Chapter Thirty-Four

RECOGNITION AND FAMILIARITY BRING even more fear and nerves. Not far now. The hotel's almost in view, and every footstep I take brings me closer to Lizzie and to knowing what happened to my daughter. What if I'm too late? What if Ellis is lost or dead? Suddenly turning tail and heading back to the town hall to fight alongside the others seems an easier option than what I'm about to do.

I take a shortcut through an eerily empty supermarket, in through the loading bay and out toward the smashed front windows. Before going outside again I stop and stand in the darkness to take stock of the chaos unfolding all around me. The behavior of the Unchanged population is changing. In the short time since the explosions around the town hall, most of them have abandoned their need to remain isolated and distant from everyone else. Although there are some who still cling to the protection of the shadows, desperate not to be seen, most have now joined the ever-growing exodus away from the center of the city. They move virtually as a single, snaking mass now, all of them following the person in front, none of them consciously choosing the direction in which they run. Their sudden reliance on the safety of numbers again exposes the pathetic weakness and vulnerability of the Unchanged.

I run along a narrow, shadow-filled street, then pause when I reach Arley Road and look in both directions, struggling to see anything through the hordes of people now trying to escape from the center of town down this major route. Then I spot it. The Prince Hotel stands fifty yards or so farther up the road. The once-imposing building is pretty much exactly as I remember, its frontage just becoming visible in the dull first light of dawn. The rain has finally stopped, leaving the damp air smelling fresh and clean, the dirt and decay temporarily washed away.

What the hell am I doing? I suddenly feel guilty and weak. I should be back by the town hall fighting with the others, so what am I doing out here on my own? Logic says that after three months of violence and unpredictability, Lizzie could be anywhere. Christ, she's probably dead. Craven told me the Unchanged computer system was inaccurate and easily manipulated, so why have I put so much faith in what I saw on the computer screen? The reason's simple-it's because I've got nothing else. There's no alternative. This is my last chance, and I can either take it or give up on Ellis forever. I take my axe from my belt and a knife from inside the folds of my coat and hold them ready. I feel detached from everything now. There's the Unchanged on one side, my people on the other, and then, standing alone and wedged right between them, is me.

I sprint away from the side of the road and charge deep into the river of people still flooding out of town. The first few stragglers I collide with are pushed away with hardly any effort, and it's not until I'm close to the center of the road that I have to start killing to keep moving. It's the only option left now if I want to get through, but I know I'm doing it because it's the only way to keep moving, not because I want them dead. I'm carried along with the flow of barely human flesh, so deep and so strong and fast-moving that I struggle to lift my arms to fight. I manage to raise the axe and bring it thumping down between the shoulders of a man directly in front of me. I spin him around, the blade still buried in his back, then kick him down. A woman, being forced forward by the mass of people behind her, trips over the body on the ground, and I hack at her, too, wedging the axe deep in her neck. Two down now, and the piled-up corpses act like a rock in the middle of a stream, channeling the flow of refugees around me on either side. I'm braced for their reaction, but it doesn't come. These people have seen and experienced so much that what I'm doing is nothing new to them. All they're interested in is getting away, screw everyone else. Another man trips over the bodies on the road and collides with me. I swing the axe around and hit his pelvis, sending him spiraling away and clearing even more room. I'm suddenly standing in an unexpected bubble of space. One man, tall and powerfully built, much stronger than me, breaks ranks and hurls himself at me. All I do is hold out my knife, and the stupid bastard impales himself on the blade. Another one rushes me, and now they're finally beginning to realize what I am. I duck out of the way of his amateurish, aimless attack, and he collides with a teenaged girl. A bald man with wild eyes helps her up and out of the way, then turns on the other man and punches him in the gut. I continue to move backward, working my way across the road. In my wake more desperate, panicked fights break out. Whether they're trying to get away, trying to help each other, or trying to find me, it doesn't matter-their reactions are all the same. They fight. And once they've started, they keep fighting. I force my way through the mob with relative ease, hacking and slicing at them only when I have to. All around me the Unchanged begin to turn on each other, and I'm quickly forgotten.

Breathless and bloody, I reach the front of the hotel. I cross the parking lot and climb the steps up to the door, forcing my way inside as several others force their way out. Christ, I feel weird-strangely invisible and high on a euphoric mix of adrenaline and nerves. If I am feeling any fear, it's masked by the immense satisfaction, excitement, and relief of having just killed again. But as I disappear into the vast and dark building, a sudden wave of terror hits me. Lizzie might be here. She might be standing next to me for all I know, because I can hardly see anything. What was I thinking? How am I supposed to find her in here? Did I think I was just going to be able to walk up to the reception desk and ask for her room number? As I scout around the first floor, the full implications of my shortsighted lack of planning really hit home. This was a mistake. Time is running out. The city won't last much longer, and my only remaining option is to check every damn room. For half a second I consider turning around and just wading back out into the crowds to enjoy the killing for as long as I'm able, but then I remember Ellis again, and I force myself to stay calm and stay in control. I know I don't have any choice but to keep moving.

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