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The Immortal Rules, Page 18

Julie Kagawa

Chapter 18

 

  They were waiting at the edge of the woods, blank eyes shining through the rain, watching me with the unblinking stare of death. Four of them, including the woman in the tattered dress, crouched among the trees and dripping branches of the forest. I watched them, and they did the same, none of us moving; five statues in the darkness, water streaming down our pale skin, trickling off the blade in my hand.

  And we waited. Monsters in the night, sizing each other up. The storm f lickered around us, ref lecting in the rabids'

  eyes, revealing the deadness behind them, but none of us so much as f linched.

  Then the woman in the dress hissed softly, showing jagged fangs, and backed away, retreating from me into the darkness.

  After a moment, the other rabids did the same, creeping back without a fight, recognizing another predator.

  I watched them, feeling cold and detached, watched as they eased around me and slipped out of the woods toward the compound I'd just left. I wasn't prey. I was a corpse, a creature whose heart didn't race, who didn't breathe or sweat or smell of fear. I was dead.

  Just like them.

  You are a vampire, Kanin had told me, so long ago it seemed.

  You are a wolf to their sheep-stronger, faster, more savage than they could ever be. They are food, Allison Sekemoto. And deep down, your demon will always see them as such.

  Lightning f lashed through the trees. The Archer compound stood behind me over the fields, outlined by weak fires that smoldered in the storm. Fewer people would be manning those platforms now, their frail human vision blinded by rain and smoke.

  "You're a vampire," Stick whispered, his eyes huge and terrified.

  "A vampire. "

  The rabids reached the edge of the trees and stopped, four pale, motionless killers, staring at the compound on the hill.

  I wondered how many more rabids lurked in the darkness just beyond the fields, watching their prey with the patience of the dead. If Jebbadiah led his people away from the compound tonight, they could walk right into an ambush. Even if they managed to kill them or drive them off, someone would probably die.

  So what? Sheathing my sword, I turned my back on the rabids, on the people still hiding behind the wall. I'd tried to fit in, and they had driven me away. Let them be slaughtered by rabids, what did I care? I was Vampire, and humans were no longer my concern.

  "This is the last favor I'll grant," Zeke said, his voice cold and hard. "If I see you again, I'll kill you. "

  My chest felt tight. Of all the lies and treachery and knives in the back, his hurt the worst. It was different from Stick's betrayal; though we had been friends for years and years, I'd known, deep down, that Stick was using me. That he was more than capable of selling me out if something better came along. Zeke was different. He did things because he truly cared, not because he expected anything in return. It was such an alien philosophy. On the streets, in the Fringe, it didn't matter where you were-it was every human for himself. I'd learned that nothing was free, and everyone had an angle. It was just how things were.

  Except Zeke. Zeke had treated me like a human, like an equal. He'd stood up for me, helped me, given me things as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He cared, because it was his nature.

  Which made it all the more painful to find out he'd lied when he'd said I could trust him, when his eyes had gone hard and cold, and he'd turned on me as if I was a monster.

  "You are a monster. " Kanin's deep voice droned in my head again, as I forced myself to move, to walk away. "You will always be a monster-there is no turning back from it. But what type of monster you become is entirely up to you. " I bit my lip. I'd forgotten that part. For a moment, I stood there, struggling with myself. The wind whipped around me, tossing my hair and clothes, rattling the branches above.

  Across the fields, the bonfires smoldered, burning low, and the rabids shifted restlessly at the edge of the trees.

  Zeke betrayed you, a small, furious voice whispered in my head. He's no better than Jebbadiah, no better than any of them.

  You're just another demon to be hunted down and shot. Why should you care if he makes it to his Eden? Why care about any of them?

  Because. . .

  Because I did care, I realized. I cared that this small, stubborn band of human beings would challenge everything in their search for a better life. I cared that they would risk rabids and starvation and horrible conditions to follow that dream and cling to hope, even if they knew, somewhere deep down, that it was impossible. I thought of Caleb and Bethany. I'd told them there would be goats in Eden. They couldn't die now, dying of hunger or torn apart by rabids. I wanted them to succeed, to defy all odds and to make it to the end. Could I abandon them to the very monsters that had killed me?

  "No. "

  The rabids hissed, glancing back at the sound of my voice.

  Slowly, I turned to face them, and we glared at each other once more, the wind swirling around us.

  "No," I said again, and the rabids curled their lips back, showing fangs. "I'm not like you. I'm not like the vampires in the city. I might be a monster, but I can be human, too. I can choose to be human. " Reaching back, I gripped my sword and drew it out, a bright f lash of steel in the darkness. The rabids snarled and crouched down, their eyes fixed on the blade. Stepping forward, I bared my fangs and snarled back.

  "So, come on, you bastards," I challenged. "If you want them, you'll have to get through me first!" The rabids screamed, baring and gnashing their fangs. I roared a battle cry, feeling my demon erupt, tasting violence, and this time I welcomed its arrival. Brandishing my weapon, I lunged into their midst.

  I hardly knew what I was doing; everything was screaming fangs and slashing claws, rabids hurling through the air, my blade singing as we danced and spun and cut at the monsters around us. Their tainted, foul-smelling blood soaked the ground and the trees, their shrieks rising into the wind. More rabids came at me, drawn by the sounds of battle, leaping into the fray. I cut them down, too, growling my hate and fury and vengeance. They were too slow, too mindless, f linging themselves on my sword with vicious animal fury. I whirled from one attack to the next, ripping my blade through pale, shrieking bodies, feeling the sword dance in my hands.

  When it was over, I stood in the center of a massacre, scratched, bleeding and surrounded by pale, dismembered bodies. Hunger f lickered, always there, but I pushed it down.

  I was a vampire. Nothing would change that. But I didn't have to be a monster.

  Wiping rabid blood off my sword, I sheathed it and turned to gaze over the fields. The compound sat silent and dark on the hill, clouds of smoke billowing up through the rain. Settling against a tree, I watched it, waiting for the iron gates to swing open, listening for the creak and groan of metal. But as the hours passed and the storm moved on, sweeping off toward the east, the gates still did not budge.

  I guess Jeb doesn't want to leave the safety of the compound when there could be a vampire lurking outside, I mused, glancing nervously at the sky. Only an hour or so before dawn; they probably wouldn't go anywhere tonight. I guess some things are enough to give him pause, after all.

  Forty minutes later, with sunlight threatening the horizon and the birds chirping in the trees, I rose to find a place to sleep just as the groan of metal caught my attention.

  They're leaving? Now? Stunned, I watched as the gates swung open, and the small group of humans filed out into the grass.

  I counted them all: Jeb and Darren, both carrying shotguns pointed into the woods. Ruth and Dorothy. Caleb, Bethany and Matthew huddled together in the center. Silent Jake, now carrying a rif le. Old Teresa and Silas. And finally, bringing up the rear, making sure everyone got out okay, the boy who'd driven me off, who had turned his back on the vampire but still let it walk away without a fight.

  So, Jeb had decided to move them out during the day, obviously trying to outrun the vampi
re by traveling when she could not. A smart choice, I had to admit. I wouldn't be able to follow them far, not with the sun minutes away from breaking over the horizon. Still, Jeb didn't know vampires.

  And he didn't know me. He could lead his people as fast and as far as he liked. I was very, very persistent.

  Zeke swept his pistol over the fields as he left the compound, his eyes narrowed in concentration. Looking for a vampire, but he wouldn't find it. He couldn't see me here in the trees and darkness, the woods still cloaked in shadow.

  Part of me still wondered why I was doing this, why I would bother. Jeb would kill me if I was discovered, and Zeke would do his best to help. But as they started across the field, I couldn't help but think how vulnerable they looked, how easily a rabid horde could tear them apart, even with Zeke and Jeb's protection. And I remembered the look in Zeke's eyes when he spoke of how many they had lost, the torment on his face because he blamed himself. I would not let that happen. Not to Caleb or Bethany or Darren or Zeke. I wouldn't let anyone die.

  As the last human passed through the gate, it closed behind them with a loud, final bang that echoed across the empty fields. With Jebbadiah Crosse at the front and Zeke bringing up the rear, the group shuff led quietly into the dark woods, inching toward their mythical city somewhere beyond the horizon.

  A small smile played across my lips. Okay, Zeke, I thought, drawing back into the shadows, preparing to sink into the earth. Run if you want. I'll see you all soon, even if you don't see me. I'll make sure you get to your Eden, whether you like it or not.

  Stop me if you can.

  The next evening, I pushed myself out of the ground with a sense of purpose. The night was clear, the moon and stars bright overhead. It wasn't hard to find the tracks of a dozen humans, making their way through the woods. I could see their footsteps in the soft earth and mud. I could trace their passing in the snapped twigs and crushed grass, blatant signs they left behind.

  They're not even bothering to hide their tracks, I mused, stepping over a low spot on the trail, churned to mud from several boots and feet. It made me a little nervous. If my vampire senses could pick them up this easily, so could any number of rabids or wild animals lurking about. I guess Jeb is more concerned with speed now. Good thing rabids aren't smart enough to track their prey, otherwise they'd be in a lot of trouble.

  I followed the trail for most of the night, slipping easily through the dark woods, having no need to rest or slow down.

  I found a few empty cans tossed into the bushes, crawling with ants, and knew I was on the right path. When dawn arrived, I buried myself in the earth, frustrated that I had to stop, but feeling I was closing the distance.

  Two hours past midnight on the second night, I finally heard voices, drifting ahead of me through the trunks and branches, and my heart leaped. As silently as I could, I eased closer, listening to snippets of conversation echo over the breeze. Stepping around a boulder, I finally spotted two familiar figures, standing on the edge of a narrow cracked road that snaked into the darkness.

  Jebbadiah and Zeke hovered beside the pavement, facing each other. Jeb's mouth was stretched into a thin, severe line, while Zeke's face looked earnest, his expression intent.

  "We'll make less noise if we're walking on pavement," Zeke was saying, sounding exasperated but trying not to show it.

  A few yards away, the rest of the group huddled beneath the trees as Jeb and his pupil argued. I leaned against the rock, concealed in shadow, and listened. "It'll be easier on Teresa and the kids, and we'll make better time, too. "

  "If Jackal and his thugs come around any of those bends, we won't know it until they're right on top of us," Jeb argued in a low voice, glaring at Zeke with cold, angry eyes.

  "You've seen how fast they can move-by the time we hear them coming, it'll be too late. Will you sacrifice the safety of this group just because walking through forest is a little harder?"

  To his credit, Zeke didn't back off.

  "Sir," Zeke said quietly, "please. We can't keep going like this. Everyone is exhausted. Walking all day and all night- we need a rest. If things don't get easier, we'll have people lagging behind and making mistakes. And if anyone is following us, we'll just be that much easier to pick off. " Jeb's jaw tightened, eyes narrowing, and Zeke hurried on. "We're going to need supplies soon," he said. "And Larry told me this road eventually leads to a town. Sir, we need food, ammo and a proper rest. I think we'd rather deal with the possibility of raiders than have to watch our backs for rabids and vampires in the woods. "

  Jeb stared at him, and for a moment, I thought he would refuse just on the principle of never agreeing with anyone.

  But then he blew out a short, irritated breath, and turned to the road.

  "Keep everyone together," he snapped, as Zeke straightened quickly. "And I want two people hanging back at least twenty feet from the rest of us. If they hear or see anything at all, I want to know about it immediately, do you understand?"

  "Yes,

  sir. "

  He gave his pupil one last baleful glare, then strode purposefully onto the pavement, while Zeke turned to signal everyone to keep moving. They shuff led forward, clearly relieved to be out of the tangled woods and dark, grasping trees. The road, crumbling and full of holes, was still treacherous, but it was easier than hacking through brush and tripping over rocks and branches.

  I stayed off the pavement, however, slipping through brush and trees at the edge. Though it was still dark as pitch, it might've been too easy for Zeke to look back and see a silhouette following them down the open road. I could still hear him, though, as he and Darren dropped back the required twenty feet from the group to guard the rear. They were quiet at first, the only sounds being their feet on the uneven pavement, then Darren's low voice drifted to me through the darkness.

  "Your old man is sure kicking your ass lately," he muttered. "That's the first time since the Archers that he's actually talked to you like a human being. "

  "He was angry. " Zeke shrugged half heartedly. "I endangered the entire group. If anything had happened, it would've been my fault. "

  "You can't blame yourself, Zeke. We all saw her, talked to her. She had us all fooled. "

  My gut twisted and I narrowed my eyes, zeroing in on the conversation. The sound of the wind and creaking branches faded away as I concentrated solely on the boys in front of me. I heard Zeke's sigh, imagined him stabbing his fingers through his hair.

  "I should've seen it," he muttered, dark loathing rolling off his voice. "There were so many signs, so many little things, now that I think about it. I just didn't put it together. I never thought. . . she could be a vampire. " Zeke suddenly kicked a chunk of pavement, sending it crashing into the bushes. "God, Dare," he muttered through clenched teeth, "what if she bit someone? Like Caleb. What if she had been feeding on those kids the whole time? If she had killed someone, if anything happened to them. . . because I was. . . " He trailed off, nearly choking on disgust, before murmuring, "I could never forgive myself. "

  I felt cold and clenched my fists to stif le the anger rising up like a storm. Zeke should know me better, he should know I would have never. . .

  I stopped, uncurling my hands. No, he shouldn't. Why should he? I was a vampire, and those kids were the easiest form of prey. In his position, I would think the same.

  Still, it hurt. To hear, again, what they really thought of me: a monster who preyed indiscriminately on the smallest and weakest. It hurt a lot more than I'd thought it would.

  I had struggled hard not to feed on any of them, especially Caleb and Bethany, and it was all for nothing.

  But then, I had also sacrificed someone else, a stranger, in order not to feed on those I knew. So, maybe their fears were justified.

  "Zeke. " Darren's voice came again, hesitant, as if he feared people were listening. "You know I have no reason to doubt you. If you say she was a vampire, then I believe it. But. .
. but she didn't seem. . . that bad to me, you know?" He paused, as if shocked that he could have voiced such a thing, but continued. "I mean, I know what Jeb's told us. I know he says they're demons and there's nothing human about them, but. . .

  I've never seen one before Allison. What if we're wrong?"

  "Stop it. " Zeke's voice sent ice into my stomach. It was hard, dangerous, the same tone he'd used when facing down a vampire that night in the rain. "If Jeb heard you say that he'd kick you out before you could blink. If we start questioning everything we know, we're lost, and I am not going to start doubting now. She was a vampire, and that was all I needed to know. I'm not going to put everyone in danger just because you became somewhat attached. "

  Look who's talking, I thought, just as Darren muttered the exact same thing. Zeke scowled at him. "What?"

  "Look who's talking," Darren repeated, angrier this time.

  "I might've welcomed her along in hunts, but I wasn't tripping over myself to talk to her every night. Everyone could see the way you looked at the girl. You weren't exactly subtle, you know. Ruth nearly had kittens every time the two of you went off to do something. So don't lecture me about getting attached, Zeke. You were falling for that vampire-

  we all knew it. Maybe you'd better check your own neck before you go pointing fingers at other people. Seems to me the vampire could've bitten you anytime she wanted-" Zeke turned and punched Darren in the jaw, sending him sprawling to the pavement. I froze in shock. Darren staggered upright, wiping his mouth, and tackled Zeke with a yell, knocking them both down. Shouts and cries rose from the group as the two boys struggled and kicked, fists f lying, in the middle of the road. Darren was older and slightly taller than Zeke, but Zeke had been trained to fight and managed to straddle Darren's chest, pounding his face. The smell of blood trickled through the air.

  It was over in seconds, though the actual fight seemed much longer. Jake and Silas descended on the boys, prying them apart, and the two fighters glared at each other, panting and wiping at their mouths. Blood streamed from Darren's nose, and Zeke's lip had been split open, dripping red onto the pavement. They didn't struggle against their captors, though both seemed ready to f ly at the other once more if they were released.

  "What is the meaning of this?"

  You had to give Jeb props. He didn't shout or even raise his voice, but the tension between the two boys diffused instantly. Jeb waved the men aside and stood between the former combatants, looking grim. I watched their faces closely.

  Darren looked pale and terrified, but the expression on Zeke's face was one of shame.

  "Disappointing, Ezekiel. " Jeb's tone couldn't be any f latter if he'd dropped it from a thirty-story building, but Zeke winced as if he'd been given a death sentence.

  "I'm sorry, sir. "

  "It is not me you should apologize to. " Jeb eyed them both with his steely gaze, then stepped back. "I do not know the cause of your fight, nor do I care. But we do not raise our hands in anger to anyone in this community-you both know that. "

  "Yes, sir," both Zeke and Darren muttered.

  "Since both of you have energy enough to fight, tonight you will give your rations to someone who is in better need of them than you. "

  "Yes,

  sir. "

  "Jake," Jeb called, motioning the older man forward. "Take up the rear guard with Darren. Zeke-" he turned to Zeke, who f linched ever so slightly "-you will join me up front. " Zeke and Darren exchanged a glance, then Zeke turned away, following Jebbadiah to the head of the group. But I saw the unspoken apology f lash between them and suddenly realized that Darren was afraid, not for himself, but for Zeke.

  I found out why several hours later, when we stumbled upon the small town Larry had been talking about. It had the same empty, desiccated feel of most dead communities: cracked streets, rusting cars, structures falling apart and overgrown with weeds. A herd of deer scattered through a parking lot, leaping over vehicles and rusty carts. Darren watched them bound away with a hungry, regretful look on his face, but Zeke, walking stiff ly beside Jebbadiah, didn't even glance up.

  I followed them through the town, hugging buildings and easing around cars, until they came to a small building on the corner of the street. At one point, it had been white, with a sharp black steeple and windows of colored glass. Now the siding was peeling off, showing rotten boards underneath, and the windows had been smashed into tiny razor fragments that glinted in the moonlight. A wooden cross balanced precariously atop the roof, leaning forward as if it might topple at any moment.

  This must be a church. I hadn't actually ever seen one standing; the vampires had razed all the ones they could find.

  No wonder the group would be attracted to this building; it probably gave them a sense of security. Jebbadiah escorted them in, pushing through the rotting door, and I looked around for a place to hole up, too.

  The statue of an angel, broken and corroding away, poked out of the weeds at the edge of the lot next to the church.

  Curious, I examined it and found several chipped, broken gravestones buried under the long grass.

  This must be a graveyard or a cemetery. I'd heard of them before in New Covington, places where families used to bury their dead. In New Covington, bodies were usually burned to prevent the spread of disease. This place, like the church itself, was a relic of another time.

  Dawn was about an hour away. Crouching, I was about to burrow into the cool, rich earth that lay beneath the grass and weeds when approaching footsteps made me look up.

  Zeke's bright, tall form cut through the grass several yards away, followed by Jebbadiah, close on his heels. I froze, becoming vampire-still, as motionless as the gravestones around me. They passed very close, close enough for me to see Zeke's cross, glimmering on his chest, and the smooth white scar tissue on Jebbadiah's face. Zeke walked stiff ly in front of the older man, staring straight ahead, like a prisoner on his way to the gallows.

  "Stop," Jeb said quietly, and Zeke stopped. The older man held something long and metallic, tapping it against his leg.

  A car antenna.

  "Let's get on with it, Ezekiel," he murmured.

  I f licked my gaze to Zeke, who stood motionless for a heartbeat, his hands clenched at his sides. Then, slowly, me-thodically, he turned and removed his shirt, tossing it to the ground. I bit the inside of my cheek. His skin was a map of old, pale scars, crisscrossing his back and shoulders. Turning stiff ly, he placed his palms against one of the gravestones poking out of the grass and bowed his head. I saw his shoulders tremble, once, but his face remained impassive.

  "You know why I do this," Jeb said softly, moving up behind him.

  "Yes," Zeke muttered. His knuckles were white from gripping the headstone.

  Don't move, I told myself, closing my fists in the dirt. Do not move. Do not go out there to help him. Stay where you are.

  "You are a leader," Jebbadiah continued and, without warning, struck Zeke's exposed back with the strip of metal. I cringed, fighting the impulse to snarl, as Zeke tightened his jaw. Blood, bright and vivid, seeped crimson down his scarred back.

  "I expect more of you," Jebbadiah continued in that same calm, unruff led voice, striking him again, this time across the shoulders. Zeke bowed his head, panting. "If I fall, you must lead them in my place. " Two more vicious blows in rapid succession. "You must not be weak. You must not succumb to emotion or the desires of the f lesh. If you are to become a true leader, you must kill everything that tempts you, everything that makes you question your morals or your faith.

  If we are to survive this world, if we are to save the human race, we must be ruthlessly diligent. If we fall, the sacrifices of those before us will be for nothing. Do you understand, Ezekiel?"

  The last question was delivered with such a vicious blow that Zeke finally gasped and buckled against the headstone. I crouched in the grass, shaking with fury, my fangs fully extended, fighting the urg
e to leap out and rip Jebbadiah open from sternum to groin.

  Jeb stepped back, his face smooth and blank once more.

  "Do you understand?" he asked again in a quiet voice.

  "Yes," Zeke answered in a surprisingly steady voice as he pulled himself up. His back was a mess of blood, angry slashes over his already numerous scars. "I understand. I'm sorry, sir. " The older man tossed the antenna into the weeds. "Have you apologized to Darren yet?" he asked, and when Zeke nodded, he stepped up and grasped his shoulder. Zeke f linched.

  "Come, then. Let's get you cleaned up before the blood attracts anything dangerous. "

  I sank my fingers into the dirt, watching Zeke stoop slowly, painfully, to retrieve his shirt and follow Jebbadiah out of the cemetery. My muscles ached from holding myself back. The scent of blood, the violence, the furious rage toward Jebbadiah, was almost too much to handle. I watched Zeke stumble, wincing as he braced himself against a headstone, and a low growl slipped out before I could stop it.

  Zeke straightened, glancing back toward the cemetery, a wary frown crossing his face. I bit my tongue, cursing myself, and thought motionless thoughts. I was a tree, a stone, a part of the landscape and the night. Zeke's gaze swept through the cemetery, peering into the shadows. At one point, he looked right at me, our eyes meeting through the darkness, but then his slid away and continued on without recognition.

  "Ezekiel. " Jebbadiah turned to frown at his pupil, impatient. "What are you looking at?"

  Zeke took a step back. "Nothing, sir. I thought I heard. . . " He shook his head. "Never mind. It was probably a raccoon. "

  "Then why are we still standing here?" Zeke murmured an apology and turned away. They disappeared around the corner, back into the church, and I slumped to the ground, fury and the Hunger buzzing through my veins.

  The smell of Zeke's blood still hung in the air, though not as strong as when he was present. I had to get away; the longer I stayed, the more I wanted it. And if Zeke, or worse, Jebbadiah, came through the cemetery again, I might not be able to resist attacking either of them.

  The sky overhead showed a faint pink light on the belly of the clouds, and the sun wouldn't be far behind. I burrowed into the cold cemetery ground, trying not to imagine what else was buried here, beneath the grass and tombstones. The earth closed around me, dark and comforting, and I slipped into the waiting blackness of sleep.

  And, for the first time since I left New Covington, I dreamed.

  A DARK, EMPTY CITY.

  Skyscrapers leaning against each other like fallen trees.

  Memories tinted with anger. Shouldn't have let my guard down.

  Should've seen that trap. I was careless.

  Lightning flickered, turning the world white for a split second. And in the stillness between the flash and the next boom of thunder, I saw him.

  Smiling at me.