Lucas screamed, yanking and thrashing, trying to free himself, but another claw reached over and sank into his neck, and his screams became gurgles. My gut heaved. I watched, dazed, as Lucas was dragged, kicking and wailing, back over the fence, and vanished under the pale mass of creatures on the other side. His screams didn't last as long as Rat's, and by that time, I was already running after Stick, ignoring my twisting insides and not daring to look back.

I could barely make out Stick's lanky form in the distance, running down the middle of the road, weaving between cars.

Stripping off my pack, I followed, feeling highly exposed on the open street. The rain was slowly letting up, the brunt of the storm passing on, toward the city. Over the fading rain, I heard the cans clanking against his back with every step he took. In his panic, he hadn't thought to take off his pack, either. I sprinted after him, knowing he couldn't keep up that pace for long.

Two blocks later, I found him leaning against the rusty hulk of an overturned car, next to a tree growing out of the sidewalk. He was gasping so hard he couldn't speak. I crouched down beside him, breathing hard, seeing Lucas's and Rat's deaths over and over again, their screams echoing in my mind.

"Lucas?" Stick's voice was so soft I barely heard him.

"Dead." My voice sounded as if it belonged to someone else.

It didn't seem real that I'd lost him. My stomach threatened to crawl up my throat, and I forced it down. "He's dead," I whispered again. "The rabids got him."

"Oh, God." Stick's hands went to his mouth. "Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God!"

"Hey," I snapped, and shoved him, halting the string of words before they got even more frantic. "Stop it. We have to keep our heads if we're going to get out of here, okay?" There would be time later to shed tears, to mourn what I'd lost. But right now, the most important thing was figuring out how to stay alive.

Stick nodded, his eyes still glazed and terrified. "Where do we go now?"

I started to look around to get my bearings but suddenly noticed something that turned my blood to ice. "Stick," I said softly, looking down at his leg, "what happened?" Blood was oozing from a gash in his knee, spreading through the thin fabric of his pants. "Oh," Stick said, as if he'd just noticed it himself. "I must've cut it when I fell off the fence. It's not very deep..." He stopped when he saw my face. "Why?"

I stood slowly, carefully, my mouth going dry. "Blood," I murmured, backing away. "Rabids can smell blood if they're close enough. We have to go n-"

It leaped atop the car with a howl, lashing out at the space I'd been a moment before, ripping through the metal with its claws. Stick yelled and dove away, skittering behind me, as the thing atop the car gave a chilling wail and looked right at us.

It had been human once, that was the most horrible thing about it. It still had a vaguely human face and emaciated body, though its skin, nearly pure white and stretched tightly across its bones, looked more skeleton than human. The tattered threads of what had been clothes hung on its frame, and its hair was tangled and matted. Its eyes were white orbs with no irises or pupils, just a blank, dead white. It hopped off the car and hissed at us, baring a mouthful of pointed teeth, the two oversize fangs extending outward like a snake's.

Behind me, Stick was whimpering, soft choked noises that made no sense, and I caught the sharp ammonia smell of urine. Heart pounding, I eased away from him, and the rabid's hollow gaze followed me before returning to Stick. Its nostrils f lared, and bloody foam dripped from its jaws as it took a lurching step forward.

Stick was frozen in terror, watching the rabid like a cornered mouse would a snake. I had no idea why I did what I did next. But my hand reached into my pocket and grabbed the knife. Pulling open the blade, I closed my fist around the edge and, before I thought better of it, sliced it across my palm.

"Hey!" I yelled, and the rabid snapped its horrible gaze to me, nostrils f laring. "That's right," I continued, backing away as it followed, leaping atop another car as easily as walking.

"Look at me, not him. Stick," I called without taking my eyes from the rabid, keeping a car between it and myself, "get out of here. Find the drain-it'll take you back to the city. Do you hear me?"

No answer. I chanced a sideways glance and saw him still frozen in the same spot, eyes glued to the rabid stalking me.

"Stick!" I hissed furiously, but he didn't move. "Dammit, you spineless little shit! Get out of here now!" With a chilling shriek like nothing human, the rabid lunged.

I ran, ducking behind a truck, hearing the rabid's claws screech off the rusty metal as it followed. I dodged and wove my way through the vehicle-littered street, keeping the cars between myself and the pursuing rabid, glancing back to gauge how close it was. It snarled and hissed at me over the vehicles, hollow eyes blazing with madness and hunger, its claws leaving white gashes in the rust.

Dodging behind another car, I gazed around frantically for a weapon. A pipe, a branch I could use as a club, anything.

The rabid's shriek rang out behind me, horrifyingly near. As I reached down and grabbed a chunk of broken pavement from the curb, I glimpsed a pale form in the corner of my eye and turned quickly, swinging with all my might.

The jagged concrete hit the rabid square in the temple as it lunged for me, grasping claws inches from my face. I heard something crack beneath the stone as I knocked the creature aside, smashing it into the door of a car. The rabid collapsed to the pavement, trying to get up, and I brought the stone down again, smashing the back of its skull. Once, twice and again.

The rabid screamed and twitched, limbs jerking sporadically, before collapsing to the sidewalk. A dark puddle oozed from beneath its head and spread over the street.

Trembling, I dropped the stone and sank to the curb. My hands shook, my knees shook, and my heart was doing its best to hammer its way through my ribs. The rabid looked smaller in death than in life, all brittle limbs and protruding bones. But its face was as horrible and terrifying as ever, fangs frozen in a snarl, soulless white eyes staring up at me.

And then a hiss behind me made my heart stop a second time.

I turned slowly as another rabid slid out from behind a car, arms and mouth smeared with wet crimson. It clutched a branch in one claw...only the branch had five fingers, and the tattered remains of a shirt clung to it. Seeing me, the rabid dropped the arm to the pavement and crept forward.

Another rabid followed. And another leaped to the roof of a car, hissing. I spun and faced two more, sliding from beneath a truck, pale dead eyes fastened on me. Five of them.

From all directions. And me, in the center. Alone.

Everything grew very quiet. All I heard was my pulse, roaring in my ears, and my ragged breathing. I gazed around at the pale, foaming rabids, not ten yards from me in any direction and for just a moment I felt calm. So this was the knowledge that you were about to die, that no one could help you, that it would all be over in a few short seconds.

In that brief moment between life and death, I looked between cars and saw a figure striding toward me, silhouetted black against the rain. Something bright gleamed in its hand, but then a rabid passed through my field of vision, and it was gone.

Survival instincts kicked in, and I ran.

Something hit me from behind, hard, and warmth spread over my neck and back, though there was no pain. The blow knocked me forward, and I stumbled, falling to my knees. A weight landed on me, screeching, tearing at me, and bright strips of fire began to spread across my shoulders. I screamed and f lipped over, using my legs to shove it away, but another pale creature filled my vision, and all I could see was its face and teeth and blank, dead eyes, lunging forward. My hands shot out, slamming into its jaw, keeping those snapping teeth away from my face. It snarled and sank its fangs into my wrist, chewing and tearing, but I barely felt the pain.

All I could think about was keeping the teeth away from my throat, though I knew its claws were ripping open my chest and stomach- I had to keep it away from my throat.

And then the others closed in, screaming, ripping. And the last thing I remembered, before the bloody red haze finally melted into blackness, was a f lash of something bright and the rabid's body dropping onto my chest while its head continued to bite my arm.

Then there was nothing.

When I woke up, I knew I was in hell. My whole body was on fire, or at least it felt that way, though I couldn't see the f lames. It was dark, and a light rain was falling from the sky, which I found strange for hell. Then a dark figure loomed over me, jet-black eyes boring into mine, and I thought I knew him from...somewhere. Hadn't I met him before...?

"Can you hear me?" His voice was familiar, too, low and calm. I opened my mouth to reply, but only a choked gurgle escaped. What was wrong with me? It felt as if my mouth and throat were clogged with warm mud.

"Don't try to speak." The soothing voice broke through my agony and confusion. "Listen to me, human. You're dying.

The damage the rabids did to your body is extreme. You have only a few minutes left in this world." He leaned closer, face intense. "Do you understand what I'm telling you?" Barely. My head felt heavy, and everything was foggy and surreal. The pain was still there, but seemed far away now, as if I was disconnected from my body. I tried raising my head to see the extent of my wounds, but the stranger put a hand on my shoulder, stopping me. "No," he said gently, easing me back. "Don't look. It's better that you do not see. Just know that, whatever you choose, you will die today. The manner of your death, however, is up to you."

"Wha-" I choked on that warm wetness, spat it out to clear my throat. "What do you mean?" I rasped, my voice sounding strange in my ears. The stranger regarded me without expression.

"I'm giving you a choice," he said. "You are intelligent enough to know what I am, what I'm offering. I watched you draw the rabids away to save your friend. I watched your struggle to fight, to live, when most would have lain down and died. I see...potential.

"I can end the pain," he continued, smoothing a strand of hair from my eyes. "I can offer you release from the mortal coil, and I promise that you will not spend eternity as one of them." He nodded to a pale body, crumpled against a tire a few yards away. "I can give you that much peace, at least."

"Or?" I whispered. He sighed.

"Or...I can make you one of us. I can drain you to the point of death, and give you my blood, so that when you die you will rise an immortal. A vampire. It will be a different life, and perhaps not one that you would suffer through. Perhaps you would rather be dead with your soul intact than exist forever without one. But the choice, and the manner of your death, is up to you."

I lay there, trying to catch my breath, my mind reeling. I was dying. I was dying, and this stranger-this vampire-was offering me a way out.

Die as a human, or become a bloodsucker. Either way, the choice was death, because the vampires were dead, they just had the audacity to keep living-walking corpses that preyed on humans to survive. I hated the vampires; everything about them-their city, their pets, their domination of the human race-I despised with my entire being. They had taken everything from me, everything that was important. I would never forgive them for what I had lost.

Tags: Julie Kagawa Blood of Eden Book Series
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