument with the girl. They were still too far to notice me, but I heard snippets of their conversation, drifting over the wind, and strained my vampire senses to listen.
"I don't care if her tent is empty," Zeke was saying, holding out both hands in a pleading gesture. "Jeb, we can't just leave someone behind. I swear, I saw her just before Darren and I left to go hunting. Ruth, are you sure you didn't see her go after us, or leave the camp?"
"No," Ruth said in a voice that was almost as worried.
"Like I said, no one has seen her tonight, and when I realized that, I went to check her tent. It was empty, and all her stuff was gone. You don't think she left for good, do you?"
"Regardless-" Jeb's voice cut in, f lat and cold "-we cannot wait for her. I made that clear from the beginning. If she has left us, so be it. If she chooses to f launt the rules, as you two have done tonight-" he glared at Zeke "-then that is her choice. She can live or die with the consequences."
"Well, it's good to know where I stand," I said, striding into the circle. All four humans whirled on me.
"Allison!" Zeke exhaled with relief, but Ruth looked at me like she had just swallowed a spider. "You're back. Where did you go? We were about to leave-"
"Me behind? I noticed." I looked at Jebbadiah, who gazed back emotionlessly. If he felt anger or guilt that I'd over-heard his conversation, he didn't show it. But I couldn't think about that now. "Jeb, I saw men on the road, coming toward us. They're riding strange motorized bicycles, and they have guns."
"Motorized bicycles?" Ruth said, giving Zeke a puzzled frown. Jeb, however, caught on much more quickly.
"Raiders, on motorcycles," he said grimly, and Ruth gasped. Briskly, Jeb turned on me and Zeke. "Get everyone off the road," he snapped, pointing back to the group. "We need to hide. Now!"
No sooner had he spoken than the faint growl of engines echoed down the road, and the glow of headlights appeared in the distance. People gasped, and one of the kids screamed.
Quickly, Ruth, Zeke and I herded everyone away from the pavement, driving them back into the rolling plains. I snatched up forgotten cans, wrappers and bowls from the ground, f linging them into the tall grass, doing my best to cover the tracks a dozen people left behind.
The raiders drew closer, the hum of engines roaring in the night. Diving behind a log, I f lung myself to the ground as the headlights pierced the spot where the group had been. A half second later, Zeke joined me, jumping over the log and dropping to his stomach as the raiders appeared over the hill.
We peeked over the rim, watching the two men on those strange machines cruise past. Again, I was struck with how familiar they looked, how they were very like the two humans I'd met earlier. The two men I'd killed. One of them drove right by, but his companion suddenly pulled to a stop along the side of the road, shutting off his engine. The other turned his machine around and came back, pulling alongside his friend before shutting his off, too.