"This is the last favor I'll grant," Zeke said, his voice cold and hard. "If I see you again, I'll kill you."
My chest felt tight. Of all the lies and treachery and knives in the back, his hurt the worst. It was different from Stick's betrayal; though we had been friends for years and years, I'd known, deep down, that Stick was using me. That he was more than capable of selling me out if something better came along. Zeke was different. He did things because he truly cared, not because he expected anything in return. It was such an alien philosophy. On the streets, in the Fringe, it didn't matter where you were-it was every human for himself. I'd learned that nothing was free, and everyone had an angle. It was just how things were.
Except Zeke. Zeke had treated me like a human, like an equal. He'd stood up for me, helped me, given me things as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He cared, because it was his nature.
Which made it all the more painful to find out he'd lied when he'd said I could trust him, when his eyes had gone hard and cold, and he'd turned on me as if I was a monster.
"You are a monster." Kanin's deep voice droned in my head again, as I forced myself to move, to walk away. "You will always be a monster-there is no turning back from it. But what type of monster you become is entirely up to you." I bit my lip. I'd forgotten that part. For a moment, I stood there, struggling with myself. The wind whipped around me, tossing my hair and clothes, rattling the branches above.
Across the fields, the bonfires smoldered, burning low, and the rabids shifted restlessly at the edge of the trees.
Zeke betrayed you, a small, furious voice whispered in my head. He's no better than Jebbadiah, no better than any of them.
You're just another demon to be hunted down and shot. Why should you care if he makes it to his Eden? Why care about any of them?
Because I did care, I realized. I cared that this small, stubborn band of human beings would challenge everything in their search for a better life. I cared that they would risk rabids and starvation and horrible conditions to follow that dream and cling to hope, even if they knew, somewhere deep down, that it was impossible. I thought of Caleb and Bethany. I'd told them there would be goats in Eden. They couldn't die now, dying of hunger or torn apart by rabids. I wanted them to succeed, to defy all odds and to make it to the end. Could I abandon them to the very monsters that had killed me?
The rabids hissed, glancing back at the sound of my voice.
Slowly, I turned to face them, and we glared at each other once more, the wind swirling around us.
"No," I said again, and the rabids curled their lips back, showing fangs. "I'm not like you. I'm not like the vampires in the city. I might be a monster, but I can be human, too. I can choose to be human." Reaching back, I gripped my sword and drew it out, a bright f lash of steel in the darkness. The rabids snarled and crouched down, their eyes fixed on the blade. Stepping forward, I bared my fangs and snarled back.
"So, come on, you bastards," I challenged. "If you want them, you'll have to get through me first!" The rabids screamed, baring and gnashing their fangs. I roared a battle cry, feeling my demon erupt, tasting violence, and this time I welcomed its arrival. Brandishing my weapon, I lunged into their midst.
I hardly knew what I was doing; everything was screaming fangs and slashing claws, rabids hurling through the air, my blade singing as we danced and spun and cut at the monsters around us. Their tainted, foul-smelling blood soaked the ground and the trees, their shrieks rising into the wind. More rabids came at me, drawn by the sounds of battle, leaping into the fray. I cut them down, too, growling my hate and fury and vengeance. They were too slow, too mindless, f linging themselves on my sword with vicious animal fury. I whirled from one attack to the next, ripping my blade through pale, shrieking bodies, feeling the sword dance in my hands.
When it was over, I stood in the center of a massacre, scratched, bleeding and surrounded by pale, dismembered bodies. Hunger f lickered, always there, but I pushed it down.
I was a vampire. Nothing would change that. But I didn't have to be a monster.
Wiping rabid blood off my sword, I sheathed it and turned to gaze over the fields. The compound sat silent and dark on the hill, clouds of smoke billowing up through the rain. Settling against a tree, I watched it, waiting for the iron gates to swing open, listening for the creak and groan of metal. But as the hours passed and the storm moved on, sweeping off toward the east, the gates still did not budge.
I guess Jeb doesn't want to leave the safety of the compound when there could be a vampire lurking outside, I mused, glancing nervously at the sky. Only an hour or so before dawn; they probably wouldn't go anywhere tonight. I guess some things are enough to give him pause, after all.
Forty minutes later, with sunlight threatening the horizon and the birds chirping in the trees, I rose to find a place to sleep just as the groan of metal caught my attention.
They're leaving? Now? Stunned, I watched as the gates swung open, and the small group of humans filed out into the grass.
I counted them all: Jeb and Darren, both carrying shotguns pointed into the woods. Ruth and Dorothy. Caleb, Bethany and Matthew huddled together in the center. Silent Jake, now carrying a rif le. Old Teresa and Silas. And finally, bringing up the rear, making sure everyone got out okay, the boy who'd driven me off, who had turned his back on the vampire but still let it walk away without a fight.
So, Jeb had decided to move them out during the day, obviously trying to outrun the vampire by traveling when she could not. A smart choice, I had to admit. I wouldn't be able to follow them far, not with the sun minutes away from breaking over the horizon. Still, Jeb didn't know vampires.
And he didn't know me. He could lead his people as fast and as far as he liked. I was very, very persistent.
Zeke swept his pistol over the fields as he left the compound, his eyes narrowed in concentration. Looking for a vampire, but he wouldn't find it. He couldn't see me here in the trees and darkness, the woods still cloaked in shadow.
Part of me still wondered why I was doing this, why I would bother. Jeb would kill me if I was discovered, and Zeke would do his best to help. But as they started across the field, I couldn't help but think how vulnerable they looked, how easily a rabid horde could tear them apart, even with Zeke and Jeb's protection. And I remembered the look in Zeke's eyes when he spoke of how many they had lost, the torment on his face because he blamed himself. I would not let that happen. Not to Caleb or Bethany or Darren or Zeke. I wouldn't let anyone die.
As the last human passed through the gate, it closed behind them with a loud, final bang that echoed across the empty fields. With Jebbadiah Crosse at the front and Zeke bringing up the rear, the group shuff led quietly into the dark woods, inching toward their mythical city somewhere beyond the horizon.
A small smile played across my lips. Okay, Zeke, I thought, drawing back into the shadows, preparing to sink into the earth. Run if you want. I'll see you all soon, even if you don't see me. I'll make sure you get to your Eden, whether you like it or not.
Stop me if you can.
The next evening, I pushed myself out of the ground with a sense of purpose. The night was clear, the moon and stars bright overhead. It wasn't hard to find the tracks of a dozen humans, making their way through the woods. I could see their footsteps in the soft earth and mud. I could trace their passing in the snapped twigs and crushed grass, blatant signs they left behind.
They're not even bothering to hide their tracks, I mused, stepping over a low spot on the trail, churned to mud from several boots and feet. It made me a little nervous. If my vampire senses could pick them up this easily, so could any number of rabids or wild animals lurking about. I guess Jeb is more concerned with speed now. Good thing rabids aren't smart enough to track their prey, otherwise they'd be in a lot of trouble.
I followed the trail for most of the night, slipping easily through the dark woods, having no need to rest or slow down.
I found a few empty cans tossed into the bushes, crawling with ants, and knew I was on the right path. When dawn arrived, I buried myself in the earth, frustrated that I had to stop, but feeling I was closing the distance.
Two hours past midnight on the second night, I finally heard voices, drifting ahead of me through the trunks and branches, and my heart leaped. As silently as I could, I eased closer, listening to snippets of conversation echo over the breeze. Stepping around a boulder, I finally spotted two familiar figures, standing on the edge of a narrow cracked road that snaked into the darkness.
Jebbadiah and Zeke hovered beside the pavement, facing each other. Jeb's mouth was stretched into a thin, severe line, while Zeke's face looked earnest, his expression intent.
"We'll make less noise if we're walking on pavement," Zeke was saying, sounding exasperated but trying not to show it.
A few yards away, the rest of the group huddled beneath the trees as Jeb and his pupil argued. I leaned against the rock, concealed in shadow, and listened. "It'll be easier on Teresa and the kids, and we'll make better time, too."
"If Jackal and his thugs come around any of those bends, we won't know it until they're right on top of us," Jeb argued in a low voice, glaring at Zeke with cold, angry eyes.
"You've seen how fast they can move-by the time we hear them coming, it'll be too late. Will you sacrifice the safety of this group just because walking through forest is a little harder?"
To his credit, Zeke didn't back off.
"Sir," Zeke said quietly, "please. We can't keep going like this. Everyone is exhausted. Walking all day and all night- we need a rest. If things don't get easier, we'll have people lagging behind and making mistakes. And if anyone is following us, we'll just be that much easier to pick off." Jeb's jaw tightened, eyes narrowing, and Zeke hurried on. "We're going to need supplies soon," he said. "And Larry told me this road eventually leads to a town. Sir, we need food, ammo and a proper rest. I think we'd rather deal with the possibility of raiders than have to watch our backs for rabids and vampires in the woods."
Jeb stared at him, and for a moment, I thought he would refuse just on the principle of never agreeing with anyone.
But then he blew out a short, irritated breath, and turned to the road.
"Keep everyone together," he snapped, as Zeke straightened quickly. "And I want two people hanging back at least twenty feet from the rest of us. If they hear or see anything at all, I want to know about it immediately, do you understand?"
He gave his pupil one last baleful glare, then strode purposefully onto the pavement, while Zeke turned to signal everyone to keep moving. They shuff led forward, clearly relieved to be out of the tangled woods and dark, grasping trees. The road, crumbling and full of holes, was still treacherous, but it was easier than hacking through brush and tripping over rocks and branches.
I stayed off the pavement, however, slipping through brush and trees at the edge. Though it was still dark as pitch, it might've been too easy for Zeke to look back and see a silhouette following them down the open road. I could still hear him, though, as he and Darren dropped back the required twenty feet from the group to guard the rear. They were quiet at first, the only sounds being their feet on the uneven pavement, then Darren's low voice drifted to me through the darkness.