Chapter Nine

I'M AWAY FROM THE slaughterhouse and the corpses and the flies and the stench now, and the land stretches out in front of me forever. The sun-bleached, knee-high grass shifts lazily from side to side in the warm wind like waves on a gently rolling sea. The world is suddenly absolutely beautiful, calm and almost completely silent. I feel strong and relaxed, revitalized and ready for the next fight. It'll be time to leave soon.

I take a few steps forward, the blazing sun blinding me and burning my skin, my boots trampling down the long grass and leaving a flattened trail behind me. Considering how close to the cull site this place is, it's remarkably tranquil and clear. Ahead of me there's nothing, the land from here to the horizon barely even undulating, only a handful of distant, parched trees daring to stretch up from the yellow-green ground into the intense blue sky above.

Wait. What was that?

I hear something. The rustle of grass. Footsteps? I'm starting to think it was just the wind when, a few yards ahead of me, a childlike figure appears, emerging from the long grass where it had been hiding. Virtually naked and desperately thin; I can't even tell from here what sex it is. It slowly stands upright, watching me intently, swaying slowly. I don't care who or what it is. I know that I have to kill it.

I start sprinting, totally focused on catching the small figure up ahead and nothing else. He runs (I can tell from the way he moves it's a male) and makes a sudden, darting turn to the left, moving far faster than me. The gap between us increases, and I follow his trail through the flattened grass, around and around in a lazy arc until I end up back where I started. The child disappears momentarily, and as I scan the horizon I see that up ahead of me now are the ruins of my hometown. It's been weeks since I've been here, but it's almost exactly as I remember, just a little dirtier than before. The dark, ugly buildings are in stark contrast to the beauty of everything else. There's a steady haze of smoke, wisps of white climbing up between the tallest buildings and clouds of dirty gray lying at street level like a heavy fog.

I've completely lost sight of the child now, but the trail of trampled grass will lead me straight to him. I start running again. The chase is getting harder now. The air is scorched and dry, and I can feel the fierce sun burning the skin on my bare back. I force myself to keep moving forward, driven on by the thought of killing again. My mouth salivates at the prospect of tearing Unchanged flesh from bone...

A thin strip of brittle hedge marks the farthest edge of the grassland. I crash through, ignoring the spiteful branches and thorns that slash at my skin, then keep running along an empty street I don't recognize. There are buildings rising up on either side of me now, dilapidated and skeletal but still tall and imposing enough to finally block out the sun. It's hard to see anything in the sudden change from light to dark, and it's ice cold in the shadows. Disoriented, I start to slow down. The child I'm chasing is long gone.

I hear footsteps again-more than one person this time, and they're behind me. I turn around and see a huge crowd of people charging up the long straight street after me. There's enough of them to fill the entire width of the road, but their true numbers are masked by the worsening gloom. I start to run again, willing myself to keep moving faster. My energy levels are dropping now that I'm the one being chased, and every step takes ten times the effort it did before. My hunger has been replaced with fear, and the crowd's getting closer. Every time I look back over my shoulder they're nearer still. There's a gap in the row of buildings to my left-leading to another even straighter, even narrower road-and I take it, my heavy boots and aching feet pounding the concrete, shock waves shooting the length of my tired frame. All my strength and energy have gone. Can't keep going...

I stop halfway down the second street, unable to go any farther. I look back, and the crowd is still surging after me like a herd of stampeding animals, close enough that I can see their faces now. They suddenly stop, maintaining an unexpected, cautious distance. I sense they could attack at any moment, and I'm scared. For the first time in months I feel genuinely afraid. I look at the people at the front of the hunting pack, and I see that they're like me, but I sense they're going to attack. Why? Do they think I'm one of the Unchanged? I open my mouth to try to explain, to try to make them understand, but I can't force out even a single word. I feel crushed, devastated, and humiliated, wishing I were like them again. They look at me with total hatred...

I turn around to run and find myself facing Ellis. In disbelief I move closer toward her. She backs away from me, matching every step forward with a single step back, then stops again when I stop.

"Ellis," I start to say, my parched voice barely audible, "I thought you'd..."

She throws herself at me, leaping up with lightning speed and grabbing hold of my throat. I'm down before I know it, my face slammed hard into the ground...


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