The Immortal Rules, Page 16Julie Kagawa
No! Closing my eyes, I jerked back, thumping my head against the wall. The baby goat let out a startled bleat, then tucked its nose beneath its hindquarters with a sigh. Caleb and Bethany slept on, unaware how close they had come to being food.
Horrified, I looked around for an escape route. I couldn't keep this up. The Hunger was slowly taking over, and it wouldn't be long before I gave in to temptation. I needed to feed, before it grew too strong to ignore.
Gently, I extracted myself from the sleeping kids and returned the newly christened Patch to his pen, where he promptly fell asleep. Once free, I slipped outside and leaned against the barn, pondering the inevitable question. It was time. That had been way too close. Who was I going to feed from?
Not the kids. Never. I was not so inhuman that I would draw blood from a sleeping child. Teresa and Silas were so old, though, too weak to lose any blood, and I was not going to bite them in front of two sleeping children. Jake and Darren were on guard duty, and Ruth was with Zeke.
Zeke was definitely out of the question.
That left Dorothy the crazy woman, who was in the farmhouse gossiping with Martha, who didn't go to bed until midnight, apparently, and Jebbadiah Crosse.
Yeah, right. I might as well just shoot myself in the face than go anywhere near Jeb.
I growled in frustration. This wasn't getting me anywhere.
When had I gotten so close to the people I was supposed to be feeding from?
It always starts out that way. Kanin's voice echoed in my mind, quietly knowing. Noble intentions, honor among new vampires. Vows to not harm humans, to take only what is needed, to not hunt them like sheep through the night. But it becomes harder and harder to remain on their level, to hold on to your humanity, when all you can see them as is food.
"Dammit," I whispered, covering my eyes with a hand.
How did Kanin do it? I tried to remember, thinking back to our time in the Fringe. He had some sort of code, a type of moral honor system, that he used when feeding off unsuspecting victims. He left something behind-like the shoes-
payment for the harm his actions would bring.
I couldn't do that now. I didn't have anything I could give.
True, I was helping out, taking the night watch and all, but that was more of a group effort. We were all pitching in to help.
But, I did save that man's life. . .
Guilt and disgust stabbed at me. How could I even think about preying on a weak, caged human? Earlier tonight, I'd been horrified to see him locked up like a beast, and now I was thinking of feeding off him? Maybe Kanin was right.
Maybe I was a monster, just like he said.
I could hear him now, his deep voice echoing in my head, as clearly as if he were standing beside me. Make your choice, Allison, he would say, calm and unruff led. Will you prey on those you consider friends and companions, or a stranger who already owes you his life? Know that each path is evil; you must decide which one is the lesser of the two.
"Damn you," I muttered to the empty air. Figment Kanin didn't reply, shimmering into nothingness; he already knew what path I was going to choose.
I watched Jebbadiah Crosse finish praying over the wounded man, watched him stride back to the farmhouse, his severe form cutting a rigid path through the darkness. I watched the man in the cage, waited for his coughing and shifting to stop, for his raspy breathing to slow, becoming heavy and deep.
When he was snoring quietly, I glided from the shadows along the wall, walking quickly to the woodshed and snatch-ing the key from where it hung on its nail. Silently, I removed the iron bar across the door, unlocked the padlock and removed the chains, being careful not to clink them against the bars. Carefully, being cautious that the door didn't creak, I eased it open.
Joe Archer lay slumped in the corner, covered in blankets, his body curled into itself to conserve heat. His leg, heavily bandaged and reeking of blood and alcohol, lay at an awkward angle.
Are you really going to do this?
I shoved the voice aside, burying my feelings of horror, guilt and disgust. I didn't want to, but it was necessary. I didn't dare go into the farmhouse; with so many people under one roof, I didn't want to creep into a room only to be discovered by a light sleeper or someone getting up to use the bathroom.
I thought of Caleb and Bethany, Zeke and Darren. If I didn't do this, they might be the ones in my sights next. I could kill them if I didn't feed soon. The cage was isolated, out of the way, and no one would be coming to check on him for a while. Better a stranger than someone I knew, someone I actually cared about.
Besides, he owed me for saving his life.
If that's what you want to tell yourself. Let's get this over with, then.
Joe stirred in his sleep and coughed, his snores faltering.
Quickly, before I had more second thoughts, I stepped up beside him and knelt, easing the collar of his coat aside. His throat, bared to the moonlight, pulsed softly. My fangs lengthened, the Hunger rising up like a dark tide. As the human groaned, eyelids f luttering, I leaned forward and sank my teeth into his neck, right below his jaw.
He jerked, but relaxed instantly, succumbing to the near delirium of a vampire's bite. As blood began f lowing into my mouth, the Hunger drank it greedily, demanding more, always more. I kept a tight leash on it this time, fighting to keep my senses, to not lose myself to the heat and power f lowing into me.
Three swallows. That was all I'd allow myself to take, though my Hunger was raging at me for more. Reluctantly, I drew my fangs from the human's skin, sealing the wounds before stepping back. He groaned, half asleep and dead to the world, and I slipped out of the cage, replacing the locks and chains as quickly as I could.
Just as I was replacing the last bar, footsteps crunched behind me and Zeke's familiar voice f loated over my shoulder.
I turned, and he stood a few paces behind me, a thermos in one hand, a metal cup in the other.
"Here you are," he said, not accusingly, though he seemed puzzled. "You never came back after Ruth left. Are you still angry with me?"
"What are you doing here?" I asked, ignoring the question. I wasn't angry, of course, but maybe it was better if he thought I was. He nodded to himself, as if expecting it.
"They're getting dinner ready in the barn," he continued, holding up the mug. "If you want something, I'd head over soon, before Caleb and Matthew eat all the soup. " I nodded and turned away, watching Joe sleep through the bars of the cage. "Did you know about this?" I asked, hearing him move up beside me.
"Jeb told me. " Zeke knelt close to the bars and reached through, shaking the unconscious man. He stirred with a groan, opening his eyes blearily, and Zeke held up the thermos. "Hey," he murmured, unscrewing the top and pouring out a dark, steaming liquid. "Thought you could use this. It's black, but it's better than nothing. "
"Thanks, boy," Joe wheezed, reaching for the mug. His hands shook, and he nearly dropped it. "Damn, I'm worse off than I thought. How long until morning?"
"A couple hours," Zeke replied gently, handing the cup of soup through the bars, as well. "This will be over soon. How are you holding up?"
"Oh, I'll live. " Joe sipped at the coffee and smiled. "At least for another day. "
Zeke smiled back, like he really believed it, and suddenly I had to get out of there. Spinning on my heel, I hurried away-away from the caged, doomed human who had been prey to me moments before. Away from the boy who showed me just how monstrous I truly was.
"Hey! Allison, wait!"
I heard Zeke jogging after me and I whirled on him, suddenly furious. "Go away," I snarled, managing, barely, not to show fangs. "Why do you keep hanging around? What are you trying to prove, preacher boy? Do you think you can save me, too?"
He blinked, utterly bewildered. "What?"
"Why do you try so hard?" I continued, glaring disdainfully, hol
ding on to my anger through sheer force of will.
"You're always giving things away, putting yourself at risk, making sure others are happy. It's stupid and dangerous. People aren't worth saving, Ezekiel. Someday that person you help is going to stick a knife in your back or slit your throat from behind, and you won't even see it coming. " His blue eyes f lashed. "How ignorant do you think I am?" he demanded. "Yeah, the world's an awful place, and it's full of people who would as soon put a knife in my back as shake my hand. Yeah, I could stick my neck out for them, and they'd throw me to the rabids without a second thought. Don't think I haven't seen it before, Allison. I'm not that stupid. "
"Then why keep trying? If Jeb thinks this is hell, why even bother?"
"Because there has to be more than this!" Zeke paused, ran both hands through his hair, and looked at me sadly. "Jeb has pretty much given up on humanity," he said in a soft voice.
"He sees corruption and vampires and rabids, and thinks that this world is done. The only thing he cares about is getting to Eden, saving the few lives he can. Anyone else-" he shrugged "-they're on their own. Even people like Joe. " He nodded back toward the woodshed. "He'll pray for him, but he keeps himself distant, detached. "
"But you don't believe that. "
"No, I don't. " Zeke looked me straight in the eye as he said it, unembarrassed and unshakable. "Jeb might've lost faith, but I haven't. Maybe I'm wrong," he continued with a shrug,
"but I'm going to keep trying. It's what keeps me human. It's what separates me from them, all of them, rabids, demons, vampires, everything. "
Vampires. That stung a lot more than I thought it would.
"That's great for you," I said bitterly. "But I'm not like that.
I don't believe in God, and I don't believe humans have anything good in them. Maybe you have a nice little family here, but I've been on my own too long to trust anyone. " Zeke's expression softened, which was not what I wanted to see. I wanted to hurt him, make him angry, but he just watched me with those solemn blue eyes and took a step forward. "I don't know what you've gone through," he said, holding my gaze, "and I can't speak for everyone, but I promise you're safe here. I would never hurt you. "
"Stop it," I hissed, backing away. "You don't know me.
You don't know anything about me. "
"I would if you'd let me," Zeke shot back, then crossed the space between us in two long strides, gripping my upper arms. Not hard; I could've jerked back if I wanted, but I was so shocked that I froze, looking up into his face.
"I will if you give me a chance," he murmured. "And you're wrong-I know a few things about you. I know you and Ruth don't get along, I know Caleb adores you, and I know you can handle a sword better than anyone I've seen before. " He smiled then, achingly handsome, his eyes liquid blue pools as he gazed into mine. "You're a fighter, you question everything you don't agree with, and you're probably the only one here who's not terrified of Jeb. And I've never met anyone like you. Ever. "
"Let go," I whispered. I could hear his heartbeat, thudding loud in his chest, and was suddenly terrified he would hear my lack of one. He complied, sliding his hands down my arms, holding the tips of my fingers before dropping them. But his eyes never left my face.
"I know you're scared," he continued in a quiet voice, still close enough that I could feel his breath on my cheek. The Hunger stirred, but it was weaker this time, sated for now. "I know we just met, and we're all strangers, and you keep yourself apart for your own reasons. But I also know I haven't. . .
felt this way about anyone before. And I think. . . I hope. . . you feel the same, because that was really hard for me to say. So. . . " He reached out again, taking my hand. "I'm asking you to trust me. "
I wanted to. For the second time that night, I wanted to kiss him, standing there so openly in the moonlight, his bangs falling jaggedly into his eyes. Zeke leaned forward, and for just a moment, I allowed him to step close, to cup the back of my head as his lips moved down toward mine. His pulse throbbed, his scent surrounding me, but this time, I only saw his face.
No, this can't happen! I shoved him, hard. He staggered backward and fell, landing on his back in the dirt. I heard his sharp intake of breath, saw the shocked, wounded look in his eyes, and almost turned to f lee.
I didn't. Against my will, against everything screaming at me not to do this, I drew my sword and stepped up beside him, pointing it at his chest. Zeke's eyes went wide at the blade, gleaming inches from his heart, and he froze.
"Let me make this as clear as I can," I told him, holding the hilt tightly so my hands wouldn't shake. "Don't do that again. I don't trust you, preacher boy. I don't trust anyone.
And I've been stabbed in the back too many times for that to change, do you understand?"
Zeke's eyes were angry, wounded stars, but he nodded. I sheathed my blade, turned and walked back to the farmhouse, feeling his gaze on me all the way. But he didn't follow.
Dawn wasn't far. I went back to the empty room and closed the door, being sure to latch it this time. My eyes burned, and I clamped down on my emotions before they spilled over my cheeks.
In the bathroom, I splashed icy water on my face, gazing at my cracked ref lection in the mirror. Unlike the stories said, we actually did cast a ref lection, and mine looked awful: a pale, dark-haired girl with traces of blood running from her eyes, and someone else's blood f lowing in her veins. I bared my fangs, and the image of the girl disappeared, revealing a snarling, hollow-eyed vampire in the glass. If Zeke only knew what I really was. . .
"I'm sorry," I whispered, remembering the way he'd looked when I'd shoved him, when I'd pointed my sword at his chest.
Shocked, betrayed, heartbroken. "It's better like this. It really is. You have no idea what you're getting into. " I couldn't keep this up. It was too hard, seeing Zeke, keeping my distance, pretending I didn't care. It was also getting harder and harder to keep my secret. Sooner or later, I'd slip up, or someone would put the pieces together and realize what had been lurking in their midst. And then Jeb or Zeke would put a sharp wooden stick through my chest or cut off my head. Zeke had watched rabids kill his friends and family, and he was the protege of Jebbadiah Crosse. I could not believe he would accept a vampire hanging around the group, no matter what he said about trust.
Maybe it was time to leave. Not tonight-dawn was too close-but soon. When they left the compound, that would be a good time to go. I knew Jeb didn't want to stay much longer; he was already anxious to get on the road. I would see them through the woods, protect them from any rabids that might be lurking around, and then I would slip away before anyone realized I was gone.
Where will you go? my ref lection seemed to ask. I swallowed the lump in my throat and shrugged. "I don't know," I muttered. "Does it matter? As long as I get far away from Zeke and Caleb and Darren and everyone, it doesn't matter where I go. "
They'll miss you. Zeke will miss you.
"They'll get over it. " I left the bathroom, my mind churning with conf licting emotions. I didn't want to leave. I had grown attached to Caleb and Bethany and Darren. Even Dorothy had her strange charm. The rest I barely spoke to, and some-Ruth and Jebbadiah-I would be perfectly happy if I never saw again, but I would definitely miss the others.
Especially a certain boy with starry eyes and an open smile, who saw nothing but good inside me. Who didn't know. . .
what I really was.
I slept with my sword close that day, the covers pulled over my head. No one disturbed me, or at least, when I woke again the following evening, the room was as I'd left it. Lightning f lickered outside, searingly bright for a split second, and thunder rumbled in the distance. If Jeb wanted to leave tonight, it would be a long, wet walk out.
Voices echoed through the stairwell, and I found the entire group downstairs, milling around the enormous wooden table that dominated one side of the kitchen. Ruth and Martha were ladling stew into bowls and passing t
hem around, and a large bowl of corn muffins sat on the table within easy reach of everyone. Despite the feast, the mood around the table was somber and grim; even the kids ate silently with their eyes downcast. I wondered what was going on. Jeb wasn't here, and neither was Patricia, but I glanced up and met Zeke's eyes on the other side of the table.
As soon as our gazes met, he turned, grabbed a muffin from the bowl and walked out of the room without looking back.
My chest constricted. I wanted to go after him, to apologize for last night, but I didn't. It was better that he hate me now; I'd be gone from his life soon enough.
Instead, I wandered over to where Darren stood, leaning against a corner and dunking his bread in his stew. He glanced at me, nodded and went back to eating. But he didn't seem openly hostile, so maybe he hadn't spoken to Zeke about what happened.
"What's going on?" I asked, leaning beside him. He gave me a sideways look and swallowed a mouthful of food.
"We're leaving soon," he muttered, gesturing to the back door, where all our packs lay, stacked in a neat pile. "Probably in a couple hours, after everyone has eaten. Hopefully, we can get underway before the storm hits, and then the rain will hide our noise and our scent from any rabids in the woods.
Jeb is talking to Patricia right now-she's trying to get him to stay for another night or two, but I don't think she'll get very far. Jeb already gave us the order to move out. "
"Now? Tonight?" I frowned, but Darren nodded. "I thought we were staying until Joe got better. "
"He died," Darren said softly, and my throat clenched in horror. "This afternoon. Larry went out to check on him, and he was gone. "
He's dead? "No," I whispered, as a growl of distant thunder drowned my voice. No, he can't be dead. Not after. . . Breaking away, I ducked out the back door and headed toward the woodshed.
Outside, a few drops of rain had begun to fall, making pattering sounds on the tin roof. As I passed the barn, the animals inside were bleating and crying, and I heard thumps of bodies hitting each other and the walls, the scuff le of hooves on the f loor. In the twilight, the woodshed was dark and silent. Several logs had already been taken to feed tonight's fires, though the rain would drench the f lames soon enough.
I wondered if the rabids got excited every time it stormed.
As I rounded the shed, I saw the cage, and the body huddled in the corner, shaking. Relief swept through me. Darren had been wrong. Joe was still alive.
"Hey," I greeted softly, stepping up to the bars. "You sure gave me a scare. Everyone thought you were de-" Joe looked up, eyes blazing, and lunged at me with a scream.
I jerked back, and the body struck the cage with a chilling shriek, grabbing at me through the bars, its skin pale and bloodless. The rabid howled, shaking the bars of the cage, biting and clawing at the iron, its mad eyes fixed on me.
Sickened, I stared at the thing that had once been Joe Archer, at the once familiar face, now gaunt and wasted. His beard was covered in blood and froth, his eyes glazed and glassy as they stared at me, nothing in them except hunger.
And my stomach twisted so hard I thought I might throw up.
Did I do this? Is this my fault? I thought back to the previous night, when Joe had spoken to me, had accepted coffee from Zeke and even made a joke. He had been fine then. Had I taken too much that he had died, succumbed to the infection? Would he still be alive, if I hadn't fed from him?
I heard the crunch of gravel behind me and turned, hoping and fearing it was Zeke. But it was only Larry, come to return the empty wheelbarrow to the woodshed. He set it aside and stared at the rabid a few moments, his weathered face crumpled with grief.
"Damn," he muttered in a choked voice. "Damn damn dammit! I was hoping he wouldn't. . . " He sucked in a breath, swallowing hard. "I'll have to let Patricia know," he whispered, sounding on the verge of a breakdown. "Aw, Joe. You were a good man. You didn't deserve this. "
"What will happen to him now?" I asked.
Larry didn't look at me, continuing to stare at the rabid as he answered. "Joe is gone," he said in a f lat, dull voice. "We would've buried the body if he hadn't Turned, but there's nothing left of him anymore. The sun will take care of the rest tomorrow. "
He shuff led away, back toward the farmhouse, leaving me to stare at the monster that had been Joe and feel completely and utterly sick.
My eyes burned, and I felt something hot slide down my cheek. I didn't wipe it away this time, and more followed, burning crimson paths down my skin. The rabid watched me, cold and calculating. It had stopped throwing itself against the bars and now huddled against the back corner, unnaturally still, a coiled spring ready to be unleashed.
"I'm sorry," I whispered to it, and it bared its fangs at the sound of my voice. "I did this. You'd still be alive if I hadn't bitten you. I'm so sorry, Joe. "
"I knew it," someone hissed behind me.
I whirled. Ruth peered at me from around the corner of the woodshed, her brown eyes wide with shock.