I jerked away as a voice slithered down from the haze above.
"Welcome to my home, old friend. I hope you like it-you're going to be here for a while, I think. Maybe forever, won't that be exciting?
Oh, but before you say anything, let me first give you your official welcome to hell."
And the point of the poker was suddenly rammed through my stomach, exploding out my back, the smell of blood and seared flesh misting on the air.
And then the pain began.
I jerked awake with a snarl, lashed out at the unfamiliar shadows above me and toppled out of bed. Hissing, I leaped upright, glaring at my surroundings as the phantom pain of a steel bar through my gut ebbed away into reality.
I relaxed, retracting my fangs. Again with the strange nightmares. Only this one was infinitely more awful than the one before. It had felt so real, as if I was right there, hanging from the ceiling, a white-hot poker jammed through my body. I shuddered, remembering that cold, slithering voice.
It seemed familiar, as if I'd heard it before...
"Allison." A knock came at the door. "You all right? I thought I heard a yell."
"I'm fine," I called back, as relief swept in and drowned everything else. He's still here. He didn't leave, or cut off my head in my sleep. "I'll be right out." Zeke raised his eyebrows as I opened the door and emerged into the hall, feeling rumpled and tired. "Bad dreams?" he asked, and I glared at him. "I didn't think vampires had nightmares."
"There are a lot of things you don't know about us," I muttered, shuff ling past him into the kitchen. A candle f lickered on the table amid opened cans of beans and empty jerky wrappers. He must've discovered a stash of food. "Come on, it's probably a good idea to check the bandages one more time before we head out."
"Actually, I've been thinking," Zeke admitted, limping as we went into the living room. He definitely looked better this evening; food, rest and painkillers were finally doing their job. "About what you said last night. I want to know more about vampires...from you. The only things I've heard are what Jeb has told me."
I snorted, grabbed the backpack off the f loor. "That we're vicious soulless demons whose only purpose is drinking blood and turning humans into monsters?" I joked, rummaging around for the bandages and gauze.
"Yes," Zeke answered seriously.
I looked at him, and he shrugged. "You were honest with me last night," he said. "You didn't tell me what I wanted to hear, what I expected you to say. So, I thought I could...
listen to your side of the story. Hear you out, if you wanted to tell it. Why you became a vampire. What made you want to..." He paused.
"Become undead? Drink the blood of the living?" I pulled out the peroxide, the bandages and the gauze, setting them on the f loor in front of the couch. "Never have to worry about sunburns again? Well, maybe once more." He gave me an exasperated frown. "If you don't want to tell me, that's fine, too."
I gestured to the couch, and he sat down, resting his elbows on his knees. I knelt and started unwinding the gauze from his leg. "What do you want to know?"
"How old are you?" Zeke asked. "I mean, how long have you been...a vampire?"
"Not long. A few months, at most."
He sounded shocked, and I raised my head to meet his gaze.
"Yeah. How old did you think I was?"
"Not...months." He shook his head. "Vampires are immortal, so I thought...maybe..."
"That, what? I'm hundreds of years old?" I smirked at the thought, bending over his leg again. 'Believe it or not, this is all very new to me, Zeke. I'm still trying to figure everything out."
"I didn't know." Zeke's voice was soft. "So, you really are just as old as me." He paused a moment, digesting that fact, then shook his head. "What happened to you?" I hesitated. I didn't like discussing or remembering anything about my life before; the past was past-why dwell on something you couldn't change? Still, Zeke was trying to understand me; I felt I owed him an explanation, at least. The truth.
"I didn't lie when I said I was born in a vampire city," I began, focused on my task so I didn't have to look at him. "My mother and I...we lived in a small house in one of the sectors.
She was Registered, so that meant twice a month she had to go to the clinic to get 'blooded.' It was all very civilized-
or that's what the vampires wanted us to believe. No forced feedings, no violent, messy deaths." I snorted. "Except people still disappeared from the streets all the time. Vampires are hunters. You can never take that out of them-out of us-no matter how civilized things are."
I felt Zeke's discomfort, his sudden unease at me admitting that all vampires were, more or less, killers. Well, he wanted the truth. No more lies, no more illusions. I was a vampire, and this was how things were. I only hoped he could accept it.
"Anyway," I continued, peeling back the gauze to reveal the wound. It looked angry and deep, but not infected. "Mom got sick one day. She wasn't able to get out of bed, so she missed her scheduled bloodletting. Two days later, the pets came and took the required amount by force, even though she was still too weak to move, or even eat." I paused, remembering a tiny, cold bedroom, and my mother lying beneath the thin blankets, pale as snow. "She never recovered," I finished, pushing the image away, back to the darkest part of my memories. "It wasn't long before she just...faded away."
"I'm sorry," Zeke murmured. And sounded as if he actually meant it.
"I hated the vampires after that." I soaked a rag in peroxide and pressed it to the wound, feeling him stiffen, gritting his teeth. "I swore I would never be Registered, that they wouldn't brand me like some piece of meat, that I wouldn't give them even one drop of blood. I found others like me, other Unregistereds, and we scraped out an existence as best we could, stealing, scavenging, begging, anything to survive.
We almost starved, especially in the winter, but it was better than being a vampire's bloodcow."
"What changed?" Zeke asked softly.
I picked up the bandages, unwinding the roll without seeing it. Memories f lickered again, dark and terrifying. The rain and the blood and the rabids, lying in Kanin's arms, feeling the world fade around me.
"I was attacked by rabids," I finally said. "They killed my friends and tore me up pretty bad, outside the city walls. I was dying. A vampire found me that night, gave me the choice of a quick death, or to become one of them. I still hated the vampires, and I knew, deep down, what I would become, but I also knew I didn't want to die. So I chose this." Zeke was silent for several minutes. "Do you regret it?" he asked finally. "Becoming a vampire? Choosing this life?" I shrugged. "Sometimes." I tied off the gauze and met his gaze, searching for reproach. "But if the choice was being dead-really dead-and being alive, I would probably do the same thing." Zeke nodded thoughtfully. "What about you?" I challenged. "If you were dying and someone offered you a way out, wouldn't you take it?"
He shook his head. "I'm not afraid to die," he said in a voice that was neither boastful or condemning, just quietly confident. "I know...I have faith, that something better is waiting for me, after I'm done here. I just have to wait, and do my best, until it's time for me to go."
"That's a nice sentiment," I said honestly. "But I'm going to keep living for as long as I can, which will be forever if I'm lucky." Gathering up the supplies, I stood, staring down at him. "So tell me, what happens to vampires when they finally kick it? According to Jeb, we don't have souls anymore.
What happens when we die?"
"I don't know," Zeke murmured.
"Don't know, or don't want to tell me?"
"I don't know," Zeke said a little more firmly, and exhaled.
"Do you want me to tell you what Jeb would say, or do you want my own opinion?"
"I thought Jeb taught you everything he knew."
"He did," Zeke replied, holding my gaze. "And he's tried very hard to mold me into the leader he wants me to be." He sighed, looking evasive, defiant and ashamed all at once.
"But, if you haven't noticed, we don't always see eye to eye.
Jeb says I'm stubborn and intractable, but I have my own opinions about certain things, no matter what he believes."
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow. "Like what?"
"He was wrong about you. I...was wrong about you." I blinked. Abruptly, Zeke rose, his face troubled, as if he really hadn't meant to say that. "We should get going," he said, avoiding my gaze. "We're not far from Old Chicago now, right? I want to find the others as fast as we can." Outside, the stars were just beginning to show. I noticed three piles of fresh, overturned earth in the front yard, a pile of stones at the head of each one, and glanced at Zeke ques-tioningly.
"They needed to be buried," he said, gazing down at the new graves. His blue eyes grew haunted, and he sighed. "I just hope they're the only ones I'll have to lay to rest." I didn't want to give him false hope, so I didn't reply.
Mounting the bike, I waited until he slid in behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist, without hesitation this time. Easing the bike from the dirt onto the pavement, I opened it up, and we sped off toward the vampire city waiting at the end of the road.
If I thought New Covington was big, it was nothing compared to Old Chicago.
The wind whipped at my hair, blowing in from the biggest body of water I'd ever seen. The lake stretched away until it met the sky, and dark waves rose and fell, breaking against the rocks.
On the edge of the lake, rising into the clouds, the city of Old Chicago loomed over everything. Back in New Covington, the three vampire towers were the most prominent buildings in the city, standing proudly over the rest. But the Chicago skyline had buildings that dwarfed even the vampire towers, and there were a lot more of them, even shattered and crumbling as they were. It reminded me of a mouthful of broken teeth, grinning madly against the night sky.
Behind me, Zeke blew out a short breath, tickling my ear.
"Wow, it's huge," he said. "How are we supposed to find anything in that?"
"We'll find them," I said, hoping I wasn't making empty promises. "Just look for the huge band of raiders led by a vampire. How hard can it be?"
I ate my words a few minutes later.
Old Chicago was even more sprawling and massive up close than viewed from afar. It felt as if it went on forever, miles of broken pavement, dead cars and empty buildings. Cruising through the rubble-filled streets, the monstrous skyscrapers looming above us, I wondered what the city had been like when it was alive. How many people had lived here to jus-tify so many buildings packed this close, reaching up to the sky? I couldn't even imagine.
We followed the road until we turned a corner and found the path blocked by the remains of a huge skyscraper. I pulled the bike to a stop and gazed around, trying to get my bearings.
"This is hopeless," Zeke said, looking past me at the collapsed building. "It's too big. We could be searching this place for weeks, months even. And by then who knows what they'll do to everyone?"