"Where are we going?' I asked as we carefully avoided roots and holes along the path. Branches scraped along my arms.
"To people I guarantee won't turn you in,' she said, voice grim.
More questions were on my lips when brilliant light suddenly blinded me. My eyes had grown attuned to the darkness, and the unexpected brightness was too abrupt a change. There was a rustling in the trees, a sense of many bodies around us, and as my vision returned, I saw vampire faces everywhere.
FORTUNATELY, THEY WERE MOROI FACES.
That didn't stop me from raising my stake and moving closer to Sydney. No one was attacking us, so I held my position--not that it probably mattered. As I took in more and more of the setting, I saw that we were completely surrounded by about ten people. We'd told Sydney we were good, and it was true: Dimitri and I could probably take out a group like this, though the poor fighting quarters would make it difficult. I also realized the group wasn't entirely Moroi. The ones closest to us were, but around them were dhampirs. And the light I'd thought had come from torches or flashlights was actually coming from a ball of flame held in one of the Moroi's hands.
One Moroi man stepped forward, about Abe's age, with a bushy brown beard and a silver stake in his hand. Some part of me noted the stake was crudely made compared to mine, but the point held the same threat. The man's gaze passed over me and Dimitri, and the stake lowered. Sydney became the object of the guy's scrutiny, and he suddenly reached out for her. Dimitri and I moved to stop him, but other hands reached out to stop us. I could have fought them but froze when Sydney let out a strangled, "Wait.'
The bearded Moroi gripped her chin and turned her head so that the light fell on her cheek, lighting up the golden tattoo. He released his hold and stepped back.
"Lily-girl,' he grunted.
The others relaxed very slightly, though they kept their stakes poised and still looked ready to attack if provoked. The Moroi leader turned his attention from Sydney to Dimitri and me.
"You're here to join us?' he asked warily.
"We need shelter,' said Sydney, lightly touching her throat. "They're being chased by--by the Tainted.'
The woman holding the flame looked skeptical. "More like spies for the Tainted.'
"The Tainted Queen is dead,' said Sydney. She nodded toward me. "They think she did it.'
The inquisitive part of me started to speak but promptly shut up, wise enough to know this bizarre turn of events was best left in Sydney's hands. I didn't understand what she was saying. When she'd said Tainted were pursuing us, I thought she was trying to make this group think we had Strigoi after us. Now, after she'd mentioned the queen, I wasn't so sure. I also wasn't so sure identifying me as a potential murderer was that smart. For all I knew, Brown Beard would turn me in and try to score a reward. From the looks of his clothes, he could have used one.
To my surprise, this brought a smile to his face. "And so, another usurper passes on. Is there a new one yet?'
"No,' said Sydney. "They'll have elections soon and choose.'
The group's smiles were replaced by looks of disdain and disapproving mutters about elections. I couldn't help myself. "How else would they choose a new king or queen?'
"In the true way,' said a nearby dhampir. "The way it used to be, long ago. In a battle to the death.' I waited for the punch line, but the guy was clearly serious. I wanted to ask Sydney what she'd gotten us into, but by this point, we'd apparently passed inspection. Their leader turned and began walking down the path. The group followed, moving us along as they did. Listening to their conversation, I couldn't help a small frown--and not just because our lives might be on the line. I was intrigued by their accents. The motel's desk clerk had had a thick southern accent, exactly like you'd expect in this part of the country. These guys, while sounding similar, had a few other pronunciations mixed in. It almost reminded me a little of Dimitri's accent.
I was so tense and anxious that I could hardly focus on how long we walked. Eventually, the path led us to what seemed like a well-hidden campground. A huge bonfire blazed in a clearing with people sitting around. Yet, there were structures scattered off to one side, stretching into the woods along the now widened path. It wasn't quite a road yet, but it gave the illusion of a town, or at least a village. The buildings were small and shabby but appeared permanent. On the other side of the fire, the land rose sharply into the Appalachians, blocking out the stars. In the flickering light, I could see a mountain's face that was textured with rough stone and scattered trees, dotted here and there with dark holes.
My attention moved back to the living. The crowd gathered around the fire--a couple dozen or so--fell silent as our escort led us in. At first, all I saw were numbers. That was the warrior in me, counting opponents and planning for attack. Then, just like I had earlier, I truly took in the faces. More Moroi mixed with dhampirs. And--I was shocked to discover--humans.
These weren't feeders either. Well, not in the sense that I knew feeders. Even in the dark, I could see glimpses of bite marks along some of the humans' necks, but judging by their curious expressions, I could tell these people didn't give blood regularly. They weren't high. They were mixed in among the Moroi and dhampirs, sitting, standing, talking, engaging--the whole group clearly unified in some kind of community. I wondered if these humans were like the Alchemists. Maybe they had some sort of a business relationship with my kind.
The tight formation around us began to spread out, and I moved closer to Sydney. "What in God's name is all this?'
"The Keepers,' she said in a low voice.
"Keepers? What does that mean?'
"It means,' said the bearded Moroi, "that unlike your people, we still keep the old ways, the way we truly should.'
I eyed these "Keepers' in their worn clothes and the dirty, barefoot children. Reflecting upon how far we were from civilization--and based on how dark it was away from the fire--I was willing to bet they didn't have electricity. I was on the verge of saying that I didn't think this was how anyone should truly be living. Then, remembering the casual way these people had spoken about fights to the death, I decided to keep my views to myself.
"Why are they here, Raymond?' asked a woman sitting by the fire. She was human but spoke to the bearded Moroi in a perfectly ordinary and familiar way. It wasn't the dreamy manner a feeder usually used with a Moroi. It wasn't even like the stilted conversations my kind had with the Alchemists. "Are they joining us?' Raymond shook his head. "No. The Tainted are after them for killing their queen.'