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The Immortal Rules, Page 12

Julie Kagawa

Chapter 12

 

  The next evening, I woke up groggy and a bit disoriented. I wasn't in the cool, comforting earth; I'd taken shelter in a top room of the old apartment complex the previous night, well away from the group below. I'd had to climb a few f lights of broken stairs, and I'd spent the daylight hours in a windowless hole of a room, lying on hard concrete, but it was necessary.

  I didn't want anyone tripping over my body in the daytime and realizing I slept like the dead.

  Dropping back to the ground f loor, I found most of the group just beginning to stir, as well. In the middle of the room, Ruth and an older woman with graying hair were starting to lay out food, opening cans of fruit and pouring them into metal bowls and cups. They seemed efficient as they opened a can, poured half the contents into a bowl, and handed it to a waiting child. Caleb, after receiving his share, trotted away with cup in hand, picking out yellow slices with his fingers. He stopped short when he saw me.

  "Hi, Allie. " Beaming, he held up his cup. "Look at what Zeke and Darren found yesterday! It's sweet. Are you going to get some?"

  "Um. " I glanced at the women and found Ruth glaring at me again. What the hell was the girl's problem? "Not now.

  I'm not really that hungry. "

  His eyes widened, as if he couldn't believe what I had just said. "Really? But, we hardly ever get food like this! You should try it, at least a little bit. " I smiled wistfully, remembering when I had taken such pleasure in a can of fruit. I wished I could've tried some, but Kanin had warned me that normal food would make me sick, and my body would expel it almost immediately. Meaning I would hurl it back up, something I did not want to do in front of a group of strangers.

  "Here. " Caleb held up a dripping yellow slice, and abruptly, the sweet, cloying smell made me slightly nauseated. "Have one of mine. "

  "Maybe later. " I shifted uneasily and took a step back, feeling Ruth's never-ending glare at the base of my skull. "Have you seen Zeke?"

  "He's always with Jeb when we first wake up. " Caleb stuffed the whole slice into his mouth, then gave me a yellow-orange smile. "We usually don't see him until after breakfast. "

  "Here, dearie. " An older woman stepped in front of me, holding out a bowl. It was half full of slimy, colorful fruit chunks, and my stomach recoiled at the sight of it. "We never got to thank you for finding Caleb last night. I know you must be hungry-go ahead and eat. We won't tell the others you skipped your place in line. "

  I stif led a sigh and took the bowl. "Thank you," I told her, and she smiled.

  "You're one of us now," she said and hobbled back to the others, favoring her left leg. I tried to remember her name and failed.

  Taking the bowl with me, I walked outside, looking for Zeke.

  I found him talking to Darren near the broken gate, discussing plans for the night. Physically, Darren and Zeke were similar, all lean muscle and wiry strength, though Darren was dark where Zeke was pale and fair. Between them, the pair probably did most of the harder physical tasks, since the majority of the group were women, kids and old people. There was a middle-aged black man-Jake, I think his name was-who helped out as well, but he had a bad shoulder so the harder tasks fell to the two boys.

  "I think we should spend some more time scavenging, too," Zeke was saying as I came up, "but Jeb wants everyone to move out as soon as they've finished eating. He already thinks we've wasted too much time here. You want to argue, you take it up with him. Oh, hey, Allison. " He nodded pleasantly, and Darren scowled at me and walked off. I jerked my thumb at his back.

  "What's with him?"

  "Darren?" Zeke shrugged. "He's just being sulky, don't worry about it. He thinks we should wait another night before moving on, search the rest of the town for food and supplies.

  We got lucky yesterday. Found a mini-mart that hadn't been picked clean, and Dare thinks there could be more nearby. "

  He sighed and shook his head. "He has a point. Unfortunately, once Jeb says it's time to go, it's time to go. "

  "That's insane. Here. " I handed him the bowl. He blinked in surprise but took it with a murmur of thanks. "He won't even stop for food? What's the hurry?"

  "He's always been like that," Zeke replied with a careless shrug, and picked out a chunk of white fruit, tossing it back.

  "Hey, don't look at me. I don't make the rules. I just carry them out. But Jeb has our best interests at heart, always, so don't worry about it. Speaking of which, did you get anything to eat? We're not going to stop for several hours, and you should have something for the march. "

  "I'm good," I told him, avoiding his eyes. "I already ate. "

  "Ezekiel!" called a familiar voice. Jeb walked out of the apartments and motioned to him. "Are we almost ready?"

  "Yes, sir!" Zeke called back and headed in his direction.

  But he stopped and gave the bowl to the elderly man sitting on the fountain ruins before continuing toward Jeb. "Everyone is packing up. As soon as we're all finished eating, we're ready to go. "

  They walked off, still discussing. I turned and came face-to-face with Ruth.

  The other girl held my gaze. We were about the same height, so I could see right into her dark brown eyes. Oh, man, she didn't just dislike me, she loathed me. Which was pretty ungrateful, I thought. Especially since I had saved her darling little brother. Especially since I had no idea why she hated me so much.

  "Can I help you?" I asked, arching an eyebrow at her.

  She f lushed. "I know who you are," she huffed, making my stomach lurch. "I know why you're here, why you're hanging around. "

  Narrowing my eyes, I regarded her intently, wondering if she knew what a dangerous position she was in. "Is that so?"

  "Yes. And I'm here to tell you to forget it. Zeke isn't interested. "

  Ah,

  now it all made sense. I almost laughed in her face.

  "Look, you don't have to worry," I said, trying to be reasonable. "I'm not interested that way, either. "

  "Good," she said, watching me intently. "'Cause there's something about you that isn't. . . right. " My amusement vanished. My senses prickled a warning, and the vampire within urged me to attack, to silence her before she became a problem. I shut it down, hard. "Aren't you taking this 'don't talk to strangers' thing a little far?" I asked.

  Ruth's lips tightened. "You're hiding something," she said, taking a step back. "I don't know what it is, and I don't care, but Zeke is too good to be ruined by someone like you. He has the unfortunate habit of seeing the good in everyone, and he's too nice to realize he's being taken advantage of. So I'm warning you now, keep your dirty claws away from him. I'll make you sorry you ever came here if you don't. " Before I could respond, she f lounced off, dark curls bouncing. "And stay away from Caleb, too," she called back over her shoulder.

  "Charming," I muttered under my breath and felt my fangs poking my gums. "Well, we know who's going to get bitten first now, don't we?"

  Not long after that, fed, packed up and ready to march, the small group of eleven people gathered around the fountain, talking quietly with each other and shooting curious glances at me, hanging back in the shadows. Then, as if prodded by an invisible signal, we started moving out; three teens, five adults, three children and a vampire, weaving silently through town and onto the road. They walked quickly-even the kids and the two elderly people moved with a sense of purpose-

  and soon the town faded behind us.

  "So, Allison, was it? You came from a vampire city. Did you see many of the soulless devils wandering about?" I repressed a sigh. That was the question of the night, it seemed. I'd already been asked something similar by Teresa, the old woman with the bad leg; Matthew, a freckly ten-year-old; and Ruth, who inquired with a perfectly straight face if I had been a vampire's whore. Of course, then Caleb had to ask what a whore was, and Ruth gave him a very vague and watered-down explanation, all the while smiling at me over his head. If Zeke and Jeb hadn't b
een nearby, out of earshot of course, I might've punched the smug bitch in the nose.

  This time, the question came from Dorothy, a middle-aged blond woman with vacant green eyes and a smile to match.

  She would often wander a little behind the rest of the group, staring down the road or toward the horizon, always smiling.

  Sometimes she waved to things in the distance-things that were never there. Other times she would randomly break into song, belting out "Amazing Grace" or "On a Hill Far Away" at the top of her lungs until someone told her, very nicely, to shush.

  I suspected she was a few bricks short of a full load. But there were also times where she seemed perfectly coherent and normal. Times like now, unfortunately, when she was sane enough to ask questions I really didn't want to answer.

  "No," I muttered, keeping my gaze on the road ahead.

  Don't make eye contact with the crazy woman; don't look at her and maybe she'll go away. "I didn't see many vampires 'wandering about. ' I didn't see many vampires, period. "

  "How do you know?" Dorothy asked, and I gave her a suspicious look, forgetting not to make eye contact. She smiled emptily. "Vampire devils are masters of disguise," she went on, to my extreme discomfort. "People think they're slaver-ing monsters with red eyes and fangs, but that's what they want you to think. Really, they can look like anyone else. " Her voice dropped to a whisper. "That's what makes them so dangerous. They can look perfectly human. They can look just like Teresa. Or me. Or you. "

  I felt a f lutter of panic and squashed it down. "I don't know, then," I told her with a shrug. "I saw lots of people in the city.

  Maybe they were all vampires-I couldn't tell. "

  "Oh, there are other ways to tell if a person is really a devil," Dorothy continued, nodding seriously. "Devils hate the sun. They burst into f lame in the light. Devils can't resist the sight of blood, and they don't breathe like we do. But most important. . . " She leaned in, and I felt my fangs pressing through my gums, wanting to bite, to silence her. "Most important," she whispered, "devils are surrounded by this red glow, this aura of evil that only a few can see. You have to know what to look for, and it's difficult to see at a distance, but that is how you can tell a devil from a real person. Just like the white glow around the angels that walk down the road sometimes. " She broke off, smiling dreamily at the horizon, where the pavement met the sky. "Oh, there's one now! Can you see him? He's walking away from us, so it might be hard to tell. "

  There was no one on the road. There was nothing ahead of us at all, except a large brown bird, perched on a fence post.

  I gave her a wary look and edged away, as she waved both arms in the air, making the bird f ly off with a startled whoo-whooing sound.

  "Is that Gabriel? Or Uriel?" She signaled frantically, then pouted. "Oh, he disappeared! They're so shy. It might've been Gabriel, though. "

  "Dorothy. " Zeke was suddenly there, smiling as I shot him a desperate look over the crazy woman's shoulder. "Allison doesn't know us very well yet. She might be nervous around your angels-not everyone can see them as well as you. "

  "Oh, right! Sorry, love. " Dorothy squeezed his shoulder, beaming crazily, but he only grinned back. "I forget sometimes. You're an angel yourself, you know that? Ezekiel. The angel of death. "

  Now Zeke looked faintly embarrassed, giving me an apologetic glance as Dorothy patted his arm and turned to me.

  "He thinks he can fool me," she whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear, "but I know he's an angel in disguise. You can tell. When you've seen as many angels as I have, you can always tell. "

  She tried patting my arm but missed as I slid smoothly away.

  Unconcerned and humming softly to herself, she wandered to the side of the road and peered into the distance, probably looking for her bashful angels. Zeke sighed and shook his head.

  "Sorry about that," he said with a rueful grin. "Forgot to warn you about Dorothy-she's a little touched in the head, if you hadn't figured it out by now. Sees angels every other day. "

  My body uncoiled in relief. For a second, I'd thought I was in real trouble. "Has anyone here seen a real vampire?" I asked, wondering whom I should be wary of. "Forget fangs and claws and red beady eyes, does anyone here really know what they look like?"

  "Well, Dorothy swears she's seen one, though she can't remember exactly when or where, so who knows if it was real. Beyond that. . . " He shrugged. "Jeb. Jebbadiah's whole family was slaughtered by a vampire when he was a kid, and he's never forgotten what it looked like. He says he's always remembered, so he can kill the vampire if they ever meet again. "

  I looked at Jebbadiah, at the head of the group, walking briskly down the road without looking back. And I wondered what a lifetime of anger, resentment and hatred could do to someone like him.

  A few hours later, my internal clock was giving me the two-hour warning when Jeb held up a hand, calling the group to a stop. Zeke jogged up beside him, leaned in as Jeb spoke quietly, then turned to face the rest of us.

  "Set up camp!" he called, sweeping his arm to the side, and the group immediately began shuff ling off the road into the dry grass that surrounded us. "Jake, Silas, you're on first watch. Teresa-" he nodded at the old woman "-Darren will help Ruth with dinner tonight. You should rest your leg.

  Keep off it for a few hours at least. " Darren muttered some-thing as he passed, and Zeke rolled his eyes. "Yes, poor Darren, forced to cook and clean and do other unmanly things.

  Next thing you know he'll be wearing an apron and popping out babies. " He snorted as Darren turned and did something with his hand. "We're friends, but we're not that close, Dare. " I hung back, watching as Zeke cleared away a patch of earth, built a tent of sticks over a bundle of dry grass, and started a fire. Quick. Efficient. Like he'd done this many times before. As I was wondering how long the group had been traveling, Ruth suddenly broke away from her tent and glanced up at me, raising an eyebrow.

  "What's the matter, city girl?" she called, smiling sweetly.

  "Don't know how to set up a tent? A three-year-old could do it. Want Caleb to teach you how?"

  I stif led the urge to strangle her, especially with Zeke nearby. "No, I'm fine, thanks. " Hefting the bag on my shoulder, I marched past her, past the circle of tents around the campfire, to a spot about a hundred yards away. Dumping the tent onto the ground, I studied it fiercely.

  All right. I can do this. How hard can it be, really? Kneeling, I picked up a long metal spike, frowning. What in the world?

  Are you supposed to stab someone with these? Do tents come with vampire-slaying kits?

  Actually, it was fairly simple, once you figured it out. The metal stakes pinned the corners to the ground, and a couple plastic rods held it upright from inside. I was feeling fairly proud of myself, setting up a tent on the first try, when I fumbled with the rods and the whole thing collapsed on top of me.

  Laughing, Zeke slipped into the small interior as I cursed and struggled, shoving at the canvas. Grabbing the plastic frame, he maneuvered it into place with the ease of familiarity, snapping the tent upright.

  "There," he said, still chuckling. "That should do it. You got one of the f limsy tents, sadly. Not bad, though, getting it up on your first try. You should've seen Ruth the first few times she tried setting hers up. I've never heard such language coming from our delicate f lower. "

  I smirked, feeling vindicated. "It doesn't seem very sturdy," I admitted, gently shaking the plastic tube holding up the wall. Zeke chuckled again. He had a nice laugh, I decided, even if it was directed at me.

  "Just don't hit the frame, and it'll be fine. Unless it's really windy outside. Or if someone accidentally bumps it. Or if an ant crawls on it. " Zeke grinned. "Actually we're all used to the tents falling on top of us. Most of us don't even wake up when it happens. "

  I snorted. "So, if a big storm comes through-"

  "At least you'll be dry as you go rolling across the plains.
" I laughed. It felt strange; I hadn't done that in a while. Then I realized how close we were, huddled together beneath this tiny dome of canvas. I could see the details of his face, even in the darkness: the lines around his mouth and eyes, the faint scar on his forehead, nearly hidden by his pale hair. I could hear his heartbeat, sense the blood pulsing in his veins, right below the skin. For a moment, I wondered what Zeke tasted of, how it would feel to draw him close and sink into that oblivion.

  It scared me, and I drew back. If I had been the slightest bit hungry. . .

  Zeke blushed, raking his fingers through his hair, and I realized I'd been staring. "I should go," he muttered, backing out of the tent. "The others. . . I should probably help them. " He pushed himself to a crouch at the entrance, balanced on the balls of his feet. "If you need anything, just let me know.

  Dinner should be ready soon. Oh, yeah. And this is for you. " Reaching off to the side, Zeke grabbed something and tossed it into the tent. It landed with a poof of dust: a thick blue-and-white quilt with only a tiny hole in one corner.

  Stunned, I looked up at him. A blanket like this could be traded for a month of meal tickets back in the Fringe, and he was just giving it to me? That couldn't be right. "I. . . I can't take this," I muttered, holding it back to him. "I don't have anything to trade. "

  "Don't be silly. " Zeke smiled, a little puzzled. "You don't have to give me anything for it. It's yours. " Someone shouted to him across the camp, and he raised his head. "Be right there!" he called back, and nodded to me. "Gotta go. See you at dinner. "

  "Zeke," I called softly, and he paused, peeking back into the tent. "Thanks. "

  One corner of his mouth quirked up. "Don't worry about it. We look out for each other out here. " He f licked the canvas wall, lightly. "And like I said, if the tent falls on you in the middle of the night, don't panic. You'll get used to it. No one really worries about keeping things erect around here, and. . .

  Wow, that sounded bad. " His blush returned, brighter than before, and he raked a hand through his hair. "Uh. . . yeah, I should. . . I'm going to leave now. "

  Grimacing, he ducked out of sight. I waited until he was a good distance away before snickering into my quilt.

  After zipping up the tent f laps, I looked around my newest lair. I didn't like how f limsy it was, how easily someone could invade. I also wondered if the thin canvas would completely block out the sun when it rose directly overhead. I didn't know if I would wake up if I suddenly burst into f lames, or if I would quietly exit the world as my body burned to ash, but it wasn't something that I wanted to find out.

  I took out my knife and made a long slit in the f loor of the tent, revealing the grassy earth beneath. Now at least I had a quick escape if the sun penetrated my f limsy tent. Or if something unforeseen happened and I needed to get away quickly. Always leave yourself an out; that was the first rule of the Fringe. This group might seem friendly and unassuming, but you couldn't be too careful. Especially around people like Jebbadiah Crosse. And Ruth.

  Lying back, I pulled the quilt over my head, hoping no one would disturb my sleep. As darkness closed over me and my thoughts turned slow and sluggish, I realized two things.

  One, I couldn't keep this up forever, and two, Ezekiel Crosse was far too perfect to survive in this world much longer.

  That first week was a study in close calls.

  Thankfully, I didn't burst into f lames sleeping beneath the f limsy canvas tent, though I did wake up feeling uncomfortably warm, and wished I could simply burrow into the cool earth, away from the sun. As for the problem of guard duty, I spoke to Zeke the second night and convinced him to let me have first watch permanently. This meant staying awake a couple hours after dawn, and it was torture at first. My long coat protected me from the worst of the early morning rays, and I survived by staying in shaded areas whenever possible and never facing the direction the sun was coming up. But keeping myself awake was agonizing when my vampire instincts were screaming at me to sleep, to get out of the light.

  I finally started treating it as an exercise Kanin might have me do; building up my endurance to remain awake and active as long as I could.

  My human companions were another issue. Except for Ruth, who continued to be a catty pain in the ass, shooting me poisonous looks if I so much as glanced at Zeke, and Jeb, who treated me with the same harsh aloofness as he did everyone else, the group was pretty friendly. Which I wouldn't have minded, except they were also a curious bunch, always asking me questions about the city, what it was like living there, how I had escaped. I answered as vaguely as I could and finally managed to convince the adults that it was just too painful to remember that life anymore. To my relief, the questions finally stopped, and everyone was very understanding, almost to the point of pity. That was fine with me. Let them think I'd been horribly scarred by my life in New Covington; it made it easier to hide the real reason I got uneasy whenever the word vampire came up.

  Unfortunately, that wasn't the only problem I ran into.

  Eating or, rather, the absence of it, was yet another diffi-culty. The group stopped twice for meals; once when everyone woke up and again near dawn when they set up camp.

  Rations were simple: half a can of beans or a few strips of dried meat, whatever they had scavenged or hunted or gathered.

  Mealtime was easily the most anticipated part of the day, and after a night of forced marching without a break, everyone was starving.

  Except me. And I had to get creative with ways to dump food without anyone noticing. Strips of meat or dried foods were easy; I hid them in my sleeves or pockets until I could toss them later. Canned beans, fruit and stew in bowls were a little trickier. When I could, I gave it away or dumped it into other people's bowls, though I could only do that so many times before people got suspicious. Sometimes I lied, saying I'd already had my share, and once I even ate a few spoonfuls of tomato soup in front of Zeke and Jeb, managing to keep it down long enough to walk calmly behind a tree and puke it back up.

  I felt a little guilty, wasting food when it was so precious and scarce. And the Fringer street rat in me cringed whenever I threw perfectly good meat into the bushes or dumped half a can of corn down a dark hole, but what could I do? If I didn't keep up the appearance of being human, people would start to suspect. Like Ruth, who already had it in for me. I could hear her, sometimes, talking about me to the rest of the group, spreading suspicion and fear. Most of the adults-Teresa and Silas and Dorothy-paid little attention to her; they had bigger concerns than the jealous accusations of a teenage girl. But some of the others-Matthew, Bethany, even Jake-started eyeing me with distrust. As infuriating as it was, I couldn't do anything about it.

  Despite that, it was Jeb who worried me most, the silent judge, whose sharp gray eyes missed nothing. But even though he was the leader, he seemed apart from the rest of the group, separate. He rarely spoke to anyone, and everyone seemed afraid to approach him. In a way, it was a good thing he was so detached from the rest of us; he didn't seem to care what anyone did or said as long as they followed his lead. If it wasn't for Zeke, relaying his orders back and forth, he wouldn't interact with the group at all.

  In fact, I would've bet that I knew more about the group than he did. I knew Caleb loved sweets and Ruth was terrified of snakes-something I took great pleasure in when I found a garter snake on the road one night and snuck it into her tent. The memory of her screams made me snicker the rest of the evening. I knew Teresa, the old woman with the bad leg, and Silas, her husband, had been married thirty-nine years and were getting ready to celebrate their anniversary next fall. I knew Jake had lost his wife to a rabid attack three years prior and hadn't spoken a word since. These facts and memories and snippets of their lives trickled in and stayed with me, even though I did my best to remain aloof. I didn't want to know about their pasts, their lives, anything about them. Because with every passing day, I knew I was going to have to pick one of them to feed
from, and how could I do that when I knew Dorothy fainted at the sight of blood, and eight-year-old Bethany had nearly died one winter when a fox bit her?

  But it was Zeke who continued to fascinate and confuse me. It was clear that everyone adored him; despite being Jebbadiah's second, he was always helping, always making sure people were taken care of. Yet he never asked for anything, never expected any help in return. He was respectful of the adults and patient with the kids, making me wonder how he and Jeb could be so different. Or maybe, Jeb could be that way because of Zeke. That hardly seemed fair, to dump so much responsibility on Zeke's shoulders, because Jeb himself didn't want to get involved, but who was I to say anything?

  One night, when we made camp a bit earlier than usual, I wandered toward the campfire and was shocked to find Zeke sitting near the f lames, reading to Bethany and Caleb. Stunned, I crept closer, hardly able to believe it. But he was reading, his low, smooth voice reciting passages from the large black book in his lap, the two kids perched on either side.

  "'Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,'" Zeke said quietly, scanning the pages before him, "'and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were f leeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water f lowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen-the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived. '

  "'But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in Him and in Moses, His servant. '"

  A bitter lump caught in my throat. For just a moment, I saw myself and Stick, huddled together in the cold shell of my room, an open book between us. Zeke didn't look up, didn't notice me, but I listened to his calm, quiet voice as he read, watched Caleb and Bethany hang on his every word and felt a strange sense of longing pull at my stomach.

  "Ezekiel!"

  Jebbadiah's voice echoed over the campground, and Zeke raised his head. Seeing the old man waiting for him several yards away, he closed the book and put it in Caleb's arms.

  "Hang on to it for a second," I heard him murmur, ruff ling the boy's hair as he stood. "I'll be right back. " When Zeke left, curiosity drew me closer, wanting to see the book, to hold it in my hands and read the title. Bethany looked up, spotted me, and her eyes got wide. Scrambling to her feet, she ran off after Zeke, leaving Caleb sitting alone by the fire, a vampire looming over him.

  Puzzled, Caleb craned his neck, looking back at me, and smiled. "Hi, Allie!" he said as I moved up beside him. "If you're looking for Zee, he just left. He'll be right back, though. "

  "Can I see that?" I asked, pointing to the leather-bound tome in his arms. Caleb hesitated.

  "It's Zee's book," he said uncertainly, holding it tighter.

  "He told me to watch it for him. "

  "I won't hurt it," I promised, kneeling in the cool grass.

  "Please?"

  He paused a second more, then brightened.

  "Okay, but only if you read me something. "

  "I. . . " A part of me recoiled, remembering all those lessons with Stick, and how he stuck a knife in my back for my trouble. But I was still curious, and if this was the only way to see the book without tearing it out of Caleb's hands. . . "I guess so," I said, and Caleb beamed at me.

  Handing it over, he scooted close and perched beside my leg, listening expectantly. Settling back, I gazed down at the leather-bound tome, the first real book I'd seen since f leeing New Covington. It didn't have a title, just the symbol of a gold cross gleaming in the center of the cover, much like the one Zeke wore around his neck. I held the book on its side and saw the edges of the paper were gilded gold, too.

  "Read something, Allie," Caleb insisted, bouncing next to me. I rolled my eyes and opened the book with a crackling of pages, turning to where a ribbon bookmarked the middle.

  It seemed as good a place to start as any.

  I read slowly, for the letters were tiny and strange, a style I hadn't seen before, "'Again, I looked and saw all the oppres-sion that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed-and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors-and they have no comforter. '" I felt a chill in my stomach. When was this passage written? The tears of the oppressed, and the power of their oppressors, with no comfort on either side. It seemed to be speaking about the entire world, right now. I swallowed hard and continued.

  "'And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both. . . is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. '" I shivered and closed the book. Caleb watched me, a confused frown on his face. "What does that mean?" he asked.

  "That

  that particular passage," said a new voice from above us, "was not meant for certain little ears. " Embarrassed, I stood quickly, facing Zeke, who had walked up with a half amused, half concerned look on his face. "Go get dinner, rug rat," he told Caleb, who grinned and scam-pered off toward Ruth and the crowd that was gathering around her. Zeke looked at me, furrowing his brow, though his expression was more intrigued than upset. "I didn't know you could read," he said in a low voice.

  I shrugged, holding out the book. "Kind of a depressing story," I said, unwilling to reveal how much it spooked me.

  Zeke smiled as he accepted it.

  "Some parts of it are," he agreed. "But there are others that can be quite comforting, if you know where to look. "

  "Like

  where?"

  He paused, then opened the book again, f lipping to a certain spot as if he had them memorized. "This one," he said, handing the book back to me, pointing to a certain line. "My favorite quote. "

  "Zeke!" called another voice, Ruth's this time, echoing shrilly over the campground. "Did you tell Darren he could have your share of the jerky?"

  "What? No!" Zeke whirled around as Darren jogged away, laughing. As Zeke took off after him, Darren shouting he'd better catch up before he ate his share of the meal, I bent to the passage Zeke pointed out.

  "'Yea,'" I muttered, stumbling over the archaic word,

  "'though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. '" A nice thought, I mused, watching the boys chase each other around the campground. But I knew better. Jeb was right; there was no one watching out for us. And the sooner Zeke came to realize that, the longer he would survive this hell.

  The following evening, I crawled out of my tent to find Zeke and Darren crouched near the edge of camp, talking in low voices. Both looked as if they were trying to avoid attention, which of course piqued my curiosity. Brushing dirt from my sleeves, I ambled toward them.

  "I knew this would happen," Darren muttered in a low voice as I approached. "We should've stocked up when we had the chance. Who knows when we'll come to another town?"

  "What's going on?" I asked, squatting beside them. Zeke looked at me and sighed.

  "Supplies are running low," he confessed. "At this rate, we'll run out of food in a couple days, even if we cut back the rations. " He stabbed a hand through his hair, raking it back. "Darren and I are thinking of going hunting, but Jeb doesn't like the group to separate. Not when there's a chance we could run into rabids. Plus, we're using these," he added and held up a bow and a quiver of arrows. "Which makes it even harder. It's almost impossible to sneak up on deer in the open, but dusk is the best time to try to bring one down. " Across from Zeke, Darren gave me a brief, sudden smile. I blinked and returned it. At least the two boys didn't seem to care about a certain person's gossip-mongering, though I'd never heard Ruth talking about me to Zeke or Jebbadiah.

  "Why not use guns?" I asked, reme
mbering Zeke's handgun, and the sawed-off shotgun Jeb carried around. Zeke shook his head.

  "We're pretty low on ammo," he replied. "The only time we use firearms is for defense, or if it's an emergency. And since we're not quite there yet, it's bows and scavenged arrows for hunting. "

  I looked down. There was an extra bow lying on the ground, unstrung and poking out from the square of oiled cloth it was wrapped in. Zeke followed my look and sighed.

  "Jake usually comes with us," he explained. "But lately, his shoulder's been bothering him and he doesn't have the strength to pull the cord back effectively. "

  "I'll come with you. "

  The boys exchanged a look. "I'm a fast learner," I added, ignoring Darren's raised eyebrow. "I'm quiet, and I'm stronger than you think. I'm sure I can get the hang of it. "

  "It's not that," Zeke said hesitantly. "It's just. . . I don't want to get you in trouble with Jeb, make him question his decision to let you stay with us. " He jerked his thumb at the other boy. "Dare just follows me around like a lost puppy, so it's expected of him-" he dodged the dirt clump lobbed at his face "-but you're new and he won't like it if you wander away from the group. It's probably better if you stay here for now. I'm sorry. "

  Annoyed, I frowned at them both, vampire pride sting-ing. If you only knew. I could bring down a full-grown stag before the pair of you realized it was there. But I kept my opinions to myself and shrugged. "If you say so. "

  "Maybe next time, okay?" Darren offered, giving me a wink. "I'll show you how it's done. " I bristled, but Zeke grabbed his bow and pushed himself to his feet.

  "Let's get moving," he said with a stretch. "Jeb won't leave without me-I hope-so this is on my head if he wants to punish anyone. People have to eat, whether he likes it or not.

  Allison," he added as I rose as well, "will you let Jeb know what we're doing?" He grinned at me. "After we're a good distance away, of course. Ready, Dare?"

  "Sure. " Darren sighed, slinging bow and quiver over his shoulder. "Let the exercise in futility begin. " Zeke rolled his eyes and gave the other boy a half hearted shove as he turned away. Darren swung at him in return, overbalanced as the other dodged, and strode after him as Zeke jogged backward, grinning. I watched their lean forms fade into the darkness, getting smaller and smaller, until they vanished over the rolling hills.

  Then I swooped down, grabbed the extra bow and quiver and turned in the other direction.

  "What do you think you're doing?"

  I sighed and looked over to where Ruth stood, two bowls of the night's dinner steaming in her hands, disapproving scowl firmly in place.

  "Sneaking off, are you?" she demanded, narrowing her eyes. "Jeb won't like it. Where are you going?"

  "Why don't you just make something up?" I said, taking a step forward, pleased when she hastily backed up. "That's what you've been doing all this time, right?" She f lushed, and my smile widened. "I notice you don't talk to Zeke or Jeb when you're spreading your lies. Afraid they'll see the forked tongue come out?"

  She looked as if she wanted to slap me, and a part of me hoped she would. I bet she wouldn't be nearly so smug with a missing tooth. For a moment, she struggled to control herself, gripping the bowls of stew so that her delicate knuckles turned white. "I don't know what you're talking about," Ruth said at last, and I snorted. Glancing at the bow in my hand, she sneered at me and raised her chin. "You think you're going to bring something back? What do you know about hunting?

  If you think Zeke will notice your pathetic attempt to show off, you're sadly mistaken. "

  "Yes, shooting a deer so the lot of you won't starve because of the delusional paranoia of a madman is me showing off. " I rolled my eyes. "What a brilliant assumption. Why don't you go tell Jeb that?"

  "Don't be smart," Ruth hissed back, all subtlety gone. "You think you're so special, just because you're from a vampire city. You think I don't see it? How you sleep away from the rest of us? How you try to be so mysterious, not saying anything about where you came from?" She curled a lip in pure, hateful disgust. "You just want attention-ours and Zeke's.

  I can see right through your act. "

  This time I did laugh at her. "Wow, you are a paranoid shrew, aren't you? Does Zeke know what an absolute bitch you can be?" I snickered, and her face f lushed bright crimson.

  "You know, I don't have time for this. Have fun with your theories, spread your poison around as much as you want. I'm going to do something useful now. Maybe you should try it. "

  "You're a freak, do you hear me?" Ruth called as I turned my back on her. "You're hiding something, and I'm going to find out what!"

  I tried not to let her get to me as I jogged away from the camp, already scanning the horizon for moving prey. I tried not to think about turning back around, stalking her to the edge of camp, dragging her kicking and squirming into the night, and tearing out her throat. It wasn't that she was annoying, because she was, really, really annoying. It was because she was a threat, and my vampire instincts were telling me to kill, to silence her before she exposed me.

  I tried channeling those thoughts of death and violence into my current task, eager to be hunting again. I found a herd of the huge shaggy animals huddled together in a shallow basin but decided they were too big to bother with. Not that I doubted I could kill them; lose enough blood and they'd die just like anything else. But if I went back to camp with one of those giant creatures slung over my back, I might draw suspicion.

  Instead, I prowled the rolling hills until I found a herd of small deer, browsing along a grassy ridge. Putting down the bow, I crept forward through the grass, staying downwind, until I could see the gentle rise and fall of their sides, smell the blood pumping hot in their veins.

  It was over very quickly. The small buck I'd singled out didn't even know something was wrong until I was nearly right on top of him, and by then it was too late. The rest of the herd scattered as I charged into their midst, but I grabbed the deer's antlers as it was lunging to its feet, wrenched the head around, and quickly snapped its neck, killing it instantly.

  As it fell twitching to the ground, I resisted the urge to sink my fangs into its throat, knowing the stag's blood would do nothing for me. Hefting it to my shoulders, I walked back to where I'd left my bow and quiver. Dropping the carcass, I took an arrow from the quiver and drove it into the stag's body, sinking it between the ribs. Maybe I was being paranoid, but explaining to someone why the deer had a broken neck and no arrow wounds could be awkward.

  Grabbing it by the horns, I started to drag it away, when a faint yet familiar rumble drifted over the grass, coming from the nearby road. As I froze, wondering where I'd heard it be-fore, two headlights crested a hill and came roaring down the other side. My stomach twisted, and my blood went cold.

  Ducking into the grass, I watched the strange machines slow, then pull to a stop on the side of the road. A large bearded man swung off the vehicle, killed the engine and spat into the grass. His companion, a smaller human, pulled his machine to a stop, as well. For a moment, my mind went blank, and I had to kill the urge to f lee into the darkness and not look back.

  No. It's not possible. I killed them.

  "Hang on a second," the larger human muttered, staggering unsteadily to the edge of the pavement. The other man sighed.

  "What are you doing, Ed?"

  "I'm taking a piss. That okay with you?" The bearded man turned away from his companion, and a moment later there was the sound of falling water hitting the dirt.

  Staring at them, I felt myself sag in relief. They weren't the same men. This human had a shaggy brown beard, not yellow, and he was a little broader in the shoulders. But then I saw something else: a tattoo on his left shoulder-a grinning canine, sharp-toothed and pointy.

  The same as the ones before.

  The other man muttered something and swung himself off the vehicle, digging into his jacket pocket. Pulling out a small white box, he dragged
a cigarette out with his lips, lit the end and settled back against his machine, smoking lazily. Ed finished zipping up, turned and caught the box as his friend tossed it to him.

  "Any beer left?" he asked, shaking out a cigarette.

  "One can. "

  "Well, let's have it. "

  "Screw you. "

  I watched them, my mind racing. From personal experience, I knew these men were bad news: violent, armed and ruthless. If they caught up with the rest of the group. . . I shivered.

  I had to stop them. Or at least get back to warn the others.

  But, as I crouched there, watching the men pass a silver can back and forth, I knew that-even running my fastest-I wouldn't have enough time. I'd seen how quick those vehicles were. They would reach the group before I was even close. There had to be another way.

  Another way. Of course, there was the most obvious choice.

  The option I couldn't help but think of, no matter how much I tried ignoring it.

  Should I. . . kill them? The thought was tempting, and I felt my fangs lengthen in response. I could kill them, feed on them, hide their bodies and their vehicles, and no one would know. Who would miss them, way out here in the dark? But, as I inched closer to the unsuspecting humans, I remembered the last two I'd met on a lonely road like this one. I remembered their screams, their terror, the panic on their faces. I remembered the glassy eyes and limp bodies, and clenched my fists. I couldn't do it. I was trying not to be that monster. Every death, every life taken by the Hunger, pushed me closer to my demon. If I started killing indiscriminately, it would completely take over, and then what would stop me from stalking Caleb or Zeke into the darkness and ripping out their throats?

  Maybe I could creep close enough to damage their vehicles in some way; slash their tires or drain their fuel. But I'd have to get awfully close, and even with my vampire powers, there was the risk of being seen. Even if I did manage to pull it off, they'd probably know someone was here and would be on the lookout for people in the area. That wouldn't be good for the group. I growled in frustration.

  Dammit, there had to be something I could do. Something to slow them down, just long enough for me to get back to the others and warn them. I looked up and down the road, searching for ideas, and noticed, in the distance, a large tree on the edge of the pavement.

  Breaking away from the humans, I hurried toward the tree and found a thick, gnarled old trunk that looked as if it had been struck by lightning several times. Its branches were twisted and bent, empty of leaves, and it looked more dead than alive.

  The roar of engines pierced the silence again. The men had started their vehicles, and were coming, their headlights gliding down the road. I put my shoulder to the trunk and pushed, digging my feet into the slippery grass and dirt, shoving with all my might. The stubborn tree resisted a moment, then with a brittle crack, its trunk split and it toppled slowly to the ground, landing half on and half off the road.

  The growl of the vehicles drew closer. If they got past this block, they would reach the group first, and I'd have no time to warn everyone. Cursing, I grabbed the branches and dragged the old tree farther onto the road, expecting the men to come racing over the rise at any second. Bright lights lit up the darkness, illuminating the tree, and I dived into the grass.

  "Aw, shit!"

  The vehicles skidded to a stop. The men swung off, and one walked to the tree, giving it an angry kick that made the branches rattle. The other scratched his beard and gave it a disgusted look.

  "Dammit," he muttered, peering into the darkness. "Think we can go around?"

  "I ain't pushing my bike through that," the other snarled, stabbing a finger at the heavy weeds and brambles at the edge of the road, very close to where I was hiding. "Last time I got a f lat, and it was a pain in the ass to get it fixed. Besides, the others will be coming through soon. "

  "Well, then shut up and help me move the thing. " The other let off a string of expletives but moved forward to grab the trunk. I left the men struggling with the old tree, crept silently away and, as soon as I could, took off through the grass.

  I raced back to the camp, which was already packed up and on the verge of departure. I saw Darren and Zeke standing near the front with Jebbadiah and Ruth. Darren had a couple of skinny rabbits in one hand, looking uncomfortable, while Zeke seemed to be in an argument with the girl. They were still too far to notice me, but I heard snippets of their conversation, drifting over the wind, and strained my vampire senses to listen.

  "I don't care if her tent is empty," Zeke was saying, holding out both hands in a pleading gesture. "Jeb, we can't just leave someone behind. I swear, I saw her just before Darren and I left to go hunting. Ruth, are you sure you didn't see her go after us, or leave the camp?"

  "No," Ruth said in a voice that was almost as worried.

  "Like I said, no one has seen her tonight, and when I realized that, I went to check her tent. It was empty, and all her stuff was gone. You don't think she left for good, do you?"

  "Regardless-" Jeb's voice cut in, f lat and cold "-we cannot wait for her. I made that clear from the beginning. If she has left us, so be it. If she chooses to f launt the rules, as you two have done tonight-" he glared at Zeke "-then that is her choice. She can live or die with the consequences. "

  "Well, it's good to know where I stand," I said, striding into the circle. All four humans whirled on me.

  "Allison!" Zeke exhaled with relief, but Ruth looked at me like she had just swallowed a spider. "You're back. Where did you go? We were about to leave-"

  "Me behind? I noticed. " I looked at Jebbadiah, who gazed back emotionlessly. If he felt anger or guilt that I'd over-heard his conversation, he didn't show it. But I couldn't think about that now. "Jeb, I saw men on the road, coming toward us. They're riding strange motorized bicycles, and they have guns. "

  "Motorized bicycles?" Ruth said, giving Zeke a puzzled frown. Jeb, however, caught on much more quickly.

  "Raiders, on motorcycles," he said grimly, and Ruth gasped. Briskly, Jeb turned on me and Zeke. "Get everyone off the road," he snapped, pointing back to the group. "We need to hide. Now!"

  No sooner had he spoken than the faint growl of engines echoed down the road, and the glow of headlights appeared in the distance. People gasped, and one of the kids screamed.

  Quickly, Ruth, Zeke and I herded everyone away from the pavement, driving them back into the rolling plains. I snatched up forgotten cans, wrappers and bowls from the ground, f linging them into the tall grass, doing my best to cover the tracks a dozen people left behind.

  The raiders drew closer, the hum of engines roaring in the night. Diving behind a log, I f lung myself to the ground as the headlights pierced the spot where the group had been. A half second later, Zeke joined me, jumping over the log and dropping to his stomach as the raiders appeared over the hill.

  We peeked over the rim, watching the two men on those strange machines cruise past. Again, I was struck with how familiar they looked, how they were very like the two humans I'd met earlier. The two men I'd killed. One of them drove right by, but his companion suddenly pulled to a stop along the side of the road, shutting off his engine. The other turned his machine around and came back, pulling alongside his friend before shutting his off, too.

  "Whacha lookin' at?" I heard him growl. Even at this distance, my vampire hearing could make out the words perfectly. The other man shook his head.

  "Dunno. I thought I heard something. A scream or something, out there. "

  "Rabbit, probably. Or coyote. " The other man spit on the pavement, then pulled a large machine gun out of a side holster. "Wanna fire a few shots to make sure?" Beside me, I felt Zeke tense, one hand inching toward his gun, and I put my hand over his. Startled, he looked at me sharply, and I shook my head.

  "Nah, don't waste bullets. It's probably nothing. " The raider started his engine with a roar, and I caught the last few sen-tences over
the sudden noise. "Jackal is gonna be pissed if we don't find them. He was sure they're somewhere on this stretch. "

  Jackal. Where had I heard that name before? It was instantly familiar; I knew I'd heard it somewhere. It hit me then-the other raiders I'd met on the road. The dead man had whispered it, right before he died.

  Jackal. . . would've

  laughed.

  I felt a chill run up my spine. It couldn't be coincidence.

  The tattoos, the bikes, the raiders I'd met before. There was something about this group I didn't know. Someone wasn't telling me something.

  "Ain't our fault if they're not here," the other raider shrugged. "Ain't nothing out here. And I'm getting tired of looking for ghosts. "

  "Derrek and Royce certainly ran into something. Unless you think they just took off without their bikes. " The other said something back, but the reply was drowned in the roar of the bike engines as the two men sped away down the road. I watched them leave, until the rumble of machinery faded into the distance, the lights disappeared, and everything was quiet once more.

  Slowly, the group came out of hiding, as if they were scared to make any noise.

  "All right!" Jeb's voice cut through the uncertainty. "Listen up! It's no longer safe to use the roads. From now on, we avoid the main stretches. And I want double the guards on every shift! Zeke, you're in charge of that. "

  "Yes,

  sir. "

  "We still have plenty of ground to cover tonight, so let's move, people!" And Jeb started away through the waving grass, the rest of the group falling in line after him.

  I wove my way to the front and fell into step beside Jebbadiah, who marched ahead without looking at me. "What was that?" I asked him. He continued to ignore me, but I wasn't about to let him off the hook. "You knew those men," I continued in a low voice. "Who are they? Why are they after you?"

  "You meddle in things you know nothing about. "

  "Well, yeah. That's why I'm asking here. If I'm going to help you people, I want to know what I'm up against. "

  "We don't need your help," Jeb said icily. "We didn't ask for your help. This group has been through hell and back, and they have survived this long because they do not question those responsible for their safety. "

  "Maybe they should," I said, and Jeb fixed me with an unyielding gaze.

  "Do not rock this boat, Allison," he warned, raising one long, bony finger to my face. I wondered what would happen if I snapped it off like a twig. "You are here because I permit it, because I turn away none in need, but you are not part of this family. I have come too far, and we have been through too much, for someone like you to endanger that. You have already demonstrated your complete disregard for our way of life. You will not come here and question my authority. And you will not ask questions about things you do not understand. " He faced forward again, quickening his pace so that he started to leave me behind. "If you are unhappy with the way we do things, you are free to go," he said without looking back. "But if you wish to remain with this group, you must accept and obey the rules, like everyone else. " I glared after him, falling back with the rest of the sheep.

  The rules. I'd heard that before. Don't ask questions. Don't draw attention. Keep your head down and your mouth shut.

  Except I wasn't much of a mindless follower, particularly with rules that made no sense. If Stick-up-the-ass Jebbadiah wasn't going to give me answers, I would have to get them from someone else.

  Casually, I lagged behind, letting the others pass me, until I fell back with Zeke, bringing up the rear. He gave me a wary look, as if he knew I was about to ask him something uncomfortable.

  "Hey," I said, and he nodded but didn't say anything, as if waiting for the inevitable questions. He'd probably seen me talking with Jeb and knew I hadn't gotten the answers I wanted. Friendly and unassuming as he was, Zeke wasn't stupid.

  "Listen," I went on, looking away. "I. . . uh. . . wanted to talk to you. I didn't get a chance to before the whole raider thing, so. . . thanks. "

  I felt his puzzled frown. "For what?"

  "Not leaving me behind. " I continued to stare at the horizon, watching a herd of those massive shaggy animals lumber away over a hill. "I heard what you said to Jeb and Ruth, earlier. Thanks for. . . standing up for me. No one's ever done that before. " I fell silent, embarrassed.

  Zeke sighed. "Jeb isn't the. . . easiest. . . person to understand," he admitted, and I resisted the urge to snort. "He wants to protect everyone, but he knows he's taking us through dangerous territory, and not everyone will make it. He's seen several of us. . . die, trying to get to Eden. We were a much larger group, once. " He hesitated, taking a quick breath. I wondered how much he had seen, how many friends he'd watched die.

  "Jeb's only concern now is getting to Eden with as many of us as he can. " Zeke gazed at me, unapologetic. "If that means leaving one behind to save the rest, it's a sacrifice he's willing to make. His convictions are much stronger than mine, and sometimes I forget that. "

  "You're defending him because he's willing to let people die, to leave them behind?"

  "Sometimes, to save the many, you must sacrifice the few. " He looked away then, a bitter smile crossing his face. "Jeb tells me I'm too soft and that my stubbornness is what keeps me from being a true leader. No, I don't want anyone to die, to be left behind, but that weakness might get the whole group killed. "

  "Zeke. . . " I wanted to tell him that was screwed up, that Jebbadiah Crosse was a cold, unreasonable, heartless bastard, but I couldn't. Because, in some sad, twisted way, I agreed with him. Growing up in the Fringe, you came to accept hard truths. Nothing was fair. The world was cold, unforgiving, and people died. It was just the way things were. I didn't like it, but the old man's reasoning wasn't unjustified.

  Though I still thought he was a complete bastard.

  "Anyway. . . " Zeke shrugged, giving me a small, embarrassed grin. "You're welcome. And I'm glad you came back.

  It was a good thing, too-you got us off the road in time.

  Thank you for that. "

  "Sure. " I paused, chewing my lip. Now seemed as good a time as any, but I wondered how best to bring it up. I opted for my usual dive right in approach. "Zeke. . . who's Jackal?" He stumbled, then looked at me sharply, blue eyes narrowing. I knew I had something and hurried on. "The men said Jackal was looking for someone. It's you, isn't it? Or the group. " I nodded to the people walking ahead of us. "Who is he, and what does he want from you?" Zeke took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Dropping even farther back, he gave the group a wary look, his eyes lingering on Jebbadiah up front. "None of them can know about this," he murmured as I fell back to join him. "They don't know who Jackal is, and it's better that they remain oblivious. I'm the only one, besides Jeb, who knows anything about him, so you can't mention his name to anyone, okay?" He closed his eyes. "And please don't tell Jeb that I told you. " I nodded. "Why the big secret?" I asked, frowning. "Who is this Jackal person, anyway?"

  "He's a vampire," Zeke replied, and my stomach clenched.

  "A very powerful vampire. He leads a group of raiders all across the country, looking for us. The others think we just run into random raider gangs that want to hurt us. They're terrified enough without knowing what he is. But Jackal is their king, and he's been on our trail for a couple years now. "

  "Why?"

  "He hates Jeb," Zeke explained, shrugging. "Jeb nearly killed him once, and he's never forgotten it. So, he hunts him for revenge, but he'll kill us all if he finds us. " That didn't make much sense. "So, you're saying this vampire king is sending his raider army on a wild-goose chase all over the country, looking for one person who could be anywhere, all because he's holding a grudge?" Zeke looked away. I narrowed my eyes. "What aren't you telling me?"

  "I can't say. " Zeke looked back, eyes pleading. "I promised Jeb that I wouldn't tell anyone. I won't break that promise, no matter what you say. I'm sorry. "

&
nbsp; I believed him, which was strange. I'd never met a person who couldn't be bought, cajoled or bribed, but Zeke seemed the type that, once he promised something, would take his secrets to the grave. Still, it was frustrating, being left in the dark. Especially if the dark had a powerful vampire king lurking close by.

  I cast about for another topic, another way to extract his carefully guarded secrets, but something else he'd said caught my attention. "Wait a minute," I muttered, frowning at him.

  "You've been wandering around, looking for Eden, for a couple years? "

  "I think. . . " Zeke paused a moment, brow furrowed. "I think this summer will be our third year. Or is it our fourth?" He raised one lean shoulder. "It's hard to keep track, anymore. "

  "And you still think Eden is out there?"

  "It has to be," Zeke said in a fervent voice. "If it's not, all the lives we lost, the people who put their trust in us, it'll all be for nothing. " His face clouded with pain, before he shook it off, his eyes narrowed in determination. "Every year, we get closer," he said. "Every site we come to and it's not there, that's just one more step closer to finding it. Jackal and his gang, they're out there, looking for us. But they won't find us. We've come too far to be stopped now. We have to keep everyone's faith alive. If they knew a vampire was hunting us, they'd lose hope. And sometimes, hope is the only thing that gets us through the day. "

  He sounded very tired, and I could suddenly see the terrible burden he carried, the weight of responsibility far beyond his years. I remembered the way his eyes had gone dark when I asked why the group traveled at night, the look on his face as he recalled something terrible. Death had marked him, the lives lost weighed on him; I could tell he remembered each and every one.

  "What happened?" I asked. "You said you travel at night for a reason. Why is that?"

  He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he seemed a different person; the bleakness on his face transformed him into someone much, much older. "In the beginning," he said, his eyes dark and far away, "I was the only orphan in the group. There were a lot more of us back then, and we were all so sure we would find Eden before winter set in. Jeb was certain it was along the west coast. When we started out, no one thought that we could be wandering for more than a year. " He shook his head, f linging bangs from his eyes. "At first, we traveled during the day, when the monsters were sleeping. At night, we waited a couple hours after the sun went down before making camp, to make sure there were no rabids in the area. We thought that the rabids came out right at sundown, and if we waited an hour or two, we would be safe. " His voice faltered, and he shook his head. "We were wrong. Rabids. . . rabids rise when they want to. " Zeke paused, took a quiet breath. "One night," he contin-ued in a low voice, "we made camp as usual, about an hour after sunset. It was at the top of a grassy hill, no trees, no bushes, no places for the rabids to hide or sneak up on us. We posted sentries around the perimeter, per normal, and went to sleep.

  "I woke up to screaming," Zeke muttered, gazing at something in the distance, his voice dark and grim. "They came right out of the ground, from the earth under our tents. No warning, nothing. They were just suddenly there. We didn't stand a chance. "

  I shivered in sympathy. I could see the rabids coming out of the ground, right in the middle of the camp of helpless sleepers. "I'm sorry," I offered, knowing how weak that sounded.

  "More than half the group was lost," Zeke went on, as if he hadn't heard. "We would've all died if Jeb hadn't been there. I froze-I couldn't move, not even to help the others.

  Through all that chaos, he managed to get the rest of us together so we could escape. But we left so many behind. Dorothy's husband, Caleb and Ruth's parents. " He stopped, his face pinched and tight. "I swore I wouldn't lose anyone else like that," he muttered. "Ever again. "

  "You were a kid. " We had drifted closer, somehow, our shoulders barely touching as we walked side by side. "Jeb couldn't have expected you to face them all on your own. "

  "Maybe. " He didn't sound convinced and kept walking with his head down, watching his feet. "But that's why we can't stop. Even if there's a vampire out there who wants us dead. Even. . . if there is no Eden. " He shuddered. "We have to keep going. Everyone is counting on us to lead them there, and I won't take that away from them. All we have left is our faith. " His voice dropped even lower as he looked toward the horizon. "And sometimes, I wonder if that will be enough. "

  "Zeke!"

  Ruth came skipping up to us then, smiling brightly, a tin cup clutched in one hand. "Here," she said, wedging herself between me and Zeke, holding the cup out to him. "I saved a little coffee for you. It's not much, but at least it's warm. "

  "Thanks. " Zeke gave her a tired smile as he took the cup, and she beamed, ignoring me. I looked at her back, at the pale expanse of her neck, and fantasized about sinking my teeth into her smooth white skin.

  "By the way," she continued, turning to me with wide, innocent eyes, "why is there a big tear in the f loor of your tent? It looks like you purposefully cut it with a knife. What are you doing in there, slaughtering animals?" Zeke looked at me, raising a puzzled eyebrow. Alarm f lickered, but I forced myself to be calm. "There. . . must've been a hole already," I said, thinking quickly. "I have nightmares sometimes-it could've torn while I was thrashing around. " Zeke nodded and sipped his coffee, but Ruth narrowed her gaze, lips pursed in suspicion. She didn't believe me. A growl rose to my throat, and I swallowed it, before going on the offensive to distract her.

  "Besides, why are you snooping around my stuff ?" I returned, glaring at her. "Looking for something in particular?

  I don't have anything you can steal. " Ruth's mouth dropped open, her delicate face contorting in outrage.

  "Steal? How dare you! I don't steal!"

  "That's good," I went on, smirking at her. "Because, sometimes I kill things in my sleep. Particularly if they come poking around my tent unannounced in the middle of the day.

  Comes with living in a vampire city-stab first, ask questions later. "

  She paled and shrank back against Zeke, who gave me a look of mild concern, unsure how to deal with two bicker-ing females.

  "Freak," Ruth muttered at last and turned her back on me in blatant dismissal. "Regardless, Zeke, I wanted to ask you about camp rations. We're awfully low-what do you want me to do tonight and tomorrow?"

  He gave me an apologetic look. I rolled my eyes and walked away, leaving them to talk, as it was obvious Ruth wouldn't let me get another word in with Zeke. Not that she could've stopped me; I had no issues staying where I was, just to spite her. But watching her with Zeke, hearing her heart beat faster just from being close, her pulse f luttering wildly in her neck, I felt, for the first time since that lonely night on the road, the first stirrings of Hunger.

  And I knew I would have to choose one of them, very soon.