"Allison." Zeke's smile sent a rush of warmth through me, and I had to stif le the urge to touch him, skin to skin, just to feel that heat. My gums throbbed, fangs aching to break through, and I forced myself to stay put, to not step forward and lean up toward his neck.
"I'm glad you're here," Zeke murmured without a trace of embarrassment or guile. "It's nice, having someone else we can count on. I hope you'll stay, so we can see Eden together." He gave my hair a final, gentle tug and turned away.
I watched him go, Hunger and longing and that strange, squirmy feeling twisting my insides. Crawling into my tent, I pulled the blanket over my head and tried to sleep, to forget Ezekiel Crosse. His touch. His warmth. And how badly I wanted to sink my fangs into his throat and truly make him mine.
The plains couldn't go on forever. The next night, a scattering of trees appeared on the horizon, growing thicker and more numerous, until it became a proper forest. Trudging through brush and tangled undergrowth, our progress slowed even more. People began to mutter; the forest was more dangerous than the plains, harder to get through, especially since we weren't following a road. The shadowy trees hid predators like wolves and bears, and of course, the worst fear of all: rabids.
Not surprisingly, Jeb was deaf to these fears and continued to push doggedly through the woods, pausing only to let the little ones rest and to ration out our nearly exhausted supplies.
When we finally stopped to camp a few hours before dawn, Zeke and Darren grabbed their bows to go hunting again, and this time I joined them.
"So, do you know how to shoot one of these things?" Darren asked as I followed him and Zeke into the woods.
He seemed fully recovered from his tumble into the river, no worse for wear except for a small cut and a purple-green bruise on his forehead. Zeke had teased him about his hard-headedness, and Darren had responded by saying that scars were sexy to the ladies.
I smiled at him, secretly thinking he was making far too much noise for us to be able to sneak up on anything. Ahead of us, Zeke was much quieter. At least Darren was speaking in whispers, though I winced whenever he stepped on a twig or made the leaves crunch.
"I think I've got the general idea," I murmured back. "Point the sharp end at something and pull the string, right?"
"There's a bit more to it than that," Darren said dubiously.
"It takes a fair bit of strength to pull the cord effectively, and you have to know how to aim it, too. Are you sure you don't want me to show you how? I'll be happy to teach you." My annoyance f lared. "Tell you what," I said, holding up my bow. "Let's make a bet. If you shoot something before I do, I'll leave the hunting to you and Zeke. If I make a kill first, you let me come hunting with you whenever I want.
"Uh." His eyebrows shot up, appraising. "Sure. You're on." A pebble came sailing through the darkness then, coming from Zeke's direction. I stepped back, but it bounced off Darren's chest, and he turned with a hiss, scowling. Zeke frowned back, then put a finger to his lips and pointed at a clump of bushes ahead.
I was instantly alert. Something was moving in the undergrowth about fifty yards away, a large black shape, shuff ling low to the ground. Zeke smoothly reached behind him, drew an arrow from the quiver, fit it to the string and raised the bow. As he pulled back the cord, I breathed in slowly, trying to catch the beast's scent.
The stench of blood, rot and general wrongness hit me like a hammer, and I gasped. "Zeke, no!" I whispered, throwing out a hand, but it was too late. Zeke released the string, and the arrow shot into the bushes, striking its mark with a muff led thunk.
A maddened squeal rose into the air, making my blood run cold. The bushes parted, and a huge boar lunged into the clearing, frothing and shaking its head. Its eyes blazed white, with no pupils or irises, and blood streamed from the sockets, running down its bristly fur. Two yellow tusks curled from its jaw, razor sharp and lethal, as it screamed again and charged at Zeke.
As I lunged forward, Zeke dropped the bow, pulled his gun and his machete at the same time, and fired several shots at the rabid pig. I saw blood erupt from the boar's head, face and shoulders, but the crazed animal didn't slow down. At the last instant, Zeke stepped aside, swinging himself out of the boar's path, and brought his machete slashing down across its f lanks.
The boar whirled with frightening speed, but by that time, I had drawn my sword and sliced deep into the animal's back, shearing through f lesh and bone. The pig squealed and whirled, gouging at me with those deadly tusks, but its spine had been severed, and its hind legs gave out before it could reach me. Zeke stepped up and hit it again, landing a blow directly behind its skull, opening a gash in its neck, and the boar stumbled. Raising my blade, I brought it down with all my strength, aiming for the gaping wound Zeke already opened. The katana edge sliced cleanly through the pig's burly neck, cutting through spine and f lesh and bone and severing the head from its shoulders. The huge body crashed to the ground and rolled over, kicking the air, as the head clenched and unclenched its jaws in helpless rage, before they both, finally, stopped moving.
I slumped against a tree, letting my sword arm drop, watching Zeke as he sank to the ground, gasping. I could see his muscles shaking from adrenaline, the sweat running down his brow and cheeks. And I heard his heart racing a mile a minute, thudding loudly in his chest.
"Oh, my God." Darren staggered forward, shaking as well.
There was an arrow fitted to his bowstring, but everything had happened so very fast; he hadn't had time to shoot it. "Are you two all right? I'm sorry, I couldn't...it just came out of nowhere."
Zeke waved it off and stood, grabbing a hanging branch a bit unsteadily. "It's all right," he panted, holstering his gun.
"It's done. It's over, and everyone is fine. Allie?" He looked at me. "You're okay, right? It didn't hurt you, did it?" I shook my head. "I'm fine."
"More than fine." Darren's voice was awed and jealous all at once. "Damn, girl. You cut its head clean off! I take back my side of the bet-you can go hunting with us anytime." I smirked at him but was suddenly aware of Zeke, watching me now with a thoughtful expression on his face. "You were incredible," he said softly, then seemed to catch himself.
"I mean...that sword must be crazy sharp, to cut through a full grown boar. You're not even breathing hard." Alarm shot through me. I deliberately took a deep, ragged breath. "It just hasn't hit me yet," I said, trying to sound breathless and shaky. Zeke stepped toward me, looking worried, but my attention suddenly shifted to something else. In that breath, I smelled the foul, rotten carcass of the rabid boar, making me slightly nauseated, but I also caught the hint of blood. Clean, untainted blood. Human blood.
"Hello?" called a weak, unfamiliar voice through the trees.
"Is...is anyone there? Are you still alive?" We all jerked upright, pointing weapons into the darkness.
"Where are you?" Zeke demanded, easing back to stand with Darren and me. "Show yourself."
"I can't," the voice answered. "The boar...my leg. I need help...please."
I peered into the forest, tracking the voice by sound, trying to pinpoint its location. "There," I muttered to Zeke, pointing to the branches of an old pine tree. A dark shape huddled among the needles, clinging desperately to the trunk. He smelled of fear and pain. And blood. A lot of blood.
We approached the tree with caution, weapons still out and ready. The dark shape came into focus; a middle-aged man with a short yellow beard and dirty blue overalls. He watched us with glazed eyes, his teeth clenched in a grimace of pain.
"The pig?" he whispered.
"It's dead," Zeke assured him. "You can come down. We're not going to hurt you."
"Thank God." The man slumped in relief and half fell out of the tree, landing with a gasp. The smell of blood was suddenly overwhelming. I bit my lip to keep my fangs retracted.
"Damn pig caught me off guard." The man gasped, sinking back against the trunk, extending one leg with a grimace.
The right pant leg was torn to the knee, stained dark. "I was able to get up the tree and out of reach, but it got me anyway. Stubborn thing was waiting for me to come down. I'd be dead if you hadn't come along."
"Do you have a safe place to go?" Zeke asked, kneeling beside him. He nodded.
"There's several of us living in a compound about two miles west of here." He pointed with a bloodstained hand, and Zeke stood.
"All right," he said. "Darren, go back to the others. Tell Jeb what's happened. Warn them there are probably rabids in the area. Allison," he continued, nodding to the injured man, "help me get him home."
I frowned. Zeke noticed my hesitation and stepped close, lowering his voice to a murmur. "We can't leave him here," he said earnestly. "That wound looks deep, and he's lost a lot of blood."
"Exactly," I hissed back. "He's probably attracted every rabid in a ten-mile radius. Fighting an endless wave of rabids for some random stranger doesn't sound like a good plan to me."
"I'm not leaving him," Zeke said firmly. "Random stranger or not, I'm not going to let another human die out here." His eyes hardened, and he lowered his voice. "I won't leave him to be torn apart by soulless demons. That's not going to happen.
So, either help me, or go back to the others with Darren."
"Dammit," I growled as Zeke turned away. The stupid boy didn't know it, but rabids weren't the only thing he had to worry about. The man reeked of blood, and deep within, the Hunger stirred restlessly. My fangs pressed against my gums, and I could almost taste the heat spreading over my tongue. But Zeke was already bending to help the wounded man, shouldering half his weight and lifting him to his feet.
The human gasped and leaned on the younger man, keeping his injured leg off the ground, and Zeke staggered under the weight.
"Dammit," I muttered again and stepped to the opposite side, looping the man's arm over my neck. Maybe if I didn't breathe and stopped fantasizing about plunging my teeth into his throat every few seconds, we would be all right.
"Thanks for this," the human panted as we began the agonizingly slow hobble into the dark woods. "The name's Archer-Joe Archer. My family owns these lands, or at least, they did back before the plague."
"What were you doing so far from home, Mr. Archer?" Zeke asked, gritting his teeth as the man stumbled. I braced myself, keeping all of us upright. "Especially at night, when the rabids are roaming around?"
Joe Archer managed a short, embarrassed laugh. "One of our damn goats got through the fence," he admitted, shaking his head. "We keep them outside in the daytime, when the rabids aren't awake. But one of them decided to go roaming the forest, and if we lose even one of the little buggers, that's half our meat and dairy right there. So I went looking for it.
I didn't mean to be out so late, but it got dark quicker than I expected."
"You're lucky to be alive," I muttered, wishing they would both move faster. "If that pig had bitten you a few times instead of just gouging your leg, you'd have a lot more to worry about than finding a goat."