Tue, 12 May 2009 - 7:35 pm

Toll

Couldn’t get back to post again yesterday – things are crazy right now.

 

So there was a gun pointing at me.

The gun-bearer let out a short, high bark and more sounds cascaded around us. They swarmed out of the stores lining the street, including the one that hid our scooters. Our transport had been discovered. Worse, the barker wasn’t the only one carrying a firearm – there were shotguns, handguns and even a rifle. They lifted to point towards us and gestured for us to drop our own blunt, fireless weaponry. We had them in-hand in case of shamblers, but we put them down in the face of bullets.

It took me a moment to figure out who they were. One of them turned around to pass a signal up the street and I saw the tag on the back of his jacket – a few efficient lines suggested a head with a mane and bared teeth. We had seen that tag on buildings, but now it was on people. The Pride.

There weren’t many of them – less than there were of us – but their arsenal meant that we weren’t going to try anything. They surrounded us and we shifted into a defensive circle, with Nugget and Dillon in the middle. Nugget was smart enough to keep her head down.

There were taunts and jeers, all ‘what do we have here’ as if they were taking their cues from bad teen movies. The looks that they gave us were less fake and even less funny, though; they made me push Dillon back into the centre of our group when he tried to stand out with the rest of us. Their hungry looks would’ve stripped us naked right there and then, if they could.

But they were waiting for something. In the meantime, they demanded our food and water, waggling gun barrels towards our packs. We complied with reluctant movements and plenty of glares; enough rumours about them had passed our hearing for us to believe that they weren’t bluffing when they threatened to take the supplies over our dead bodies. Even Masterson had the good sense to keep his mouth shut, though the worry that he would say something wound me a notch tighter every time I thought about it.

 

They were hard-looking, lean creatures, these Pride members. They watched us like whips with lip-parted grins, pleased with their catch while they waited for their leader. There was something particularly narrow and calculating about the way the girls in the group looked at us; I couldn’t figure out if we were competition or reprieve for them.

The leader didn’t take long to show up – the roar of motorcycle engines foreshadowed his arrival. His leather jacket had a tan-coloured fur collar – he took the whole ‘Pride’ thing quite seriously and I made a mental note not to call them kittens. He was tall and bore the mark of an acid burn across one cheek, the work of a single drop that had hit and dribbled through this flesh, now healed to an angry red scar.

He swung off his bike and swaggered over to us, mouthing off cocky statements like, “What do we have here?” He said his name was Kingston. I heard Masterson draw breath behind me and hoped that he wouldn’t say anything. Not him, not now.

Kingston babbled on, looking very pleased with the find and walking around us slowly. He paid particular attention to me and Sally, enough that Ben put his arm across in front of me protectively. The Proud one smiled, knowing he’d found a nerve. He stopped in front of me and asked, “Who are you?”

He meant me, but I opted to ignore that. “We’re the Seekers. Just passing through.”

“Oh, are you really?” he said, and I wanted to smack that look off his face. Smug bastard. “We’ve heard about you. Aren’t you supposed to be all sweet and fluffy?”

“Depends on who we’re talking to.”

He was expecting me to say that it depends on who he’s talking to, and my answer made his eyebrows lift. “Well, you wanna pass through here, you gotta pay a toll.”

Thorpe spoke up from Ben’s other side. “You’ve already taken all our food and water.”

Kingston smiled at me, not even sparing the big fella a glance. “You’ve got other things we can… use.”

I felt something moving at the small of my back and it took me a moment to realise what it was. Matt was standing beside me; I could feel his fingers curling into the beltloop of my jeans. As if he might be able to hold me back from this. I was stronger knowing that he’d try. I’d do the same for him.

“We’ve paid all the toll we’re going to,” he said.

“Fighting it just makes the price higher, you know.” Kingston crossed his arms smugly and, again, I had to fight the urge to slap him.

I felt Ben’s fingers tighten on my hip as he drew breath to add his own thoughts on the matter, but then I saw the girl who had ridden in on the back of Kingston’s bike. I pushed his arm away as I leaned to get a better look.

All blonde hair and high heels, perfect clothes and lipstick, she was done up as if the bomb had never gone off. With a sigh, she slid off the bike and wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. I froze, staring at her.

“Bree.”

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