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She wasn’t going back. They were liars, all of them. They said it wasn’t safe. But Cassie had made it all the way to the narrow mountain highway unmolested, without a glimpse of another living soul. Once, there might have been campers, hikers on their way to one of the nearby parks, or sleek city cars turning off toward the vineyard. The roadside country store had done a decent business way back when. Now it was shuttered and abandoned, its owners fled or dead.
Cassie crouched on the roof, squinting down at the darkened street. She had been up here most of the day, catching a bit of sleep in the shade of a defunct air conditioning unit. It had seemed safer to get up high. Even if it looked quiet, she couldn’t quite shake the Sisters’ warnings. They had said they were the girls’ protectors, shepherds of the last flock, safe behind their high stone walls. Were they out looking for her, Cassie wondered, their willfully lost lamb?
Fortunately for her, the store below hadn’t been entirely emptied. Girls whispered about it, sometimes, the bravest of them sneaking down to steal candy bars or cigarettes. The Sisters never would have allowed it if they had known. In Cassie’s first year at the Academy, someone had brought back a packet of eyeshadow – one of those cheap variety kits – that passed in secret among the class. A terribly kept secret, of course, and she had never seen the Sisters so angry. The entire school had had to do penance.
Before climbing onto the roof, Cassie had grabbed some canned sausages, a bottle of flat soda, and a bag of not-entirely-stale pretzels. But that had been hours ago. She had woken to the rumbling of her stomach, the darkness reminding her that the others would just be sitting down to dinner. It was safer to travel by night, she knew that. Even in this new world of monsters, most still kept to the old human schedules.
Zombies moved by night, didn’t they? Vampires for sure. At least that’s what the stories said. Bracing her rifle on the roof’s edge, she sighted down the scope. If only the world was that simple. If only the monsters looked like monsters.
The Sisters had given them lessons, of course, in marksmanship and self-defense. The armory was right behind the chapel and, like the chapel, it wasn’t barred to anyone. In case of a breach, the girls needed to be ready. It was up to them to defend themselves. Only through constant vigilance could they set the world right.
The rifle felt good in her hands, comforting. Maybe it was all a lie, made up stories to keep the girls from venturing out, from asking questions. But there had been no way she was leaving the Academy unarmed. Better safe than sorry.
She was stalling, she knew. There was no one here. The store below was full of potted meats and other dusty treasures. Her stomach growled again.
Cassie shouldered her backpack and slung the rifle over her shoulder. There was a rusted metal ladder bolted to the side of the building, one that she’d been able to draw up after her. With a kick, it extended back to the ground and she descended quick as she could. The backdoor of the shop had been broken in ages ago and it swung open now, sending up a swirl of dust as Cassie slipped inside. Pushing it closed, she crouched against it, drawing her rifle and sighting down the aisles. The store was shadowed, cluttered with toppled displays and empty wrappers that crunched underfoot. But it was empty.
With a sigh of relief, she straightened and shouldered her weapon. It might be miles before she found another place like this. Opening her bag, she tossed in three cans of sausages, a roll of toilet paper, and a box of tampons. The candy display had been wrecked, so she settled for old-fashioned caramels and black liquorice. There was a gated area in the back that held alcohol and, after a moment’s thought, she slipped inside. The lock was long broken and so were many of the bottles, covering the floor in a sticky, crunching mess, but her search turned up two small bottles of cheap vodka. For injuries, she told herself with a laugh.
Behind her, someone coughed. It might have been polite, a clearing of the throat, but it was all she could do not to scream. Whirling around, she spun the rifle into her hands.
“You shouldn’t be here.” The voice was low, hoarse.
It stood in the shadows of the central aisle, tall and unmoving, the hood of its dark coat drawn up to hide its face. It didn’t flinch at the gun, didn’t raise its hands in protest. It simply stood, simply stared.
“Stay there.” Awkwardly, Cassie made her way out of the liquor cage, keeping the gun trained on the man. It was a man, she realized. Her grip on the rifle tightened.
“You shouldn’t be here,” it said again.
“Neither should you.”
Slowly, he stepped into the dim light of the window and lowered his hood. He was younger than she had realized, not much older than her. His eyes were dark, his features angular, his jacket worn and dusty. Good-looking, if a little starved. Cassie allowed the rifle to dip, just a bit.
“You’re… a boy.”
He smiled. “You act like you’ve never seen one before.”
“You’re not sick?”
At that, took another step forward. “You shouldn’t be here.”
She jerked back, repeating the question more forcefully. “Are you sick?”
Now he did raise his hands in supplication. “I won’t hurt you, but you have to leave.”
“Stop. Stop right there.” Bracing the rifle against her shoulder, she spread her feet. “Are. You. Sick?”
He stopped, sagging. “Yes.”
“You don’t look sick.”
“I… have some control over it.” He raised his eyes to hers. There was nothing maddened there, none of the signs the Sisters had taught them to recognize. His smile was tremulous. “You need to leave.”
“Yeah. Okay.” She backed toward the door.
He followed, his eyes on the gun. His steps were slow, nonthreatening. Up close, he looked younger still - his lips too full, his chin smooth and hairless. If not for the voice, she might have taken him for a girl, one of the other students.
“I don’t get it.”
“You’re not attacking me.”
He laughed. “That’s what you’ve come to expect isn’t it? What those dusty, old crones have taught you. I don’t blame them. But it’s not me you need to worry about. They’ve… migrated. There’s a new group in the area, up from the city, I think.”
“What else? Hunting.”
He lunged close. Cassie jerked the gun upward, but he caught the barrel. Pulling her down, he pressed a finger to his lips and nodded to the windows.
The glass was filthy, letting in only the weakest moonlight, but shadows moved outside. There were three that she could see, hulking, shambling figures walking the shop’s perimeter. One stopped close to where they were crouched and raised its head, scenting the air.
“Shit,” she breathed.
“I told you. You shouldn’t be here.”
Cassie readied her rifle. “That’s real helpful. Thanks.”
The sniffing figure stumbled nearer to the back door, the same one that Cassie had come through. The shattered lock wasn’t going to do them any good. Maybe she could make a run for it, get to the front entrance...
“Get in the cage.” The helpful stranger was still crouched, moving to put himself between her and the prowling shadows.
“The liquor cage. When I tell you, you run.”
“What are you going to do?” He didn’t have a weapon that she could see. She could give him the rifle, but he was… he was…
“Go! Go now!”
The shadows had drawn up beyond the door, pushing it open with a squeal of rusted hinges. Cassie whirled and ran, sprinting for the cage with the rifle clutched to her chest. The stranger moved in the same instant, launching himself at the first shadow through the door. They both went crashing to the ground, but the boy flailed, kicking over a heavy display of firewood. It pinned the door shut, the two creatures outside howling in protest.
Cassie skidded into the liquor cage, glass breaking as she crashed into the shelves and pulled the gate shut behind her. The boy was back on his feet and barreling after her.
“Let me in!”
She hesitated. The lock was broken. He’d be able to force his way in if he wanted. But he had helped her, hadn’t he? And, behind him, the invading shadow came lurching to his feet.
“Let me in!”
Cassie stepped back and the boy came stumbling in beside her. He slammed the gate shut, adding his strength to hers and they leaned against it.
They’d made it just in time. The shadow gathered speed, a growl building in its chest as it threw itself against the cage. The blow rattled the walls, sending more glass raining down around them. She screamed, but they held their ground, bracing their shoulders against the gate as the man thrashed on the ground.
That’s what it was, a man. His clothes were torn and soiled, his hair wild and unkempt. These were the monsters of the Sisters’ stories, given over to their most primitive urges, rapers and killers long beyond the control of their rational minds. Outside, his companions howled.
Cassie looked sideways at the boy. If the Sisters’ had been telling the truth, where did he fit in? The sickness preyed on something inside them. All men had been affected, some more than others, but it was a losing battle. Always. In the chaos, her rifle had been forgotten, but now she clutched it in sweating hands, watching both the stranger and the beast thrashing outside.
The boy seemed to sense her indecision. “I can get you out. I think. But you need to do what I say.”
She scowled. Beyond the cage, the man lurched to his feet. This time he stood some distance away, studying them with a tilt of his head. They were beyond speech, the Sisters’ said, more animal than man. Could he speak to them, she wondered? Could she?
It was a futile thought. It lunged at them again, pressing its full weight against the gate. Again, her feet slid backward in the broken glass, but this time she forced herself to hold, to look. The man’s nose was only inches from her own, his breath panting against her face. Wild eyes flickered over her, the man’s tongue darting across his lips. Thick fingers gripped the links of the cage, pressing, reaching. The gaps were too small, digging into his flesh and he struggled, but still she recoiled.
The man’s eyes swept to the boy. Pressing close, it breathed deep, scenting them again. Apparently dissatisfied, it snapped its teeth at him before returning to Cassie. This time when it raised its head and inhaled, she could have sworn she saw it smile.
Its hands were still clawing, roaming low – looking for a weakness in the cage, she thought. But it was pawing at her, she realized, or trying to, spittle dripping from its lips as it grasped helplessly at her thighs. It bucked against the cage, rattling it violently, a howl of frustration rising from its throat. Again, he pressed his face close to hers, that wet pink tongue straining toward her through the grate.
Cassie pinched shut her eyes, pressing herself back against the shelves, only dimly aware of the bottles falling around her. It was over, all over. They had tried to warn her.
With a grunt of effort, the boy shouldered the gate shut again. His voice was strained. “I need you to help. Or I need you to run. Your choice.”
She opened her eyes. He was watching her with more concern than impatience. Since she had stepped away, the man wasn’t giving him nearly as much of a fight.
“Are you wearing perfume?”
It was a strange question. “No. The Sisters’ don’t let us.”
“Shampoo? Something sweet, kinda flowery?”
“Yeah. Yeah, shampoo.”
The boy smirked. “I think he likes it.”
With a plaintive moan, the man reached for her again. He was a monster, no doubt, but beside him the boy looked almost normal. His features were delicate, youthful, his eyes kind. He was different, more like her than the beast outside. No matter what the Sisters said, he had helped her.
“You have a plan for getting out of here?”
“Yeah. I hold him off. You run.”
The man outside twice his size. He’d had the element of surprise before, but the man could easily tear him apart. From the stains on the creature’s coat and hands, he’d done it before.
“Could we lock him in here?” Cassie didn’t know why she lowered her voice. The man was close enough to hear her, but if he understood he gave no sign.
The boy thought about it. “The door swings inward.”
“We could tie it. Lock it. With… something.” She nodded. “Over there. Near the camping stuff. There’s twine, bungie cords, some of those plastic zip ties.”
“Okay. But how do we get him in here? We’re in here.”
“He wants me.” She stared straight ahead, thrusting the rifle into his hands without looking away from the man outside. He bucked hungrily against the cage again, his tongue darting back and forth in anticipation. They had to assume he understood. He’d been born a predator, after all, even before he became a monster. “Let him come get me.”
“Bait. Your plan is to be bait.” The boy stared at her wide-eyed. Then he sighed. “It might work.”
“You stand there, out of the way.” She nodded to the rifle. “You ever used one of those before?”
“Not like this.”
“Like a club, then.” She waved a hand, demonstrating. “Once he’s past you, you hit him and run. That should give me time to get out. I’ll pull the door ‘til you’re back with the rope.”
“You really think you can hold him?”
Still, she held the man’s gaze. The Sisters’ training was about to get a field test. With any luck, she’d be back to give a full report before breakfast. She’d tell them they’d been right, that she was sorry, that she never should have left. A dozen promises flitted through her head, if only she could make it out of here alive. Maybe she was bargaining with the Sisters’ God, maybe with Fate itself, but there was no one to hear. No one could get her out of this but her.
“‘Being a victim is a choice.’” Cassie spoke the words reverently. That was what the Sisters said. The full passage droned on about guarding against temptation, the feminine inclination toward submission, and a bunch of other stuff that she’d, honestly, found pretty offensive. It was the first part that always stuck with her, though. If it got her out of this, she’d gladly swallow the rest.
The boy nodded, readying the weapon. For thousands of years, men had been bashing each other’s brains in. She never thought she’d be one to encourage it.
With a final nod of confirmation, the boy stepped back from the door, squeezing himself out of the way. The man was so intent on Cassie that it was a split-second before he noticed. Stretching out a hesitant paw, he patted the door inward. Maybe he had understood them after all. His head tilted to one side, then the other, and he sniffed the air again.
Too late, she realized that it wasn’t suspicion. Pushing the door the rest of the way open, he pulled himself up to his full height, looming to fill the space. His tongue darted out as he stared down at her, wetting his lips in anticipation. This wasn’t restraint. This was an animal savoring his kill.
He scratched at himself offhandedly, one filthy hand sliding inside his pants. Cassie was keenly aware of every breath. She struggled not to shut her eyes again.
The man came closer, one leg dragging behind him as he shambled into the cage.
“Now,” she gasped the word, barely audible as the creature smiled down at her. “Now!” she screamed. “Do it now!”
Mercifully, the boy had also noticed the injured leg. He swung the rifle with everything he had, shattering the knee from behind. The man lurched forward, grabbing for Cassie. He caught the strap of her backpack with one hand, the other flailing for her, trailing blood and dirt down her jeans. With a wild twist, she broke free, leaving the backpack behind and giving him a kick for good measure.
The boy had made it out faster, lunging the nearby display of camping supplies as Cassie pulled the gate shut behind them. He stood now just beyond the cage, frozen and staring. He had her weapon, the only means of restraining her attacker. They both realized it in the same instant. If he was really as bad as they all said, he had her dead to rights.
“Move!” Suddenly he was beside her, snapping zip ties through the grate to hold the door shut. The man was still struggling to get to his feet, slipping on the broken glass. Two ties at the top, two at the bottom. Cassie grabbed a handful and bent to help. They didn’t stop until every tie in the pack was gone.
Cassie let out a whoop of triumph. Without thinking, she threw her arms around the boy’s neck and spun him in a hug.
He recoiled, shoving her away. “Don’t.”
“Oh, come on. You’re not sick, you’re not like them.”
“Maybe not, but… they’re what I’m supposed to become.” He shook his head. “And it’s not that, not really. I’m just… it’s been a long time since anyone’s hugged me.”
“It must be lonely. Out here.”
He gave her a wry smile. “‘Real men don’t cry.’”
That sounded like more of the Sisters’ bullshit. She was about to tell him so, but his eyes locked on to something behind her. His lips pressed thin. “Run.”
She stiffened, careful not to turn around. “Shit. The other two?”
“They’re inside. Near the front door.” He held the rifle properly this time. “Head for the back. Go now.”
This time she didn’t hesitate. She caught sight of them as they turned, two more men ragged clothes with the animalistic movements of the infected. She drew their attention immediately, but the boy strode in the other direction. Raising the rifle, he fired a round into the ceiling.
“Hey, assholes! Over here!”
They turned, for the moment torn. Cassie kicked away the fallen firewood, climbing over the toppled display to squeeze through the back door. The night air hit her face, cold and cool. Inside the store, another gunshot went off.
Should she go? Keep running? Try to help? He had said they wouldn’t hurt him, but these were beasts in human skin. They didn’t differentiate. They only wanted to kill, to mate, to feed.
Bending double, she vomited. Then she was running, back through the empty parking lot. Even if she made it to the road, there would be no help. The safety of the Academy’s walls was half a day’s hike. Squinting into the darkness, she scanned the treeline. Was there someone there?
They appeared in ones and twos, shadows taking shape in the woods. A glance back at the road showed another knot shuffling toward her. They were migrating, he said, coming up from the city. Had they picked it clean? Made their way out into the country in search of fresher prey?
By now, the Sisters would know she was gone. They’d be out looking for her. They’d come. She had promised to be better, promised to believe.
Cassie staggered back to the store, spinning around, trying to look in every direction at once. She’d given the boy her gun, for all the good it had done him. He was probably dead now; inside, the shop was quiet as a tomb. Now she was unarmed, alone, a scared stupid girl in bloody clothes.
She couldn’t be pretty right now, not with her wild hair and tattered clothes. The Sisters always said not to make yourself pretty, not to invite temptation. It had been pride that caused the fall, the sins of women that had poisoned the hearts of man. So it had been in the beginning, so had it been at the end. The infection had only hastened the inevitable, the Sisters said.
She jumped, feeling the cool press of the shop’s wall at her back. At least she had that, but there were nearly a dozen of them now, the noose around her slowly closing. Why didn’t they rush her? Why didn’t they get it over with?
In a moment of wild panic, she mussed her hair, clawing it into a wild mane. She crouched, hunching her shoulders like they did, unleashing a guttural roar as she lashed out with wildly with her arms. It was a poor impression, but it slowed them, the figures keeping a common distance as the ring closed around her. They were men, every one of them, old and young, fat and slim, but with the same hunger in their eyes. She was caught, theirs, without question. All that was left was to divvy up the choicest bits.
The largest of them stepped forward. He wasn’t the one she’d seen before, but he walked with the same confidence as the man in the cage, the same assured and savory hunger. This time, though, there was no cage between them.
He lunged suddenly, pulling up short as she screamed. The smell of him filled her nostrils, making her gag as he loomed over her, one hand braced against the wall beside her. She was weeping openly now, her eyes pinched shut. With his free hand, he stroked her cheek, a single callused finger tracing the line of her tears. The gesture was almost tender and she took a shuddering breath, daring to open her eyes. His face was rough, the nose recently broken, with dried blood caked at the corner of his mouth. Bending, he traced the tears with his tongue, lapping at the salt, pressing his tongue against her in a long and luxuriating taste.
“No.” Cassie shuddered.
The man made a sound that might have been a laugh, a call that was echoed by the others as the circle pressed close.
“No!” she shouted again.
He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, forcing her to her knees. The others were growing bolder, crouching behind him, darting in to grab and pinch and pull. Her sweater came away, claws digging at her face, her legs, the soft flesh of her belly. She knew what came next, the Sisters had told them, but when the first set of teeth sank in, she gasped.
Beasts in human skin. That’s what they called them. Beasts who lived only to mate and kill and feed. Some nights, they got to do all three.
[To be continued with a perspective shift to a new arrival at the Academy and the return of our mysterious hero.]