The outpost gate creaked in the wind, swinging back on its hinges. It knocked lightly against the wall, a rhythmic tapping sound that echoed in the looming silence. A cold breeze swirled through the gap, and the scent of blood lay on the air like a heavy blanket.
“He’s been here,” Kanin murmured at my side. The Master vampire was a dark statue against the falling snow, motionless and calm, but his eyes were grave. I regarded the fence impassively, the wind tugging at my coat and straight black hair.
“Is there any point in going in?”
“Sarren knows we’re following him,” was the low reply. “He meant for us to see this. He wants us to know that he knows. There will likely be something waiting for us when we step through the gate.”
Footsteps crunched over the snow as Jackal stalked around us, black duster rippling behind him. His eyes glowed a vicious yellow as he peered up at the gate. “Well then,” he said, the tips of his fangs showing through his grin, “if he went through all the trouble of setting this up, we shouldn’t keep the psycho waiting, should we?”
He started forward, his step confident as he strode through the broken gate toward the tiny settlement beyond. After a moment’s hesitation, Kanin and I followed.
The smell of blood grew stronger once we were past the wall, though nothing moved on the narrow path that snaked between houses. The flimsy wood and tin shanties were silent, dark, as we ventured deeper, passing snow-covered porches and empty chairs. Everything looked intact, undisturbed. There were no bodies. No corpses mutilated in their beds, no blood spattered over the walls of the few homes we ducked into. There weren’t even any dead animals in the tiny, trampled pasture past the main strip. Just snow and emptiness.
And yet, the smell of blood soaked this place, hanging thick in the air, making my stomach ache and the Hunger roar to life. I bit it down, gritting my teeth to keep from snarling in frustration. It had been too long. I needed food. The scent of blood was driving me crazy, and the fact that there were no humans here made me furious. Where were they? It wasn’t possible that an entire outpost of mortals had up and disappeared without a trace.
And then, as we followed the path around the pasture and up to the huge barn at the top of the rise, we found the townspeople.
A massive, barren tree stood beside the barn, twisted branches clawing at the sky. They swayed beneath the weight of dozens of bodies hanging upside down from ropes tied to the limbs. Men, women, even a few kids, swinging in the breeze, dangling arms stiff and white. Their throats had been cut, and the base of the tree was stained black, the blood spilled and wasted in the snow. But the smell nearly knocked me over regardless, and I clenched my fists, the Hunger raking my insides with fiery talons.
“Well,” Jackal muttered, crossing his arms and gazing at the tree, “isn’t that festive?” His voice was tight as if he, too, was on the edge of losing it. “I’m guessing this is the reason we haven’t found a single bloodbag from here all the way back to New Covington.” He growled, shaking his head, lips curling back from his fangs. “This guy is really starting to piss me off.”
I swallowed the Hunger, trying to focus through the gnawing ache. “Why James, don’t tell me you feel sorry for the walking meatsacks,” I taunted, because sometimes, goading Jackal was the only thing that kept my mind off everything else. He rolled his eyes.
“No, sister, I’m annoyed because they don’t have the decency to be alive so I can eat them,” he returned with a flash of fangs and a rare show of temper. He glared at the bodies hungrily. “Fucking Sarren,” he said. “If I didn’t want the psychopath dead so badly, I would say the hell with it. If this keeps up, we’re going to have to break off the trail to find a meatsack whose throat hasn’t been slit, which is probably what the bastard wants.” He sighed, giving me an exasperated look. “This would be so much easier if you hadn’t killed the Jeep.”
“For the last time,” I growled at him, “I just pointed out the street that wasn’t blocked off. I didn’t leave those nails in the road for you to drive over.”
Kanin’s quiet voice broke through our argument, and we turned. Our sire stood at one corner of the barn, his face grim as he beckoned us forward. With a last glance at the tree and its grisly contents, I walked over to him, feeling the sharp stab of Hunger once more. The barn reeked of blood, even more than the branches of the tree. Probably because one whole wall of the building was streaked with it, dried and black, painted in vertical lines up and down the wood.
“Let’s keep moving,” Kanin said when Jackal and I joined him. His voice was calm, though I knew he was just as Hungry as the rest of us. Maybe more so, since he was still recovering from his near-death experience in New Covington. “There are no survivors here,” Kanin went on, with a solemn look back at the tree, “and we are running out of time. Sarren is expecting us.”
“How do you figure, old man?” Jackal asked, following me to the side of the barn. “Yeah, this is the psycho’s handiwork, but he could’ve done this just for the jollies. You sure he knows we’re coming?”
Kanin didn’t answer, just gestured to the blood-streaked wall beside us. I looked over, as did Jackal, but couldn’t see anything unusual. Beyond a wall completely covered in blood, anyway.
But Jackal gave a low, humorless chuckle. “Oh, you bastard.” He smiled, shaking his head and staring up at the barn. “That’s cute. Let’s see if you’re as funny when I’m beating you to death with your own arm.”
“What?” I asked, obviously missing something. I stared at the barn again, wondering what the other vampires saw that I didn’t. “What’s so funny? I don’t see anything.”
Jackal sighed, stepped behind me, and hooked the back of my collar, pulling me away from the wall. “Hey!” I snarled, fighting him. “Let go! What the hell are you doing?”
He ignored me, continuing to walk backward, dragging me with him. We were about a dozen paces away from the wall before he stopped, and I yanked myself from his grip. “What is your problem?” I demanded, baring my fangs. Jackal silently pointed back to the barn.
I glanced at the wall again and stiffened. Now that I was farther away, I could see what Kanin and Jackal were talking about.
Sarren, I thought, the cold, familiar hate spreading through my insides. You sick bastard. This won’t stop me, and it won’t save you. When I find you, you’ll regret ever hearing my name.
Painted across the side of the barn, written in bloody letters about ten feet tall, was a question. One that proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Sarren knew we were coming. And that we were probably walking right into a trap.
It had been two weeks since we’d left New Covington.
Two weeks travel, of walking down endless, snow-covered roads. Two weeks of cold and wilderness and dead, silent towns. Of empty houses wrapped in vines, deserted streets, ancient hulks of cars rusting in the gutters. No movement, except for the skitter of wildlife, both large and small, overtaking the streets humans had once ruled. The Jeep, as Jackal had so eloquently pointed out, was dead, leaving the three of us to wander the empty roads on foot, following a madman who knew we were coming. Who was always one step ahead of us.
Time was running out, Kanin had said. In a way, I supposed that was true. What Sarren had, what he carried, could spell the end for a lot of people. Maybe the whole world. Sarren possessed a mutated version of the Red Lung virus that had destroyed the world six decades ago, only this one came with a nasty little side effect: it killed vampires, too. The three of us—me, Jackal, and Kanin—had been exposed to Sarren’s virus when we were in New Covington and had seen the true horror of the plague. Humans had turned into insane wretches who screamed and laughed and clawed at their faces until their skin was all but gone, and attacked anything they came across. For vampires, the effects were even more horrific; the virus ate their dead flesh, and they rotted away from the inside. In the final confrontation with Sarren, we’d learned that the insane vampire was using New Covington only as a test site, that his real intentions were far more sinister.
He planned to kill everything. All humans, and all vampires. Wipe the slate clean, he’d told me, and let the world finally heal itself. His virus, when he released it again, would be unstoppable.
There was just one small kink in his plans.
We had a cure. Or at least, we’d had one. It was in Eden now, that small bit of hope for the rest of the world. That was what Sarren wanted; the cure, either to destroy or to turn against us. He thought we were tracking him to Eden to stop him, to prevent him from destroying the cure or releasing his virus. He thought we were trying to save the world.
He didn’t know. I didn’t care about Eden. I didn’t care about his virus, or the cure, or the rest of the world. It made no difference to me if the humans found a cure for Rabidism, or if they could stop Sarren’s new plague. Humans meant nothing to me, not anymore. They were food, and I was a vampire. I was done pretending that I was anything less than a monster.
But I would kill Sarren.
He would die for what he’d done, what he’d destroyed. I would tear him apart, and I would make him suffer. There had been four of us that night in New Covington, when we had faced the mad vampire for the last time. When I had cut the arm from his body and he’d fled into the dark, only to return later for his most horrible deed yet. Four of us: me, Jackal, Kanin…and one other. But I couldn’t think of him now. He was gone. And I was still a monster.
Abruptly, Jackal slowed and dropped back to where I trailed several paces behind Kanin’s dark, steady figure, following the road that stretched on through the frozen plains. We’d left the outpost and its slaughtered residents a few miles back, and the scent of blood had finally faded into the wind. That didn’t stop the Hunger, though; I could feel it even now, a constant throbbing ache, poised to flare into an inferno of raw, vicious need at the slightest provocation. It even raged at Jackal, annoyed that he wasn’t human, that I couldn’t spin around and sink my fangs into his throat. Jackal seemed happily oblivious.
I ignored him and kept my gaze straight ahead, not really in the mood for a fight or listening to his barbed, obnoxious comments. That, of course, never stopped my blood brother.
“So, sister,” Jackal went on, “I’ve been wondering. When we finally do catch up to Sarren, how do you think we should kill the old bastard? I’m thinking maiming and torture for as long as we can stand it.” He snapped his fingers. “Hey, maybe we can tie him half in and half out of the sun, that’s always interesting. Did that to some undead bastard who pissed me off several years back. The light began at his feet and crawled up toward his face, and it took a very long time for him to finally kick it. By the end, he was screaming at me to cut off his head.” He snickered. “I’d love to watch Sarren die like that. If that doesn’t offend your delicate sensibilities, that is.”
He smirked then, his gold eyes burning the side of my head. “Just wanted to give you a heads-up, little sister, in case you decide to go bleeding heart on me. Of course, if you have a suggestion for how we should do the old psycho in, I’d love to hear it.”
“I don’t care,” I said flatly. “Do whatever you want. As long as I get to land the final blow, I couldn’t care less.”
Jackal huffed. “Well, that’s not very fun.”
I didn’t answer, walking faster to get away from him, and he quickened his pace to keep up.
“Come on, sister, where’s that obnoxious morality you kept throwing in my face every two seconds? You’re making it very difficult to take any sort of pleasure in mocking it relentlessly.”
“Why are you talking to me?” I asked, still not looking at him. Jackal let out an exasperated sigh.
“Because I’m bored. And the old man doesn’t give me the time of day.” He jerked his head at Kanin, still several yards ahead. I suspected Kanin could hear us, but he didn’t turn around or give any indication that he was listening. And Jackal probably didn’t care if he was. “And because I want to know your thoughts on our brilliantly disturbed serial killer.” Jackal waved an impatient hand at the plains surrounding us. “It’s still a long way to Eden, and I get the feeling we’re not going to find any bloodbags—living ones anyway—from here to Meatsack Island. I don’t particularly like the idea of facing the nut job with you and Kanin on the edge of losing it.”
I flicked a glance at him and frowned. “What about you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me, sister.” Jackal grinned. “I always come out on top, no matter what. I just want to point out that this annoying ‘Scorched Earth’ policy Sarren has picked up is going to make it very difficult for you. A couple more days of this, and the next human we see is going to be ripped to shreds—and you’ll be the one doing it.”
I shrugged. Jackal’s revelation wasn’t surprising, and I found that I really didn’t care. Wherever Sarren went, whatever forgotten corner of the country he fled to, I wouldn’t be far behind. No matter what he did, no matter how far or fast he ran, I would catch up to him, and then he would pay for what he had done. “So what?” I asked, returning my gaze to the road. “I’m a vampire. What does it matter?”
“Oh, please.” I could hear the pity in his voice, and the disgust. “Enough with this ‘I don’t care anymore’ shit. You know you’re going to have to deal with it sometime.”
A cold fist grabbed my insides. Jackal wasn’t talking about feeding, and we both knew it. Memories rose up—memories of him—but then the monster emerged, swallowing them before I could feel anything. “I have dealt with it,” I said calmly.
“No, you haven’t.” My brother’s voice was suddenly hard. “You’ve just buried it. And if you don’t get a handle on it soon, it’s going to come out at the worst possible time. Probably when we’re facing Sarren. Because that’s how the psychopath’s mind works—he knows just what to say, and when, to throw us off and give him the full advantage. And then he’s either going to kill you while you’re down and I’ll be annoyed, or I’m going to have to do it myself.”
“Better be careful, Jackal.” My voice came out cold. Empty, because I couldn’t feel anything, even now. “It almost sounds like you care.”
“Oh, well, perish the thought, sister.” Jackal gave me a sneer and moved away. “I’ll stop talking, then. But if we reach Sarren, and he says something to make you fall apart, don’t expect me to pick up the pieces.”
You won’t have to worry about that, I thought as Jackal walked on, shaking his head. A memory flickered, jagged and indistinct, and my inner demon pushed it back. There’s nothing left to break. Nothing Sarren says can touch me now.
We walked a few more miles, through empty flatlands frozen under a layer of snow and ice, until the stars faded and a pink hue threatened the eastern sky. I was just starting to get uncomfortable when Kanin turned off the road and headed toward a gray, dilapidated barn sagging at the end of an overgrown field, a rusting silo beside it. The inside of the ancient building was musty and filled with broken beams and stacks of moldy straw. But it was also dark, secluded, and didn’t have many holes in the roof where the sun could creep through. Ignoring Jackal’s complaints about sleeping in a filthy, rat-infested barn, I pushed open a rotting stall door, found a shadowy corner behind a stack of rancid hay, and sank against the wall to sleep.
For just a moment, memory stirred again, like fragments of someone else’s life, rising up from the dark. I remembered another barn like this one, warm and musty, filled with the soft bleats of livestock and the murmur of the humans around me. Hay and lanterns and contentment. A spotted baby goat, sitting in my lap, two human kids pressed close on either side, watching me feed it.
The monster roused. I’d been Hungry then, too, and had watched as the two humans fell asleep, baring their unsuspecting little necks to the vampire they’d unwittingly curled up against. I remembered bending forward, toward the throat of the child on my lap, as my fangs lengthened and slid out of my gums…before I’d caught myself in horror. I’d fled the barn before I could lose control and slaughter two innocent kids in their sleep.
The monster sneered at the memory. That seemed like a long, long time ago. A lifetime ago. Now, with the Hunger clawing at my gut and burning the edges of my mind, I thought longingly of the sleeping humans, so vulnerable beside me, imagined myself leaning down the rest of the way and finishing what I’d started.
The next night was more of the same. More empty plains and wilderness. More trackless snow, crunching beneath our boots, and an endless road snaking its way northeast. More of the Hunger gnawing my insides, making me irritable and savage. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to ignore the ache that refused to go away. I could feel the monster within, perilously close to the surface, a cold, dark thing that growled and stirred restlessly, always searching. It could hear the shuffle of tiny feet in the darkness, raccoons or possums or other nocturnal creatures, moving through the brush. It could sense the swoop of bats overhead and smell the deep, slow breaths of deer, huddled together in the undergrowth. It wanted to attack, to pounce on some living creature and rip it open, spilling hot blood into the snow and down our throats. But it knew, as I did, that wasting energy slaughtering animals was useless. That would not satisfy the Hunger. Only one type of prey would ease the hollow emptiness inside, and that prey was nowhere to be found.
So, we walked, Kanin leading, Jackal and I trailing behind. Three vampires who didn’t need to rest, who never got cold or tired or winded, traveling through a wasted world that would kill most humans. That, in all honesty, already had.
And Sarren was well on his way to finishing the job.
Kanin turned suddenly in the middle of the road, his expression alert as he gazed back at us. I paused, too, surprised and a little wary. We hadn’t spoken much after leaving New Covington. The Master vampire had walked steadily onward, silent and cold, without looking back at his two offspring. That was fine with me. I didn’t have much to say to him, either. There was a wall between us now. I could sense his disappointment, the look in his eyes whenever Jackal made some snide, evil comment about humans and bloodbags…and I said nothing. Not even Kanin’s silent disapproval would change the fact that I was a monster.
“Someone is coming,” Kanin said, looking at the road behind us. I turned as well, straining my senses, but there was no need. The growl of an engine cut through the darkness, getting steadily closer.
The Hunger surged to life, and, close to the surface, the monster shifted eagerly. Vehicles meant humans, which meant food. I imagined sinking my teeth into their necks, imagined the hot blood rushing into my mouth, and felt my fangs lengthen, an eager growl escaping my throat.
“Get back,” Kanin said, walking past me. I curled my lips at him, defiant, but his back was to me now, and he didn’t notice. “Get off the road, both of you,” he went on, as the engine noise grew louder and headlights glimmered through the trees. “Stopping for three strangers on a lonely road at night is a risk many would avoid. Better that they see a lone, unarmed traveler than a group.” His voice grew harder. “Get off the road, Allison.”
Jackal had already moved back, melting into the darkness. Kanin wasn’t even looking at me, his gaze on the approaching headlights. With a growl, I stepped off the pavement and slipped behind a large twisted tree at the side of the road. And I waited, the Hunger clawing at my insides and the demon watching with barely restrained violence.
The lights grew brighter, and around a bend came a once-white van, now more rust than metal. Kanin stepped forward, raising his arms in a flagging motion as the vehicle sped forward, bathing him in the headlights.
It didn’t slow. It angled toward Kanin, sped up, and a rough-looking human poked his head out the passenger window. He grinned and raised a dull black pistol, aiming it at the stranger in the road.
Kanin jumped back as several shots rang out, flaring white in the darkness. The van squealed past with hoots and harsh laughter, and the monster surged up with a roar.
I leaped out as the van came toward me, drawing my katana as I did. As it careened by, I lashed out with a snarl, aiming for the front tire, cutting through rubber and metal with a metallic scream and a flare of sparks. The van swerved wildly, screeched over the pavement, and crashed headlong into a tree.
I leaped after it, bright Hunger burning through my veins, the monster shrieking viciously in my mind. The driver and passenger lay against the shattered windshield, bloody and still, but the side door rasped open, and two men emerged, both clutching guns, and large ones at that. The first raised his weapon drunkenly as I raced up. My sword flashed, and he screamed as the gun hit the pavement along with both his arms. The second barked a terrified curse and tried to run. He got as far as the edge of the trees before I pounced on him from behind and drove my fangs into his neck.
Blood filled my mouth, hot and addictive. I growled in pleasure and sank into the feeling, the human going lax in my grip. Why had I ever shied away from this? I couldn’t remember now.
“Well, that’s just fabulous. Four humans to start with. Now two are dead and one’s bleeding out like a ruptured fuel hose.” The cold, exasperated voice cut through the ecstasy. I raised my head, warm blood running down my chin, to see Kanin and Jackal standing at the mangled remains of the van. Kanin was observing the armless, nearly delirious human writhe over the ground, moaning and sobbing, but Jackal was staring at me, a half amused, half disgusted look on his face.
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” he remarked. “You go ahead and enjoy that bloodbag. I’m not that Hungry anyway.”
I swallowed, retracting my fangs, feeling faintly guilty. Kanin and Jackal were Hungry, too, and I was hoarding the only healthy source of food. Vampires didn’t feed from the dead, even the newly dead. Drinking from a corpse had the same result as drinking from an animal; it did nothing for the Hunger. Not to mention, most vampires found it repulsive. Our prey had to be human, and it had to be alive; that was one of the ancient, unfathomable rules we lived by. One of the rules you just didn’t question.
Turning, I dragged my prey a few steps into the road, back to where Jackal watched with amused exasperation. “Here,” I said, and shoved the human at him. It collapsed bonelessly to the pavement. “That one is still breathing, mostly. I’m done with it.”
Jackal curled a lip. “I don’t want your leftovers, sister,” he said contemptuously. I smiled back at him.
“Good. I can finish it, then?”
He gave me a murderous look, stalked across the pavement, and hauled the human upright. The man’s head fell back limply, his neck a mess of blood, and Jackal plunged his fangs into the other side of his throat.
I glanced toward the van to see Kanin gently lower the armless human to the ground, where he slumped, lifeless, to the pavement. The stumps of his forearms no longer oozed, and his skin was white. I wondered how much blood Kanin had been able to get out of him before he died. Not much, I guessed, but even a little was better than nothing. I should have just cut off the one arm. Or a foot, perhaps. Then he wouldn’t have been able to run.
Somewhere deep inside, a part of me recoiled, horrified with myself and my current thoughts. The old part, the Allison that was still a little human, screamed that this was wrong, that I didn’t have to be like this. But her voice was tiny, indistinct. I shivered, and the monster buried the voice under cold indifference. It was too late, I thought, feeling blessed numbness spread through my core again. I knew what I was. Sympathy, mercy, regret—those had no place in the life of a vampire. The old Allison was stubborn; it would take a while for her to die for good, but I heard her voice less and less now. Eventually, it would disappear altogether.
Vampire indifference firmly in place, I glanced at my sire. Kanin had stepped away from the dead human and was now peering into the darkened interior of the van. A brief, pained look crossed his face before it smoothed out again. Curious, I walked up beside him and gazed into the vehicle.
There was another body in the van. A young woman, only a year or two older than me, dressed in a filthy white shift. Her hands were tied in front of her, and she lay crumpled against the wall of the van, her neck at an unnatural angle. Curly yellow hair spread over her face, and glassy blue eyes stared at nothing out the open door.
Oh, no. She was a captive, an innocent. I caused this. For a moment, I felt sick. The dead girl’s eyes seemed to bore into me, accusing. I’d killed her. Maybe I hadn’t torn out her throat or cut off her head, but she was dead all the same, because of me.
I could feel Kanin’s dark gaze on my back, and I heard Jackal’s footsteps crunch over the thin layer of snow behind us as he came to peer over my shoulder. “Huh,” he remarked, as if he was staring at a dead bird on the sidewalk. “Well, now we know why the bastards were in such a hurry. Shame she didn’t make it—I’m still a bit peckish.” He sniffed, and I felt his gaze shift to me, hard and reproachful. “That human you so generously left me barely took the edge off.”
“I didn’t know she was there,” I muttered, not turning around. Not knowing if I’d said it to Kanin, Jackal, or myself. “I didn’t know….”
But that wasn’t much of an excuse. I knew it, and Kanin knew it. He said nothing, just turned and walked away, but as always, his silence spoke volumes.
“Oh, well,” Jackal shrugged. “Nothing for it now. It just reminds you how very fragile these meatsacks are. Can’t even look at them funny without breaking their bloody necks.” He glanced down at me. “Aw, don’t beat yourself up too hard, sister,” he said, grinning. “It’s not like the human had much to live for, not where she was headed. You did the bloodbag a favor, trust me.”
I stared at the girl again and felt the monster creep forward, cold and practical, burying the guilt. What does it matter? it whispered. So, you killed another human. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. They’re prey, and you are a vampire. Killing is what we do.
“Yeah.” I sighed and turned away from the van, away from the human and her flat, accusing eyes. Jackal was right; there was nothing I could do now. The girl meant nothing, one more death to be added to the endless, eternal list. Kanin was already walking down the road again, and we hurried to catch up. Leaving the vehicle, its slaughtered passengers, and another small piece of my humanity behind.