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."