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.