"Whacha lookin' at?" I heard him growl. Even at this distance, my vampire hearing could make out the words perfectly. The other man shook his head.
"Dunno. I thought I heard something. A scream or something, out there."
"Rabbit, probably. Or coyote." The other man spit on the pavement, then pulled a large machine gun out of a side holster. "Wanna fire a few shots to make sure?" Beside me, I felt Zeke tense, one hand inching toward his gun, and I put my hand over his. Startled, he looked at me sharply, and I shook my head.
"Nah, don't waste bullets. It's probably nothing." The raider started his engine with a roar, and I caught the last few sen-tences over the sudden noise. "Jackal is gonna be pissed if we don't find them. He was sure they're somewhere on this stretch."
Jackal. Where had I heard that name before? It was instantly familiar; I knew I'd heard it somewhere. It hit me then-the other raiders I'd met on the road. The dead man had whispered it, right before he died.
I felt a chill run up my spine. It couldn't be coincidence.
The tattoos, the bikes, the raiders I'd met before. There was something about this group I didn't know. Someone wasn't telling me something.
"Ain't our fault if they're not here," the other raider shrugged. "Ain't nothing out here. And I'm getting tired of looking for ghosts."
"Derrek and Royce certainly ran into something. Unless you think they just took off without their bikes." The other said something back, but the reply was drowned in the roar of the bike engines as the two men sped away down the road. I watched them leave, until the rumble of machinery faded into the distance, the lights disappeared, and everything was quiet once more.
Slowly, the group came out of hiding, as if they were scared to make any noise.
"All right!" Jeb's voice cut through the uncertainty. "Listen up! It's no longer safe to use the roads. From now on, we avoid the main stretches. And I want double the guards on every shift! Zeke, you're in charge of that."
"We still have plenty of ground to cover tonight, so let's move, people!" And Jeb started away through the waving grass, the rest of the group falling in line after him.
I wove my way to the front and fell into step beside Jebbadiah, who marched ahead without looking at me. "What was that?" I asked him. He continued to ignore me, but I wasn't about to let him off the hook. "You knew those men," I continued in a low voice. "Who are they? Why are they after you?"
"You meddle in things you know nothing about."
"Well, yeah. That's why I'm asking here. If I'm going to help you people, I want to know what I'm up against."
"We don't need your help," Jeb said icily. "We didn't ask for your help. This group has been through hell and back, and they have survived this long because they do not question those responsible for their safety."
"Maybe they should," I said, and Jeb fixed me with an unyielding gaze.
"Do not rock this boat, Allison," he warned, raising one long, bony finger to my face. I wondered what would happen if I snapped it off like a twig. "You are here because I permit it, because I turn away none in need, but you are not part of this family. I have come too far, and we have been through too much, for someone like you to endanger that. You have already demonstrated your complete disregard for our way of life. You will not come here and question my authority. And you will not ask questions about things you do not understand." He faced forward again, quickening his pace so that he started to leave me behind. "If you are unhappy with the way we do things, you are free to go," he said without looking back. "But if you wish to remain with this group, you must accept and obey the rules, like everyone else." I glared after him, falling back with the rest of the sheep.
The rules. I'd heard that before. Don't ask questions. Don't draw attention. Keep your head down and your mouth shut.
Except I wasn't much of a mindless follower, particularly with rules that made no sense. If Stick-up-the-ass Jebbadiah wasn't going to give me answers, I would have to get them from someone else.
Casually, I lagged behind, letting the others pass me, until I fell back with Zeke, bringing up the rear. He gave me a wary look, as if he knew I was about to ask him something uncomfortable.
"Hey," I said, and he nodded but didn't say anything, as if waiting for the inevitable questions. He'd probably seen me talking with Jeb and knew I hadn't gotten the answers I wanted. Friendly and unassuming as he was, Zeke wasn't stupid.
"Listen," I went on, looking away. "I...uh...wanted to talk to you. I didn't get a chance to before the whole raider thing, so...thanks."
I felt his puzzled frown. "For what?"
"Not leaving me behind." I continued to stare at the horizon, watching a herd of those massive shaggy animals lumber away over a hill. "I heard what you said to Jeb and Ruth, earlier. Thanks for...standing up for me. No one's ever done that before." I fell silent, embarrassed.
Zeke sighed. "Jeb isn't the...easiest...person to understand," he admitted, and I resisted the urge to snort. "He wants to protect everyone, but he knows he's taking us through dangerous territory, and not everyone will make it. He's seen several of us...die, trying to get to Eden. We were a much larger group, once." He hesitated, taking a quick breath. I wondered how much he had seen, how many friends he'd watched die.
"Jeb's only concern now is getting to Eden with as many of us as he can." Zeke gazed at me, unapologetic. "If that means leaving one behind to save the rest, it's a sacrifice he's willing to make. His convictions are much stronger than mine, and sometimes I forget that."
"You're defending him because he's willing to let people die, to leave them behind?"
"Sometimes, to save the many, you must sacrifice the few." He looked away then, a bitter smile crossing his face. "Jeb tells me I'm too soft and that my stubbornness is what keeps me from being a true leader. No, I don't want anyone to die, to be left behind, but that weakness might get the whole group killed."
"Zeke..." I wanted to tell him that was screwed up, that Jebbadiah Crosse was a cold, unreasonable, heartless bastard, but I couldn't. Because, in some sad, twisted way, I agreed with him. Growing up in the Fringe, you came to accept hard truths. Nothing was fair. The world was cold, unforgiving, and people died. It was just the way things were. I didn't like it, but the old man's reasoning wasn't unjustified.
Though I still thought he was a complete bastard.
"Anyway..." Zeke shrugged, giving me a small, embarrassed grin. "You're welcome. And I'm glad you came back.
It was a good thing, too-you got us off the road in time.
Thank you for that."
"Sure." I paused, chewing my lip. Now seemed as good a time as any, but I wondered how best to bring it up. I opted for my usual dive right in approach. "Zeke...who's Jackal?" He stumbled, then looked at me sharply, blue eyes narrowing. I knew I had something and hurried on. "The men said Jackal was looking for someone. It's you, isn't it? Or the group." I nodded to the people walking ahead of us. "Who is he, and what does he want from you?" Zeke took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Dropping even farther back, he gave the group a wary look, his eyes lingering on Jebbadiah up front. "None of them can know about this," he murmured as I fell back to join him. "They don't know who Jackal is, and it's better that they remain oblivious. I'm the only one, besides Jeb, who knows anything about him, so you can't mention his name to anyone, okay?" He closed his eyes. "And please don't tell Jeb that I told you." I nodded. "Why the big secret?" I asked, frowning. "Who is this Jackal person, anyway?"
"He's a vampire," Zeke replied, and my stomach clenched.
"A very powerful vampire. He leads a group of raiders all across the country, looking for us. The others think we just run into random raider gangs that want to hurt us. They're terrified enough without knowing what he is. But Jackal is their king, and he's been on our trail for a couple years now."
"He hates Jeb," Zeke explained, shrugging. "Jeb nearly killed him once, and he's never forgotten it. So, he hunts him for revenge, but he'll kill us all if he finds us." That didn't make much sense. "So, you're saying this vampire king is sending his raider army on a wild-goose chase all over the country, looking for one person who could be anywhere, all because he's holding a grudge?" Zeke looked away. I narrowed my eyes. "What aren't you telling me?"
"I can't say." Zeke looked back, eyes pleading. "I promised Jeb that I wouldn't tell anyone. I won't break that promise, no matter what you say. I'm sorry."
I believed him, which was strange. I'd never met a person who couldn't be bought, cajoled or bribed, but Zeke seemed the type that, once he promised something, would take his secrets to the grave. Still, it was frustrating, being left in the dark. Especially if the dark had a powerful vampire king lurking close by.
I cast about for another topic, another way to extract his carefully guarded secrets, but something else he'd said caught my attention. "Wait a minute," I muttered, frowning at him.
"You've been wandering around, looking for Eden, for a couple years? "
"I think..." Zeke paused a moment, brow furrowed. "I think this summer will be our third year. Or is it our fourth?" He raised one lean shoulder. "It's hard to keep track, anymore."
"And you still think Eden is out there?"
"It has to be," Zeke said in a fervent voice. "If it's not, all the lives we lost, the people who put their trust in us, it'll all be for nothing." His face clouded with pain, before he shook it off, his eyes narrowed in determination. "Every year, we get closer," he said. "Every site we come to and it's not there, that's just one more step closer to finding it. Jackal and his gang, they're out there, looking for us. But they won't find us. We've come too far to be stopped now. We have to keep everyone's faith alive. If they knew a vampire was hunting us, they'd lose hope. And sometimes, hope is the only thing that gets us through the day."
He sounded very tired, and I could suddenly see the terrible burden he carried, the weight of responsibility far beyond his years. I remembered the way his eyes had gone dark when I asked why the group traveled at night, the look on his face as he recalled something terrible. Death had marked him, the lives lost weighed on him; I could tell he remembered each and every one.
"What happened?" I asked. "You said you travel at night for a reason. Why is that?"
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he seemed a different person; the bleakness on his face transformed him into someone much, much older. "In the beginning," he said, his eyes dark and far away, "I was the only orphan in the group. There were a lot more of us back then, and we were all so sure we would find Eden before winter set in. Jeb was certain it was along the west coast. When we started out, no one thought that we could be wandering for more than a year." He shook his head, f linging bangs from his eyes. "At first, we traveled during the day, when the monsters were sleeping. At night, we waited a couple hours after the sun went down before making camp, to make sure there were no rabids in the area. We thought that the rabids came out right at sundown, and if we waited an hour or two, we would be safe." His voice faltered, and he shook his head. "We were wrong. Rabids...rabids rise when they want to." Zeke paused, took a quiet breath. "One night," he contin-ued in a low voice, "we made camp as usual, about an hour after sunset. It was at the top of a grassy hill, no trees, no bushes, no places for the rabids to hide or sneak up on us. We posted sentries around the perimeter, per normal, and went to sleep.