The immortal rules, p.11
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       The Immortal Rules, p.11

         Part #1 of Blood of Eden series by Julie Kagawa
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Chapter 11

 

  The bodies were still there, stiff and waxy, when I rose the next evening. They had already attracted a f lock of crows and other carrion birds. I shooed the scavengers away and, feeling it was the least I could do, dragged the bodies off the road into the tall grass, leaving them to nature. The vehicles they'd been driving had run out of fuel or electricity or whatever powered them, for their lights were dead, and they were cold and still. I wondered if I could've ridden one of them, but I'd never driven anything in my life, and the machines seemed very complicated even if they still worked. So I left them sitting on the side of the road as I continued my journey to wherever I was going.

  Another night or two passed with no distractions. I walked through towns and settlements, all dead, all overgrown and empty. I came upon several crossroads, where other roads stretched away in opposite directions until they were lost to the darkness, but I kept to the road I was walking. I became used to the silence, the emptiness and the vastness of the sky above. The stars were my only constant companions, though I did see deer and small animals and herds of shaggy horned beasts roaming the plains. When the sun threatened the horizon, I burrowed into the earth and slept, only to rise and repeat the same thing the following night. Everything I did became habit: rise, shake the dirt out, face the same direction as the night before and walk. I didn't think of the city.

  Or Kanin. Or anything behind me on the road. Instead, I occupied myself with what I might find over the next rise, the next hill. I sometimes imagined a distant city, sparkling with lights, or the glow of a vehicle, coming toward me. Or even the silhouette of another traveler, walking toward me in the darkness. Of course, nothing like that ever appeared; no lights, no vehicles, no humans. Only empty f latlands and the skeletons of what had been houses or farms. The encounter with the two men seemed a hazy, half-remembered dream, something that hadn't really happened to me, as it soon felt as if I was the only person left in the entire world.

  I didn't run into any rabids, which was surprising at first.

  I'd been expecting to fight my way past at least a few by now.

  But maybe rabids only hung around cities and towns where their human prey would be. Or perhaps, like the bear, they didn't bother hunting vampires. Maybe their prey had to be alive and breathing to catch their attention.

  Maybe they thought vampires were just like them.

  Finally the road took me through another dead town. It was much like the few others I'd seen-empty and overgrown, buildings crumbling to rubble, abandoned cars rotting in the streets. As I passed the remains of an old gas station, I wondered if it had already been raided for food and supplies.

  Then I realized I didn't need to check, which I found ironic and a little sad. The old Allie would've seen a place like that as a potential treasure trove. Old buildings, abandoned stores, empty gas stations-there were a ton of supplies out here just waiting to be scavenged. I didn't need food or water or any of that anymore. The only thing I needed was the one thing that wasn't here.

  I sighed, just for the hell of it, and continued into the town.

  As I passed a tree growing through the hood of a car, I caught a faint rustle in the grass and a quiet whimper. Not an animal noise, either. This sounded human.

  I paused. It had been four days since the. . . incident. . . with the men on the road. Was I still a danger to humans? Could I control myself in the presence of my prey? The Hunger seemed sated for now, held in check, but I'd still have to be very careful.

  The sound came again. Wary of rabid wildlife, I drew my sword and eased around the car, ready to slash at anything that came f lying out of the weeds. When I saw what was hiding behind the tree, however, I relaxed.

  A small, frightened face gasped and recoiled, wide-eyed, tears streaking his cheeks. He had dark hair, smudged, dirty skin, and was probably no more than six years old.

  A kid? What's a kid doing way out here, alone?

  Still wary, I lowered my sword. The child sniff led and gazed up at me, teary-eyed but silent. I looked for wounds on his small body, bite marks or scratches, but he was clean.

  There wasn't any blood, though he was frightfully thin, a trait that was all too common where I came from. "W-who are you?" he sniff led, pressing himself against the trunk. "I don't know you. You're a stranger. "

  "It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. " Sheathing the blade, I knelt beside the kid, holding out my hand. "Where do you live?" I asked gently, stunned that someone would let a child roam around these streets at night. Did they want him eaten by rabids? "Where's your mom and dad?"

  "I d-don't live here," he whispered, hiccuping with the effort not to cry. "I don't h-have a mom or a dad. I live with e-everyone, but now I can't find them!" He wasn't making much sense, and the last sentence had finally dissolved into a frightened wail, setting my teeth on edge. We'd never get anywhere like this, and his howling could attract rabid animals at the least. They might ignore me, but if they sensed this child, we'd have a problem.

  "It's okay," I said quickly as the child stuffed his small fist into his mouth. "It's all right, we'll find everyone else. There are other people here, right? In the town?" He nodded. "They were looking for food and stuff," he said, pointing a grubby finger in an indiscriminate direction.

  "Over there, I think. I had to go potty, but when I came back they were gone. "

  So, hopefully, they'd be close. Whoever they were. Probably an aunt or a relative or something, since the kid didn't have any parents. His bottom lip trembled, and I scrubbed my eyes. "Let's go look for them," I said, standing up. "Come on. I'm sure they're looking for you, too. " What? The Fringer street rat in me recoiled, aghast. What are you doing, Allison? You don't know this kid. Why are you getting involved?

  I ignored the voice. What was I supposed to do? I certainly couldn't leave a child out here alone. Not even I was that callous. I'd drop him off with his parents or guardians or whomever, and then. . .

  I repressed a shiver. When was the next time I might run into humans? If I returned this child to his guardians, they would probably be relieved. They might ask me inside, offer to let me spend the night. It would be easy enough, while they were sleeping, to slip up beside them, to. . .

  Horrified, I shut those thoughts away. But what could I do?

  I was a vampire, and if I didn't keep the Hunger in check, I would revert to that snarling, mindless creature on the road.

  If I had to feed, at least it would be on my terms now. "Well," I asked the boy, holding out my hand, "are you coming or not?"

  The kid brightened. Standing up, he reached for my hand and clung tightly to my fingers as I led him away. He didn't cry or even sniff le as we wove through dark alleys, between rotting buildings, and around smashed, rusty cars. Either he was too frightened to say anything, or he was used to walking around scary, unfamiliar places in the middle of the night.

  "What's your name?" he asked as we made our way down another sidewalk, stepping over glass and fallen streetlights. He seemed calm now, relieved to be in the presence of a grown-up, even if she was a stranger.

  "Allison," I muttered back, scanning the darkness and shadows for any signs of movement, human or otherwise. A gray fox glanced up from where it scavenged along a wall and darted into the weeds, but other than that the night was still.

  "I'm

  Caleb. "

  I nodded and turned down another road, finding the edge of what was once a plaza. Moss covered the remains of benches along the cracked sidewalks, and the stone fountain in the center of the square was dry and crumbling to gravel. Leaves crunched under our feet as we followed one of the paths past a gazebo with a fallen roof, toward the other edge of the plaza.

  Suddenly, I paused, pulling Caleb to a halt. Behind us, amid the broken wreckage of the gazebo, I heard the quiet thump of a heartbeat.

  "Why are we stopping?" whispered Caleb.

  "Turn around," said a voice
, somehow, impossibly, at my back. "Slowly. "

  Still keeping a tight grip on Caleb's hand, I turned.

  A human stood behind us, a few yards from the gazebo.

  He was lean, a few inches taller than me, with blond hair, and his eyes-a bright, piercing blue-never left my face.

  Neither did the barrel of the pistol trained on my head.

  "Zee!" Caleb cried and rushed forward. I let him go, and he hurled himself at the stranger, who bent down, hugged the child to his neck and stood. All without taking his eyes, or his gun, off me.

  "Hey, rug rat," he murmured, speaking to Caleb but still watching me intently. "You are in a ton of trouble, little man.

  Your sister and I have been looking everywhere for you. " His eyes narrowed. "Who's your friend?"

  "Caleb!"

  A scream interrupted him, and a slender, dark-haired girl of maybe sixteen rushed up to us, holding out her hands.

  "Caleb! Oh, thank God! You found him!" She took the child from "Zee," hugged him tightly, and set him on the ground to glower at him. "Where did you go? You scared us all to death, wandering off like that! Don't ever, ever do that again, do you understand?"

  "Ruth," the blond boy said quietly, still keeping me in his sights. "We have company. "

  The girl's head jerked up, her eyes widening when she saw me. "Who. . . ?"

  "That's Allison," Caleb chirped, turning to smile at me. I smiled back, but my gaze was still on the boy with the gun.

  "She helped me find you when I was lost. "

  "Is that so?" The boy frowned, shifting forward to put himself between me and his charges. "And what is she doing out here, wandering the town all alone in the middle of the night?"

  "That's what I'd like to know," the girl, Ruth, added, glaring at me over the boy's shoulder. "And just what were you planning to do with my brother?" she demanded-very brave, I thought, for someone hiding behind a gun. "Who are you, anyway?"

  I ignored her, knowing the boy was the one I'd have to convince. He watched me calmly, blue eyes taking in my every move. Now that I saw him clearly, I realized he was probably no older than me, with dusty jeans, a tattered jacket, and jagged blond hair that fell into his eyes. He returned my smirk with the unmistakable air of someone who knew how to handle himself. But maybe that was due to the weapons he was carrying. Besides the gun, still pointed at me, he wore a hatchet on one hip, a dagger on the other, and a strap across his chest, the hilt of a machete poking up behind his shoulder.

  I had no doubt he had a couple other weapons hidden some-where, a knife in his boot or up his sleeve. I also suspected he knew how to use each and every one of them. A small silver cross dangled from a chain around his neck, glimmering against his ragged shirt.

  His eyes f licked to the hilt over my shoulder, then to my waist, looking for weapons. I kept very still, wondering if I could reach him and yank the pistol away without getting shot in the face. If it came to that. The strange boy seemed wary but not openly hostile. I suspected he didn't want a fight, and I didn't, either. Not after. . .

  I shoved that memory down and focused on the humans, still eyeing me cautiously. "So, are you going to shoot me?" I asked after we spent a moment sizing each other up. "Or are we going to stand around looking at each other all night?"

  "Depends," the boy said with an easy smile, not lowering the gun. "Who are you? There aren't many people who go wandering around at night with the rabids. And you're not from around here, I know that much. Where did you come from?"

  "New

  Covington. "

  He frowned, not recognizing the same. "One of the vampire cities," I elaborated without thinking better of it.

  Ruth gasped. "A vampire city! Zeke, come on!" She tugged at his sleeve. "We should get back to the others, warn them!" Her dark glare stabbed at me behind his arm. "She could be one of those pets Jeb told us about! She could be out hunting for new blood slaves. "

  "I'm not a pet," I snapped at her. "And pets don't bother hunting for blood slaves-they let the raiding parties do that.

  Do you see anyone else around here?"

  The boy, Zeke, hesitated, shaking off Ruth's arm. "If you came from a vampire city, what are you doing here?" he asked in a reasonable voice.

  "I left. " I raised my chin and stared him down defiantly.

  "I got tired of being hunted, of watching the vamps do whatever they want to us, because we're just animals to them.

  Better to take my chances outside the Wall and free than stay in the city as a slave to some bloodsucker. So I got out. And I'm never going back. If you want to shoot me for that, you go right ahead. It's better than what I left behind. " The boy blinked and seemed about to say something, when Caleb let out a soft cry and rushed forward, hitting his leg.

  "Don't shoot her, Zee!" Caleb ordered as the boy f linched, more in surprise than pain. "She's nice! She helped me find you. " He pounded the leg again with his small fists. "If you shoot her, I'll be mad at you forever. Leave her alone!"

  "Ow. Okay, okay. I won't shoot her. " Zeke winced and lowered his pistol, as Ruth grabbed Caleb by the arm, dragging him away. "I wasn't going to, anyway. " He sighed and sheathed the gun in a back holster, turning to me with a resigned shrug. "Sorry about that. We were all freaking out when we couldn't find the rug rat, and we don't run into many people out here. I didn't mean to scare you. "

  "It's fine," I said, and the tension diffused. Ruth was still glaring at me, with Caleb in her arms now, squirming to get down. But she seemed petty and unimportant compared to the boy across from me.

  He smiled and suddenly looked younger, far less threatening. "Let's try this introduction thing again," he offered with a rueful look. "Thank you for bringing Caleb back. I'm Zeke

  Crosse. This is Ruth-" he nodded to the girl, who narrowed her eyes even more "-and you've already met Caleb. "

  "Allison. Or Allie. " I nodded at them, looking around for other humans besides the trio, finding none. "What are you doing out here? Is it just the three of you all alone?" He shook his head, raking bangs out of his eyes. "Just passing through, like you said. We stopped here to look for supplies before we move out again. "

  "How many of you are there?"

  "About a dozen. " He blinked, regarding me intently. I raised an eyebrow and gazed back. "You really came from a vampire city?" he asked in an awed voice. "And you've been traveling since then, all alone? Do you know how dangerous it is out here?"

  "Yes. " I reached back and touched the hilt of my katana.

  "And you don't have to worry. I can take care of myself. " Zeke whistled softly. "I don't doubt it," he muttered, and I thought I caught a hint of respect below the quiet surface.

  He blew out a breath and smiled at me. "Listen, I have to get these two," he nodded at Caleb and Ruth, "back to the others before Jeb goes through the roof. Do you need anything? We don't have much, but I'm sure we can spare a bag of chips or a can of beans or something. You don't look like you've eaten much lately. "

  I blinked in shock. His offer seemed genuine, which caught me off guard, making me wary again. Humans never gave food away to complete strangers. But before I could say anything, Ruth put Caleb down and stalked forward, eyes blazing.

  "Zeke!" she hissed, tugging his sleeve again. He sighed as she bent close. "We don't know anything about her," she said in a whisper, though I could hear every word. "She could be a thief, or a pet or a kidnapper for all we know. What will Jeb say if we come back with a complete stranger? Especially one who lived with vampires? "

  "She just helped us find Caleb," Zeke replied, frowning.

  "I don't think she was going to spirit him off to New Covington or wherever she's from. Besides, you weren't worried when we let Darren join us, and he was from a bandit camp.

  What are you afraid of ?"

  "I want her to come," Caleb said, clinging to Zeke's pant leg. "Don't make her leave. She should come with us. " Well, this was enter
taining, but it was probably time I left.

  There was no way I could travel with a group during the daylight hours. Though if I hung back and waited until they went to sleep. . .

  "I really don't need anything," I told the trio in a f lat voice.

  "Thanks, anyway. I was just leaving. " Caleb pouted. Zeke glared at Ruth, and she f lushed, backing away. "It's up to you, Allison," Zeke said, glancing at me again. "But it's not any trouble, really. We're sort of used to picking up strays, isn't that right, rug rat?" He tousled the kid's hair, making Caleb giggle, before looking seriously back at me. "You're welcome to join us, at least for tonight. Jeb doesn't turn away anyone in need. In fact, if you want," he continued, cocking his head in a thoughtful manner, "you can even travel with us for a little while. We seem to be going the same direction. You'll have to get used to our weird hours, though. We sleep during the day and head out at night. "

  I blinked, hardly believing my ears. "You travel at night? " I asked, just to confirm it, and he nodded. "Why?" A shadow crossed Zeke's face, and Ruth paled, glancing at Caleb. Both of them got very quiet for a moment. "That's. . . a long story," Zeke muttered, sounding uncomfortable, or sad.

  "Ask me again later. " He jerked his head toward the child clinging to his leg, indicating: ask me when Caleb isn't around to hear it.

  Definitely a story there. The grim look on his face spoke louder than words and made me curious. I wonder what happened to them? What was so terrible that he doesn't want Caleb to hear?

  "So," Zeke continued as Ruth scowled, "the offer still stands, Allison. Are you coming or not?" I shouldn't. I should just turn around and walk away without looking back. According to Zeke, there were at least a dozen humans wandering around, smelling like prey and blood, blissfully ignorant of the vampire lurking so close to their little community. If I accepted his offer, how long before they realized I wasn't human, especially with Ruth hovering like a suspicious vulture, waiting to expose me? And how long could I possibly go without wanting to eat them?

  But then, if I stayed away from humans, isolating and starving myself, I'd eventually lose control again. And then I would kill someone. Maybe a child, like the boy on Zeke's leg. What if I had found him first, instead of those two men? The thought made me sick. I couldn't do that again. I couldn't.

  Maybe. . . maybe if I took just a little blood at a time, I could keep the demon bottled up. There had to be a way. No one could find out, of course, and I'd have to be really, really careful, but that seemed a better plan than stalking them through the darkness, waiting for the Hunger to overcome me again.

  "Please, Allie?" Caleb looked at me with large, pleading eyes as I still hesitated. "Please come with us? Pleeeaaase?"

  "You heard him. " Zeke smiled, handsome and charming in the moonlight. "You have to come now, or you'll make him cry. "

  Ruth pressed her lips together, glaring at me with darkest hate, but she was no longer important. I sighed, both because I felt like it and to give the impression that I still breathed.

  "All right," I said, shrugging. "You win. Lead the way. " Caleb grinned, skipped up to me, and took my hand. Ruth made a disgusted noise and stalked away into the shadows, muttering to herself. Shaking his head, Zeke gave me an apologetic glance and motioned us forward.

  As I followed them, my fingers clutched firmly in the child's grip, I couldn't help but feel uneasy. This was probably an insanely bad idea, but I couldn't stop now. The cards had been dealt, and I was going to have to bluff my way through.

  Besides, I didn't want to admit it, but I missed talking to someone. Those long, silent nights in the wilderness made me realize how much of a social creature I really was. Talking to Zeke was easy, and I wasn't quite ready to be alone again.

  Even though, just a few minutes into our trek, he started to ask the hard questions.

  "So, Allison," Zeke said quietly, as we picked our way over a stretch littered with nails, boards and shards of glass, sparkling in the moonlight. Caleb was in his arms, clinging tightly to his neck as he maneuvered through the debris, and Ruth lagged a few steps behind, her glare burning into my back. "How long did you live in a vampire city?"

  "All my life," I muttered. "I was born there. "

  "What was it like?"

  "What do you mean, what was it like?"

  "I mean, I've never been to one," Zeke answered, shifting Caleb to his other side, shaking out his arm. "I've never seen the inside of a vampire city-I've just heard the stories and rumors. And of course, no two are the same, you know?"

  "Not really. " I looked away, wondering how I could get him off the subject. "What have you heard? What kind of stories?"

  He gave me a crooked grin. "I could tell you, but I think it would be too scary for certain little ears. " He used his free hand to point at Caleb, who seemed blissfully unaware. "Let's just say a few of them involve giant freezers and hooks on the ceiling. "

  I wrinkled my nose. "It's not like that," I said, giving in.

  "Basically it's a big city with lots of old buildings, vampires and poor people. There's a big wall that keeps rabids out, and a wall surrounding the Inner City, where the vampires live, and in between there are the humans. Or, at least, the ones that haven't been Taken into the Inner City to work for the vamps. " I paused to kick a broken bottle, which went clinking over the pavement into the weeds. "Nothing special about it. "

  "Have you ever seen a vampire?"

  I winced. That was another question I didn't want to answer. "They really didn't leave the Inner City very often," I said evasively. "Why, have you?"

  "I've never seen one," Zeke admitted. "Rabids, yeah, I've seen a ton of those. But never a real vampire. Jeb has, though.

  He says they're vicious, soulless demons that can tear a man in half and punch through steel walls. If you ever meet a real vampire, the only thing you can do is pray and hope it doesn't notice you. "

  My apprehension grew. "You keep talking about this Jeb person," I said, not liking the sound of him at all. "Is he like your leader or something?"

  "My father," Zeke replied.

  "Oh.

  Sorry. "

  "Not my real one. " Zeke smiled, easing my embarrassment.

  "He died when I was three. My mom, too. Killed by rabids. " He shrugged, as if telling me it was a long time ago and that I didn't need to act sympathetic. "Jeb adopted me. But, yeah, I guess he is our leader. He was the minister of our church, anyway, before we all decided to leave to find Eden. "

  "Say

  what? "

  I nearly tripped over a broken crate. For a second, I didn't think I'd heard him right. Did he just say they were looking for Eden? I wasn't religious at all, but even I knew what Eden was. What it was supposed to be.

  I stared at the boy walking casually at my side, wondering if delusions could strike someone so young and handsome.

  Zeke rolled his eyes.

  "Yeah, I know. " He gave me a sideways look, cocking an eyebrow. "It sounds insane. Crazy fanatics off looking for the Promised Land-I've heard it all before. No need to rub it in. "

  "It's none of your business, anyway," Ruth added sharply.

  "We don't need you to tell us how stupid it sounds. "

  "I wasn't going to say anything," I said, though that's exactly what I'd been thinking.

  "But we're not looking for the biblical place," Zeke continued, as if I hadn't said anything. "Eden is a city. A huge city.

  One with the technology of the old days, before the plague.

  And it's run completely by humans. There are no vampires in Eden. "

  I stopped to face him. "You're joking. " He shook his head. "No. According to rumor, Eden lies somewhere on a huge island, surrounded by an enormous lake. The lake is so big and vast, no rabids would dare cross it, and the vampires don't know it exists. "

  "A magical island with no rabids or vampires. " I curled my lip in disdain. "Sounds like a fairy tale to me.
" I heard the bitterness in my voice, though I wasn't sure where it came from. Perhaps it was because the news that a city completely made up of humans, with no vampire inf luence and no threat of rabids, had come just a little too late for me. If I had heard this rumor earlier, when I was still alive, I might've gone looking for it, too. Or. . . maybe not. Maybe I would've laughed it off as a wild fantasy and continued life as I knew it. But at least I would've heard about it. I'd want the chance to know, to decide for myself. Eden didn't do me any good now.

  Behind us, Ruth gave a disgusted snort. "If you don't believe him, leave," she challenged, stepping beside Zeke to glare at me. "No one is stopping you. " I resisted the urge to snap at her, focusing on Zeke, instead.

  "Is it really out there?" I asked, trying to give the notion of a vampire-free utopia the benefit of the doubt. "You really think you'll find it?"

  Zeke shrugged, unconcerned, as if he'd heard it all before.

  "Who knows?" he said. "Maybe it doesn't exist, after all. Or maybe it's out there somewhere and we'll never find it. But that's what we're looking for. "

  "We'll find it," Caleb chimed in, nodding seriously. "We'll find it soon, Jeb says so. "

  I didn't want to crush his expectations, so I didn't say anything to that. A few minutes later, we walked past a rusting iron gate into the courtyard of a small apartment complex.

  Another human, a few years older than me, black-haired and lean like a wolf, stood guard near the entrance. He nodded and smiled at Zeke, but his eyes widened when he saw me.

  "Zeke! You found him. But. . . who's this?"

  "Another stray, wandering in the wilderness," Zeke replied with a wry grin at me. "Allison, this is Darren, our other stray.

  You two will have a lot to talk about. "

  "Ezekiel!"

  Everyone straightened. We all turned as another human came striding up, dressed in black, his entire frame locked into a sense of determined purpose. Everything about him seemed sharp and hard, from the pinched, angled face to the bony shoulders, to the jagged white scar running from temple to chin. His long hair might've been jet-black once, but it was now the color of steel, tied behind him in a neat tail.

  His eyes, the same color as his hair, took stock of us all in a glance, before turning to Zeke.

  "You found him, then. " The clipped voice fit the man. It wasn't a question.

  "Yes, sir. Actually-" and Zeke nodded to me "-she found him. I was hoping we could. . . let her stay with us for a while. " Those sharp gray eyes raked over me, missing very little.

  "Another stray?" he asked. "You've spoken to her then, Ezekiel?"

  "Yes,

  sir. "

  "And does she know our situation? What we are searching for?"

  "I've told her, yes. "

  I expected Ruth to pipe up, voicing her suspicions to what was obviously the leader of the group. But Ruth was quiet and still as she stood beside Darren, staring at the ground.

  Caleb, too, clung to her hand and remained silent. Only Zeke seemed truly at ease, though he stood straight and tall with his hands clasped behind him, like a soldier awaiting orders.

  What have you gotten yourself into, Allison?

  The human continued to observe me, betraying no emotion. "Your name?" he asked, like a pet barking orders to his underlings. I swallowed a growl and met his piercing stare head-on.

  "Allison," I replied, giving him a smirk. "And you must be Jeb. "

  "I am Jebbadiah Crosse," the man continued with a slightly offended air. "And Ezekiel knows I turn away none in need, so you are welcome here. However, if you choose to stay, there are rules everyone must follow. We travel at night, and we move fast. Those who fall behind will be left. Everyone contributes-there are no free meals here, so you will be expected to work: hunting, gathering, cooking if there is need.

  Thievery of any sort will not be tolerated. If you think you can follow these rules, then you are welcome to stay. "

  "Can I now?" I said as sarcastically as I could. "Thanks so much. " I couldn't help it. Throwing rules in my face, expecting me to follow just because someone said so, never sat well with me. Ruth and Darren blinked at me, shocked, but Jebbadiah didn't so much as twitch an eyebrow.

  "Ezekiel is my second-any problems you have, you take up with him," he continued and turned to Zeke, giving him a curt nod. "Good work finding the boy, son. "

  "Thank you, sir. "

  A very faint, proud smile crossed Jebbadiah's lips before he turned sharply to Ruth, who cringed under his stare. "I expect you to keep a better eye on young Caleb in the future," he said. "Such carelessness is unforgivable. Had Ezekiel not found him tonight, he would've been left behind. Do you understand?" Ruth's lower lip trembled, and she nodded.

  "Good. " Jeb stepped back, nodded at me, his steely eyes unreadable. "Welcome to the family, Allison," he stated and strode away, hands clasped behind him. I was tempted to make a face at his retreating back, but Zeke was watching me, so I resisted.

  Darren slapped Zeke on the shoulder and returned to his post. Caleb beamed at us, but Ruth took his hand and dragged him off. I shot Zeke a sideways look, raising an eyebrow.

  "Ezekiel?"

  He winced. "Yeah. It's the name of an archangel, but only Jeb calls me that anymore. " Raking a hand through his hair, he turned away. "Come on, I'll introduce you to everyone. " Not long after, I met nearly everyone in the small congregation, though I forgot most of their names as soon as I heard them. Of the dozen or so skinny, half-starved people, about half were adults; the rest were kids my age and younger. I suspected, from the amount of children running around with no parents, that the group had been larger once. I wondered how long they had been wandering, following a fanatical old man, looking for some mythical city that probably didn't exist.

  I wondered how many hadn't made it this far.

  Initially, the adults were cool toward me; I was a stranger, new and untried, and yet another mouth to feed. It was the same back in the Fringe. But after Zeke told my story, with even more hatred and anger for the vampires than I had first embellished, they regarded me with newfound sympathy, awe and respect. I was relieved; in one fell swoop, I had won over this group of strangers without having to say or prove anything at all. Well, actually, it was Zeke who did the win-ning, but I wasn't going to complain. Staying with these people would be hard enough without immediate suspicion and distrust.

  "All right, listen up, everyone!" Zeke called after introductions were made. "Dawn is about two hours away, and it's too late to continue on tonight. So we're setting up camp here. Now, listen, I need the first and second watch doubled until sunrise. Darren and I didn't see any rabids in the area, but I don't want to take chances. Allison. . . " He turned in my direction, surprising me. "Did you see any rabids when you first came in?"

  "No," I replied, thrilled at what he was doing. Including me, making me a part of the group. "The road was clear. "

  "Good. " Zeke turned back to the others. "Most of the apartment rooms are fairly clear and have concrete f loors, so we'll be safe there. Everyone get some rest while they can.

  Jeb wants an early start tomorrow night. " The group broke into organized chaos, moving slowly into the apartment complex. I stood beside Zeke, watching them, and caught several curious glances, especially from the kids and young people. Ruth glared daggers as she led Caleb into the apartment ruins, and I smiled back nastily.

  "Ezekiel. " Jeb appeared again, coming from nowhere to stand before us.

  "Sir. "

  Jeb put a hand on his shoulder. "I want you to take first watch tonight with the others. At least until dawn. It's not that I don't trust Jake and Darren, but I want someone more experienced in a town like this. Make sure the demons don't creep up on us in our sleep. "

  "Yes,

  sir. "

  Jeb's gaze shifted to me and back again. "Take Allison with you. Tell her how things are done here. She can start contributi
ng to the group today. "

  Oh, great. I hope they don't expect me to take watch in the daylight hours. How am I going to get out of this?

  Jeb suddenly looked right at me, and something in those f linty eyes made me want to back away, snarling. "You don't mind, do you girl?"

  "Not at all," I replied, staring him down, "if you ask me nicely. "

  Jeb's eyebrow twitched. "Ezekiel, will you excuse us a moment?" he asked in his not-really-a-question voice. Zeke gave me a helpless look but immediately nodded and left, walking back toward the gate.

  I raised my chin and faced Jebbadiah Crosse, defiant smirk firmly in place. If this crazy old man wanted to lecture me, he was in for a surprise. I wasn't afraid of him, I wasn't part of his f lock, and I was more than ready to tell him what he could do with his lecture.

  Jeb regarded me with no expression. "Do you believe in God, Allison?"

  "No," I said immediately. "Is this the part where you tell me I'm going to hell?"

  "This is hell," Jebbadiah said, gesturing to the town around us. "This is our punishment, our Tribulation. God has abandoned this world. The faithful have already gone on to their reward, and he has left the rest of us here, at the mercy of the demons and the devils. The sins of our fathers have passed on to their children, and their children's children, and it will continue to be so until this world is completely destroyed. So it doesn't matter if you believe in God or not, because He is not here. "

  I blinked at him, speechless. "That's. . . "

  "Not what you were expecting?" Jeb gave a bitter smile. "It is useless to offer words of hope when you have none yourself. And I have seen things in this world to make me certain that God is no longer watching us. I am not here to preach His message or to convert the entire world-it is far too late for that.

  "However," he continued, giving me a hard stare, "these people expect me to lead them to our destination. I expect Ezekiel has already told you about Eden. Know this-I will allow nothing- nothing-to keep us from our goal. I will do whatever it takes to reach it, even if it means leaving a few behind. Those who cannot contribute, or those who cause problems, will be cast out. I give you this warning now. Make of it what you will. "

  "You're still hoping to reach your Promised Land even though you don't believe in it?"

  "Eden is real," Jeb said with utter confidence. "It is a city, nothing more. I have no illusions of a Promised Land or Paradise. But there is a human city, one with no vampires, and that is enough to keep us searching.

  "I cannot offer them God," Jebbadiah continued, looking back toward the apartments. "I wish I could, but He is far from our reach. But I can give them hope of something better than this. " His expression hardened. "And perhaps, when we reach Eden, I can offer something more. " Once again, his gaze f licked to me, becoming sharp and cold. "This world is full of evil," he said, peering at me as if he was trying to see inside my head. "God has abandoned it, but that does not mean we should submit to the devils who rule it now. I know not what waits beyond this hell. Perhaps this is a test. Perhaps someday, we will cast the devils out for good. But first, we have to reach Eden. Nothing matters but that. "

  He might not be a true religious fanatic, but he was still scary, with that determined, obsessive gleam in his eyes.

  "Well, you can relax," I told him. "If you want to look for Eden, by all means, go right ahead. I'm not about to stop you. "

  "No, you will not. " Jebbadiah stepped back as if that was the end of it. "Go to Ezekiel," he said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. "Tell him to find you a tent and a backpack-we have a few left over from those who have passed on. And be ready to move out as soon as the sun sets. We have a lot of ground to cover. "

  As soon as he was gone, I seriously considered leaving.

  Walking away from this insane cult with its fanatic leader who already had it in for me. How was I going to feed with ol' Crazy-eyes watching my every move? Something told me Jeb wasn't the understanding type. If he ever discovered what I was, I could see torches and angry mobs and stakings in my future.

  For a second, I wondered if I shouldn't just vanish into the night. It was stupid and risky to be around so many humans, anyway. Maybe I should turn into a predator lurking on the fringes of their small society, hunting them through the darkness. But then Zeke came around a corner, a green knapsack over one shoulder, and I felt my convictions disappear.

  "Heads up," Zeke said, tossing the pack at me. "There's a tent and a few supplies," he explained as I caught it, surprised that it was so light. "It's not big, but at least it'll keep the rain off you when we're camping out in the open. You know how to put up a tent, right?"

  "Not

  really. "

  "I can show you," Zeke said, smiling again. "Tomorrow, I promise. But right now, I have first watch until dawn. Come sit with me a few minutes, and then I'll let you sleep-you probably need it after today. "

  As I smiled back and followed him to where he had set up watch, I couldn't help thinking that this boy-this helpful, friendly, genuinely nice human being-was probably going to get me killed.

 
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