"I woke up to screaming," Zeke muttered, gazing at something in the distance, his voice dark and grim. "They came right out of the ground, from the earth under our tents. No warning, nothing. They were just suddenly there. We didn't stand a chance."
I shivered in sympathy. I could see the rabids coming out of the ground, right in the middle of the camp of helpless sleepers. "I'm sorry," I offered, knowing how weak that sounded.
"More than half the group was lost," Zeke went on, as if he hadn't heard. "We would've all died if Jeb hadn't been there. I froze-I couldn't move, not even to help the others.
Through all that chaos, he managed to get the rest of us together so we could escape. But we left so many behind. Dorothy's husband, Caleb and Ruth's parents." He stopped, his face pinched and tight. "I swore I wouldn't lose anyone else like that," he muttered. "Ever again."
"You were a kid." We had drifted closer, somehow, our shoulders barely touching as we walked side by side. "Jeb couldn't have expected you to face them all on your own."
"Maybe." He didn't sound convinced and kept walking with his head down, watching his feet. "But that's why we can't stop. Even if there's a vampire out there who wants us dead. Even...if there is no Eden." He shuddered. "We have to keep going. Everyone is counting on us to lead them there, and I won't take that away from them. All we have left is our faith." His voice dropped even lower as he looked toward the horizon. "And sometimes, I wonder if that will be enough."
Ruth came skipping up to us then, smiling brightly, a tin cup clutched in one hand. "Here," she said, wedging herself between me and Zeke, holding the cup out to him. "I saved a little coffee for you. It's not much, but at least it's warm."
"Thanks." Zeke gave her a tired smile as he took the cup, and she beamed, ignoring me. I looked at her back, at the pale expanse of her neck, and fantasized about sinking my teeth into her smooth white skin.
"By the way," she continued, turning to me with wide, innocent eyes, "why is there a big tear in the f loor of your tent? It looks like you purposefully cut it with a knife. What are you doing in there, slaughtering animals?" Zeke looked at me, raising a puzzled eyebrow. Alarm f lickered, but I forced myself to be calm. "There...must've been a hole already," I said, thinking quickly. "I have nightmares sometimes-it could've torn while I was thrashing around." Zeke nodded and sipped his coffee, but Ruth narrowed her gaze, lips pursed in suspicion. She didn't believe me. A growl rose to my throat, and I swallowed it, before going on the offensive to distract her.
"Besides, why are you snooping around my stuff ?" I returned, glaring at her. "Looking for something in particular?
I don't have anything you can steal." Ruth's mouth dropped open, her delicate face contorting in outrage.
"Steal? How dare you! I don't steal!"
"That's good," I went on, smirking at her. "Because, sometimes I kill things in my sleep. Particularly if they come poking around my tent unannounced in the middle of the day.
Comes with living in a vampire city-stab first, ask questions later."
She paled and shrank back against Zeke, who gave me a look of mild concern, unsure how to deal with two bicker-ing females.
"Freak," Ruth muttered at last and turned her back on me in blatant dismissal. "Regardless, Zeke, I wanted to ask you about camp rations. We're awfully low-what do you want me to do tonight and tomorrow?"
He gave me an apologetic look. I rolled my eyes and walked away, leaving them to talk, as it was obvious Ruth wouldn't let me get another word in with Zeke. Not that she could've stopped me; I had no issues staying where I was, just to spite her. But watching her with Zeke, hearing her heart beat faster just from being close, her pulse f luttering wildly in her neck, I felt, for the first time since that lonely night on the road, the first stirrings of Hunger.
And I knew I would have to choose one of them, very soon.
"There's something strange about her," Ruth murmured.
I opened my eyes as Ruth's low, sulky voice drifted to me through the tent fabric. According to my internal clock, the sun had just gone down, though the sky overhead was still light. I could hear the camp moving around outside, getting ready to head out, but I stayed there for a moment, picking out bits of conversation, listening to voices drift through the walls.
"Don't you think it's odd," Ruth went on, her voice earnest,
"that she showed up in the middle of the night and just happened to stumble upon Zeke and Caleb? What do we know about her? Why was she wandering around at night-Zeke never said anything about that. How was she able to survive all that time by herself ?"
I felt a prickle of apprehension. The stupid girl was still at it. A growl rose to my throat, and I had to stop myself from fantasizing about dragging her off into the woods.
"I think she's hiding something," Ruth went on. "Worse, I think she's dangerous. If she came from a vampire city, she could be anything. She could be a thief, or a murderer. I wouldn't be surprised if she's killed someone before." I rolled upright and exited the tent, stepping out into the open. At the fire pit, Ruth fell silent, but I could see her glaring at me over the top of Teresa's head. The old woman looked unconcerned, ladling soup into bowls, but Matthew and Bethany turned to watch me over their shoulders, their eyes wide.
Stif ling my anger, I spotted Zeke and Darren standing a few yards away, talking to Teresa's husband, Silas. The old man was pointing a withered hand to the sky, and the boys were nodding solemnly as if it all made sense. Curious, I headed in that direction, trying to ignore the whispers behind me.
"You sure about that, old man?" Darren said as I came up.
Zeke smiled at me and nodded, and my gut prickled. Silas snorted through his white beard and glared at Darren.
"My elbow ain't never wrong," he announced, bushy eyebrows bristling. "It only aches like this when there's a storm coming. Considering it feels like it's about to fall off, I'd say there's a big one on the horizon."
The horizon was clear. The first stars glimmered over the trees, and the sky was turning a deep navy blue. I could see why Darren was skeptical, but Zeke studied the sky as if he could see the storm approaching.
"Good," he murmured, as a sudden gust of wind tossed his hair. "It's been a few days since we crossed that stream. Water is running low-this will come at a good time."
"Are we going to stop?" I asked. Darren snorted.
"No," Zeke replied, ignoring his friend. "Unless it becomes truly dangerous, Jeb will want to press on through the storm.
Rabids like to hunt during bad weather. You can't hear them coming until they're right up on you. It's not safe to stay put during storms."
I remembered another storm, watching the rabids close in on all sides through the rain, and shuddered.
"If the rain comes at all," Darren put in, making Silas frown. "But I suppose death by lightning is better than death by rabids. At least I won't see it coming."
"Well, if anything, you can finally get a shower," Zeke re-torted. "No wonder we can't shoot anything-they can smell your stink coming a mile away."
Darren casually f lipped him the finger. Zeke only laughed.
True to Silas's prediction, dark clouds soon billowed on the horizon, blocking out the moon and stars, and the wind picked up rapidly. Lightning f lickered, eerie white strands snaking through the clouds, and thunder boomed an answer.
It started to rain, torrential sheets that whipped at faces and exposed skin, drenching everything. The humans pressed forward at a crawl, heads bowed and shoulders hunched against the wind. I hung back, watching for stragglers, not wanting anyone to see that the rain didn't bother me, the cold didn't make my skin prickle with goosef lesh, and the wind didn't make me shiver. The ground quickly became a swamp, and I watched as Zeke pulled Caleb and Bethany through the worst parts of the mud, sometimes hefting them onto his back when it got too deep. The kids were shivering, and Bethany started to cry when she fell into a puddle that nearly swallowed her whole, but Jeb didn't even slow down.
The rain continued. A few hours before dawn, a new sound began to penetrate the constant hiss of falling water. A low roar, faint at first, but growing louder and stronger, until the ground sloped away, and we stood at the banks of a dark, rushing river.
Jebbadiah stood at the edge, arms crossed, lips pressed tight as he glared at the river in annoyance. Turning, he motioned to Zeke, and I edged forward, listening to their voices over the roar of the water.
"Get the rope," Jeb ordered, gesturing to Zeke's pack.
Jeb frowned and turned away, observing the river again.
"Get everyone ready to move. We're crossing now." I edged closer. Zeke hesitated, gazing at the water in concern. "You don't think we should stop for the night?" he asked. "Wait for the water to go down a little? The current is probably too strong for the kids."
"Then have someone help them." Jeb's voice was ruthlessly calm. "We need to be on the other side, tonight."
"Ezekiel," Jeb interrupted, turning to stare at him. "Do not make me repeat myself." Zeke held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.
"Make sure everyone is ready soon," Jebbadiah said in a perfectly civil voice that made me want to slug him in the jaw. "Once we're on the other side of the river, we can rest.
But I want us safely across before we relax." Zeke nodded reluctantly. "Yes, sir."
He backed away, shrugging off his pack, as Jeb turned and stared out over the water again. His gaze lingered on something I couldn't see, something down by the water's edge, and his thin mouth tightened.
I waited until he had walked back toward the group, where Zeke and Darren were unraveling coils of rope, before I hurried to the riverbank and looked down.
The water rushed by at breakneck speed, dark and angry.
I wondered what Jeb was thinking; was he really that stubborn and heartless to push on through that? Especially when there were kids in the group?
Lightning f lickered, and the glare ref lected the sudden gleam of dead white eyes.
Jerking around, I gazed downstream, at a boulder lying near the water's edge. Only I could see it wasn't a rock now, but one of those massive horned creatures that roamed the plains in huge herds. This one, bloated and obviously dead, was lying on its side facing me, but its lips were pulled back in an eerie snarl, and its huge white eyes bulged out of their sockets. The wind shifted, and I caught the unmistakable stink of decay and wrongness over the water.
My gut twisted, and I hurried over to help Darren and Zeke, unknotting ropes. So, Jeb wasn't being an evil bastard, after all. Good to know. Though I wondered why he didn't at least tell Zeke there could be rabids in the area. That might've been important for the second-in-command to know. Maybe he didn't want word to spread and panic the rest of the group.
Or maybe the prickly human just didn't feel like his orders needed to be explained. But at least his reasoning to get to the other side of the river made sense now.