Then the blade found my skin, and all thoughts melted away and turned to pain.
Sand f looded my mouth, clogging my nose and the back of my throat. Spitting and choking, I bolted upright, clawing through layers of dirt until I reached the surface.
Zeke rose quickly from where he sat against a half-buried rail. Bewildered, I gazed around, trying to remember where we were. A few yards away, waves rose and fell against a strip of white sand, making hissing noises as they returned to the lake. Behind us, Chicago's ruined skyscrapers crowded the skyline, threatening to topple into the sand.
Pieces of the night came back to me. Zeke and I had found the others across the bridge where he'd left them, sitting in one of the very same vans used to kidnap them. With only minutes till sunrise, we had torn off down the streets, putting as much distance as we could between ourselves and the raiders, until we hit the coast. With nothing on my mind except getting out of the sun, I'd buried myself in the sand moments before the light peeked over the water and instantly blacked out.
"You all right?" Zeke asked, his hair whipping about in the wind. He looked stronger this evening, not quite as pale, wearing a heavier jacket over his tattered clothes. "More nightmares?"
"Yeah," I muttered, though I knew it wasn't a dream. It was Kanin. In trouble. "Where are the others?" I asked. "Are they all right?"
Zeke gestured to the building behind us, where the truck had been parked near the door, sand piling around its tires.
Every so often, the wind scoured away the dusty coating, showing spots of pavement beneath. "Caleb is sick and Teresa sprained her ankle," he replied, "but other than that, they seem fine. Healthwise, anyway. It's amazing, really. That no one else was seriously hurt."
A slender figure appeared in the doorway, watching Zeke and me. When she saw me gazing at her, however, she quickly vanished back inside.
"They're afraid of me, aren't they?"
Zeke sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "They've been taught their whole lives that vampires are predators and demons," he said, not apologetic, or defensive, just matter-of-fact. "Yes. They're afraid of you, despite everything I told them. And Ruth..."
"Hates me," I finished, shrugging. "Not much of a change, there."
"She kept insisting I dig up your body and kill you while you were sleeping." Zeke frowned, shaking his head. "She even tried to get Jake to do it when I refused. We had to have...a talk." His face fell, and he looked away. "She's scared.
They all are. After what they've been through, I don't blame them. But she won't get in your way or cause trouble," he continued in a firm voice. "And the others have accepted that you'll be traveling with us for now. You're still coming, right?
You'll still see us there?"
"To Eden?" I shrugged again and looked away, toward the water, so I didn't see his face. Looking at him would make it that much harder. "I don't know, Zeke. I don't think Eden is the type of place that will welcome someone like me." Kanin's face swam across my mind again, tortured and in agony. "And I have...something I have to do. Someone to find." I owe him that.
"They'll be all right with you now." I finally gave Zeke a sideways glance. "You can get them there. According to Jackal's map, Eden isn't far."
"Forget the others then." Zeke stepped toward me, not touching, but close. "I'm asking you. Please. Will you see us through the final stretch?"
I looked at him, at his pale, earnest face, at his blue eyes, quietly pleading, and felt my resolve crumble. Kanin needed me, but...Zeke needed me, too. I wanted to stay with him, despite knowing that this-whatever we had-would only end in tragedy. I was a vampire, and he was still very much human. Whatever my feelings, I couldn't separate them from the Hunger. Being around Zeke put him in danger, and yet, I was willing to risk it, even his life, just to be close to him.
And that-that dependency-scared me more than anything I'd ever faced. Allie the Fringer knew all too well: the closer you got to someone, the more it would destroy you when they were inevitably gone.
But we'd come so far; it didn't feel right, not seeing this through to the end. "All right," I murmured, hoping Kanin could hang on a little longer. I'll be there soon, Kanin, I swear.
"To Eden, then. Let's finish what we started." Zeke smiled, and I returned it. Together, we walked up the beach, to where the group waited for us in the shadow of the building.
Seven people huddled in the back of the van, silent, terrified. Two young adults, two older people and three kids, one who kept coughing and sniff ling into his sleeve. Zeke drove, and I sat next to him in the passenger's seat, gazing out the window. Nobody spoke much. I offered to switch seats once, to let someone else sit up front, but was met with horrified silence. Nobody wanted the vampire in the back with them.
So Zeke and I remained up front, the weight of words unsaid lingering between us.
We drove east along the seemingly endless lake, following the road and Jackal's map, keeping a wary eye on the city fading behind us. I kept glancing at the side mirrors, waiting for headlights to break over the road and come swarming toward us. It didn't happen. The road remained dark and empty, the landscape silent except for the hiss of falling waves, as if we were the only people alive.
"We're getting low on fuel," Zeke muttered after several hours of driving. He tapped the dashboard of the van, frowning, then sighed. "How far from Eden do you think we are?"
"I don't know," I replied, gazing at the map again. "All I know is we have to follow the road east until we get there."
"God, I hope it's really there," Zeke whispered, gripping the steering wheel, his eyes hard. "Please, please, let it be there. This time, let it be real."
We drove through another dead city on the edge of a lake, passing crumbling skyscrapers, the ruins of old buildings and an endless number of cars clogging the cracked streets. Weaving through a choked sea of rusting vehicles, I wondered how chaotic it would've been in the time before, how people ever got anywhere without crashing into each other.
Zeke suddenly pulled the van to a stop alongside a faded red truck and shut off the engine. I blinked at him. "Why are we stopping?"
"We're almost out of gas. There's a hose and a gas container in the back-I saw them when we hijacked the van. I figure I can siphon something from a few cars, at least. Watch my back?"
I nodded. Zeke half turned, poking his head toward the back as the other passengers stirred and muttered uneasily.
"Everyone, stay put. We're just stopping for fuel. We'll be on our way soon, okay?"
"I'm hungry," muttered Caleb, sniff ling. Zeke smiled at him.
"We'll take a break soon, I promise. Let's just get out of the city first."
I watched Zeke, fascinated, as he opened a lid on the side of a vehicle, stuck the hose in, and sucked on the end. The first two cars yielded nothing, but on the third try, Zeke suddenly choked, turned and spit out a mouthful of clear liquid, before sticking the hose into the plastic container. Wiping his mouth, he leaned against another car and watched the gas trickle into the canister.
I walked up beside him and leaned back against the car door, our shoulders barely touching. "How're you holding up?"
He shrugged. "All right, I guess." He sighed, rubbing his arm. "It still hasn't hit me yet, you know? I keep expecting Jeb to give me directions, tell me where we're going next, when we should stop." He sighed again, heavily, looking out toward the city. "But he's gone. And it's all up to me now." I hesitated, then reached down and took his hand, lightly weaving our fingers together. He squeezed them gratefully.
"Thank you," he murmured, so soft I barely caught it.
"I wouldn't...be doing nearly so well if you weren't here."
"We're almost there," I told him. "Just a few more miles, I think. And you can relax. No more vampires, no more rabids, no more raider kings hunting you down. You'll finally be able to breathe."
"If Eden really exists." He sounded so melancholy I turned to stare at him.
"What's this?" I asked, giving him a challenging smile.
"Don't tell me you're losing your faith, Ezekiel Crosse." His mouth twitched into a smirk. "You're right," he said, pushing himself off the car. "We can't give up now. Let's get there first, and see what happens next." He bent down and picked up the container, peering at the contents. "That's... what, about three gallons? Two and a half ? Think we can get a few more before we leave?"
"Zeke," I growled, gazing down the road. Zeke's gaze followed mine, and he went perfectly still.
A spindly, emaciated creature crouched atop a dead car about a hundred yards away, its white skin pale in the moonlight. It hadn't seen us yet, but I saw another rabid skitter behind a truck, and the one atop the car snarled and hopped down after it, vanishing into the sea of vehicles.
"Let's get out of here," Zeke murmured, and we hurried back toward the van. Grimly, Zeke poured the gas into the fuel tank, while I scanned the darkness and ocean of cars for rabids. Nothing moved, but I heard scuttling noises between the vehicles, and knew they were out there. It was only a matter of time before they saw us.
"Done," he muttered, slamming the lid shut. Tossing me the gas can, we moved toward the front, but suddenly, the side door slid open and Caleb stumbled out, rubbing his eyes.
"I'm tired of sitting," he announced. "When can we stop to eat?"
"Caleb, get inside," Zeke ordered, but at that moment, a piercing shriek rent the air as a rabid hurled itself over a nearby car and lunged for him.
I dived forward, grabbed Caleb around the waist and spun, hugging him to my body. The rabid hit me hard, ripping at me with its claws, sinking jagged fangs into my neck. I hissed in pain, hunching my shoulders to protect Caleb as the rabid clawed frantically at my back.
Ruth suddenly shot out of the van, screaming, clutching a rusty tire iron. She swung it wildly, striking the rabid in the arm, and the monster whirled on her with a hiss.
"Get away from my brother!" Ruth shrieked and hit its cheek with a satisfying crack. The rabid staggered, roared and lashed out, curved talons catching the girl in the stomach, ripping through cloth and skin, tearing her open. Blood spattered the side of the van. As she fell back, gasping, Zeke lunged over the hood of the van, swung his machete and buried it in the rabid's neck.
The monster collapsed, mouth working frantically, as howls and wails began to rise around us. I tossed Caleb in the van, ignoring his frantic cries, as Zeke scooped up Ruth and dived inside with her. Slamming the side door, I leaped over the hood and swung into the driver's seat, yanking the door shut just as a rabid bounced off the glass, leaving a bloody spiderweb of cracks.
Another rabid leaped on the hood, hissing, as I turned the keys Zeke had left in the ignition and threw the van into Drive. The rabid smacked into the windshield, rolled off, and suddenly I had a clear shot at the open road. As I slammed my foot onto the pedal, the van leaped forward and screeched away down the sidewalk, striking a few rabids, as we escaped the city and f led into the night.