Of course, you still had to worry about starving to death.
Back when I was human, I'd struggled with hunger every day. My life had revolved around finding food and little else. There had been four of us in my small gang-me, Lucas, Rat and Stick. We had all been Unregistered; street rats, beggars and thieves, living together in an abandoned school and barely scraping by. Until one stormy night when we'd ventured beyond the Outer Wall to find food...and became the hunted ourselves. It had been stupid to step outside the protection of New Covington, but I'd insisted, and my stubbornness had cost us everything. Lucas and Rat had been killed, and I'd been pulled down and torn apart by a pack of rabids. My life should've ended that night in the rain.
In a way, I guess it had. I'd died that night in Kanin's arms. And now that I was a monster, I could never go back to the life I'd known. I'd tried, once, to contact a friend from my old life, the boy named Stick whom I'd looked after for years. But Stick, seeing what I'd become, had screamed and fled from me in terror, confirming what Kanin had always told me. There was no going back. Not to New Covington, not to my old life, not to anything that was human. Kanin had been right all along. He was always right.
I thought of him often, of the nights we'd spent in the secret lab beneath the vampire city where I was born. His lessons, teaching me what it meant to be a vampire, how to hunt and fight and kill. The humans I'd preyed on, their screams, the warm blood in my mouth, intoxicating and terrible. And Kanin himself, who'd taught me, in no uncertain terms, what I was-a vampire and a demon-but also that my path was my own; that I had a choice.
You are a monster. His voice was always so clear in my head, as if he was standing right next to me, his dark eyes boring into my skull. You will always be a monster-there is no turning back from it. But what kind of monster you become is entirely up to you. That was the lesson I clung to most, the one I swore I'd never forget.
But Kanin had another rule as well, one I hadn't remembered so clearly as the first. The one about humans, and becoming attached...
And just like that, my traitor mind shifted to a lean figure with jagged blond hair and solemn blue eyes. I remembered his smile, that lopsided grin meant only for me. I remembered his touch, the heat that radiated from him when we were close. His fingers sliding over my skin, the warmth of his lips on mine...
I shook my head. Ezekiel Crosse was human. I was a vampire. No matter what I felt, no matter how strong my feelings, I could never separate the urge to kiss Zeke from the desire to sink my fangs into his throat. That was another reason I'd left Eden without saying goodbye, without letting anyone know where I was going. I couldn't be near Zeke without putting his life in danger. Eventually, I would kill him.
It was better to be alone. Vampires were predators; the Hunger was always with us, the craving for human blood that could take over at any time. Lose yourself to the Hunger, and the people around you died. It had been a hard lesson for me to learn, and one that I did not ever want to repeat. It was always there-that fear that I would slip, that the Hunger would take over again and when I came back to myself I would have killed someone I knew. Even the men I preyed on-bandits, raiders, marauders, murderers-they were all still human. They were living beings, and I killed them to feed myself. To keep myself from attacking others. I could choose what kind of people I preyed on, but in the end, I had to prey on someone. The lesser of the two evils was still evil.
Zeke was too good to be dragged down by that darkness.
Deliberately, I forced my thoughts away from Zeke before they grew too painful. To keep myself distracted, I concentrated on the pull, the strange tug that I still didn't understand, even now. Awake, I barely felt it; only in sleep could I sense Kanin's thoughts, see through his eyes. Or, at least, I could before that last vision, when Sarren had driven a wooden stake into Kanin's chest, sending him into hibernation.
I couldn't feel Kanin's experiences anymore. But when I concentrated, I did know which direction would lead me to my sire. I did that now, emptying my mind of all other thoughts, and searched for Kanin.
The pull was still there, a faint pulse to the east, but... something was wrong. Not dangerous or threatening, but there was an odd sensation in my gut, that nagging feeling you get when you know you've forgotten something and you just can't remember what. Dawn was still hours away; I wasn't in danger of being caught outside in the light. There was nothing I could have left behind except my sword, and that was strapped firmly across my back. Why, then, did I feel so uneasy?
A few minutes later, it hit me.
The pull I was following, that strange but unerring sense of knowing, was slowly splitting off, moving in different directions. I stopped in the middle of the road, wondering if I was mistaken. I wasn't. There was still a strong pull to the east, but also a fainter one, now, to the north.
I frowned. Two directions. What could it mean? And where was I supposed to go, now? The feeling to the east was stronger; I just barely felt the compulsion to the north, but it was definitely there. Impossible as it seemed, I had come to a crossroad. And I had no idea where to go.
Did Kanin free himself, somehow? Is he fleeing north, and I'm tracking Sarren down alone? It doesn't seem likely that Sarren would be the one to run. Upon reflection, my frown deepened, the sense of worry and unease growing stronger. Is it Sarren? Would I even feel anything from him? We're not blood kin, we're not related in any way that I know of. What's going on here?
Utterly bewildered, I stood in the center of the road trying to decide what to do, which direction to follow. I was still new to this vampire-blood-tie thing and had no idea why there would be two pulls instead of one. Had Sarren fed from Kanin, perhaps? Was it possible that Sarren was related to me and my sire in some distant past, centuries ago?
It was a mystery, and one I had no way to solve. In the end, I continued east. Indecision and doubt still nagged at me as the other sense of knowing continued to pull away, but I couldn't be in two places at once; I had to pick a direction and keep going. So I chose the stronger of the two urges, and if it led me right to a pissed-off, psychotic vampire eager to peel the skin from my bones, then I would just have to deal with that bump when I got there.
When I woke the next evening, the second pull had shifted completely to the west. I ignored it and my doubts and continued eastward. For two more nights, I walked through unending forest and rotted towns, my only company the road and the occasional flash of wildlife in the darkness. Deer were abundant out here, as were raccoons, opossums and the odd mountain lion stalking its prey through the trees and broken houses. They didn't bother me, except to give me the evil eye, and I left them alone, as well. I wasn't Hungry, and animal blood, as I'd learned the hard way, did nothing to satisfy the monster within.
The snow and heavy woodlands continued, the road I traveled strangled on either side with vegetation that split the pavement and pushed its way up through the cracks. Eventually, though, the road widened, and dead cars began to appear, rusty hulks of metal beneath the snow, growing more numerous as I traveled. I was approaching a city, and my instincts prickled a warning. Most empty towns and suburbs were just that, broken and deserted, with crumbling houses lining silent, overgrown streets. But the cities, once a place of thousands of humans living side by side, were overrun with a different species now.
The road widened even more, became a highway, stubbornly pushing back the choking forest. More vehicles appeared, turning the road into a maze of rusted metal and glass, though only on the side of the highway leaving the city. I kept to the other, empty lane, passing the endless stream of dead, smashed cars, trying not to look inside, though sometimes it was impossible not to see. A skeleton lay against the steering wheel of a crumpled car, half-buried in the snow that drifted through the broken windshield. Another dangled beneath a charred, overturned truck. Thousands of people, trying to leave the city all at once. Had they been fleeing the plague, or the madness that came soon after?
The road wound through the sprawling city streets, piled high with snow and coated with a thick layer of ice. I left the car-choked main road and entered the empty side streets, finding it easier to navigate the smaller paths.
After crossing a windy bridge over a sullen gray river, I stumbled upon a huge marble building, relatively clear of vegetation and strangely undisturbed. Curious, and because it was in the same direction of the pull I'd been following, I headed toward it then made my way along the outer wall. Half the roof had fallen in, and a couple of the enormous pillars surrounding it were crushed and broken. An entire corner had crumbled away, and rubble was strewn across the floor. I ducked inside, gazing around cautiously.
The room, for its enormous size, was quite empty. Nothing lived here, it seemed, except the single owl that swooped out from the high, vaulted ceiling when I came in. Marble pillars lined the room, and I could make out words carved into the walls on both sides, though they were too cracked and eroded to read.
Against the back wall, looming up to an impossible height, was a statue. An enormous statue of a man sitting on a marble chair, his wrists resting against the arms. One of his hands was missing, and there were many small cracks in his stony features, but he was surprisingly undamaged. The marble chair had been streaked with paint, scrawled with ugly words that continued up the wall, and one corner of the statue was blackened, as if burned. But the man in the chair was still noble looking despite the damage. His great, craggy face peered down, looking right at me, and it was eerie, standing there beneath the stone gaze of a giant. As I backed toward the exit, the hollow eyes appeared to follow me out. Still, I thought it was a kind face, one that didn't belong in this time. I wondered who he had been, to be immortalized in such a way. There were so many things about the time Before that I didn't know; huge statues and marble buildings that seemed to serve no purpose. All very strange.
Outside, I paused to get my bearings. Straight ahead, a rectangle of cracked cement stretched away from the bottom of the steps. Leaves and branches were frozen beneath a layer of ice filling the shallow pool, and the rusty hulk of a car lay on its side at the edge.
And then, I saw the strangest sight yet. Beyond the steps, directly in front of me, a huge white tower rose into the night. It was ridiculously thin and pointed, a pale needle scraping the clouds, looking as if a strong breeze could blow it over.
And that faint pull was drawing me right toward it. I hurried down the steps and skirted the edges of the pool, my boots squelching in mud, weeds and slush. Past the cement, the land dissolved into swampy marshland filled with brush, reeds and puddles of icy water. As I drew closer and the tower loomed overhead, I realized that the tug, the pull I'd been tracking for months, was stronger than it had ever been. Though it wasn't coming from the tower itself; rather, from another large white building, barely visible over a canopy of trees beyond.
Resolved that my prey was so close, I stalked forward, pushing through weeds and brush.
Several hundred yards from the tower, past a crumbling street lined with rusty cars and across another swampy lawn, a bristling fence rose out of the ground to scar the horizon. About twelve feet tall, made of black iron bars topped with coils of barbed wire, it was a familiar sight. I'd seen many walls in my travels across the country-concrete and wood, steel and stone. They were everywhere, surrounding every settlement, from tiny farms to entire cities. They all had one purpose, and that purpose was right in front of me, preventing any further advances tonight.