The Immortal Rules, Page 20Julie Kagawa
"Well, it's a good thing you were wearing a helmet, isn't it?" Pinned under his bike, the raider looked up at me, eyes wide with pain and fear. I heard his heart racing in his chest, smelled the blood that dripped somewhere beneath the motorcycle. He was tough for a human, I'd give him that. Given how hard he'd slammed into the wall that evening, I'd half expected to find a corpse with a broken neck lying here.
Which would've put a rather large dent in my plans.
I smiled at him, showing fangs. "Too bad your leg is broken, though. That's going to make things difficult for you, isn't it? I must admit, I'm a little sad it ended this way. The chase can be just as thrilling as the kill. "
"Oh, shit. " The raider panted, his face pale under a sheen of sweat. "What do you want, vampire?" How interesting. He was terrified of the vampire but not shocked or surprised to see one. "Well, here's the thing," I went on conversationally. "I've heard rumors that your boss isn't quite human. That he's a lot like me. " I crouched down, smiling at him at eye level. "I want to know where he is, where his lair is located, what his territory is like. I don't meet many vampires wandering about outside the cities these days.
This 'raider king' has me curious. And you're going to tell me about him. "
"Why?" the raider challenged, which took balls, I had to admit. "You lookin' to join the ranks, bloodsucker? Become queen to his king?"
"What if I am?"
"Jackal don't like to share. "
"Well, that's not your problem now, is it?" I said and narrowed my eyes. "Where is he?"
"If I tell you, you won't kill me?"
"No. " I smiled again, baring my fangs. "If you tell me, I won't use you as my personal canteen until we reach Jackal's territory. If you tell me, I won't snap both your arms and other leg like twigs, drag you around until you're a limp sack and dump you on the road for the rabids to find. If you tell me, the worst I'll do is leave you here to die as you please. Actually, I'm feeling kind of hungry now. . . "
"Old Chicago!" the raider burst out. "Jackal staked his territory in the ruins of Old Chicago. " He pointed in a random direction. "Just keep following the highway east. The road ends at a city on the edge of a huge lake. You can't miss it. "
"About a day if you're riding. I dunno how fast you vamps can walk, but you'll get there tomorrow by evening if you ride through the night. "
"Thank you," I said, standing up. A quick glance at the raider's bike showed the left side crumpled and dinged up pretty bad, but otherwise it seemed fine. "Now, I just need you to show me one more thing. "
Zeke had fallen asleep on the couch when I returned, lying on his back in an ungainly sprawl, one arm dangling off the side. In sleep, he looked younger than I remembered, the pain smoothed out of his face, his expression unguarded. It made me reluctant to wake him, but he stirred as soon as I entered the room, and his eyes shot open.
"I fell asleep?" he gasped and sat upright with a grimace, swinging his feet off the couch. "Why didn't you wake me?
How long was I out?"
"It's a little past midnight," I told him and tossed a backpack onto the couch, raising a cloud of dust. "That's yours.
There's food, drink, medicine and other supplies, enough for several days. How's the leg?"
"Hurts," Zeke said, gritting his teeth as he rose, slowly, to his feet. "But I'll live. I can walk out of here, anyway. " He drew the pack gingerly over his shoulders. "Did you find out where they took everyone?"
"Yeah. " I smiled faintly as he glanced up, his eyes f laring with hope. "Jackal's territory is in the ruins of a city a day or two east of here. Old Chicago. That's where they took the others. "
"A couple days east," Zeke muttered, limping toward the door. I went to help him, but he stiffened and shook his head, so I backed off. "Then it'll probably take us several days to get there. I don't think I'll be going very fast. "
"Not necessarily," I said and pushed open the door. Zeke's eyebrows shot up, and I grinned.
The motorcycle sat humming at the edge of the sidewalk, a little crumpled and dinged but none the worse for wear.
"Took me a while to learn how to work the stupid thing," I said as we hobbled down the steps and onto the street, "but I think I got it, more or less. Nice of our raider friends to let us borrow it, right?"
Zeke glanced up at me, relief and gratitude chasing away the hard-eyed suspicion, at least for the moment. In that breath, he looked like the Zeke I knew. Embarrassed, I plucked the helmet off the seat and tossed it at him, making him blink as he caught it.
"I don't need it," I said as he frowned in confusion. "But you might want to put it on-I'm still getting the hang of this. Hopefully I won't run into any more walls. " I swung a leg over the bike, gripping the handlebars, feeling the power that rumbled through the machine. I could definitely get used to this. Zeke hesitated, still holding the helmet, eyeing the motorcycle as if it might bite him. Then I realized it wasn't the bike he was wary of.
It was me.
I squeezed the lever on the handlebars, making the bike snarl loudly, and Zeke jumped. "Do you want to do this or not?" I asked as he glared at me. His jaw tightened, and he gingerly swung his bad leg over the seat, sliding in against my back. I felt the warmth of his body, even though he tried to hold himself away, and felt the pounding of his heart in his chest. It made me thankful I didn't have a heartbeat, or mine would be doing the same.
"Hold on tight," I muttered as he strapped on the helmet.
"This thing has some kick to it. "
I gunned the engine, probably a little harder than I should have, and the bike jumped forward. Zeke yelped and grabbed my shoulders. "Sorry," I called back to him, as he reluctantly slid his arms around my waist. "Still getting the hang of this. " I tried again, a bit slower this time, and the bike eased forward as I maneuvered it down the streets. Once we reached the main road, I stopped and glanced over my shoulder. Zeke's face was tight, his arms and back stiff, whether from discomfort or pain or both.
"Ready for this?" I asked, and he nodded. "Then hang on.
I'm going to see how fast we can really go. " His arms tightened around me, his heart thudding against my back. I turned the bike east, kicked it into motion, and the engine roared to life as it surged forward. We gained speed, the wind shrieking in my ears as we went faster and faster, nothing between us but empty road. I felt Zeke's arms squeezing my ribs, pressing his face to my back, but I raised my head to the wind and howled.
Above us, the full moon shone huge and bright on the f lat prairie, lighting our way as we sped east, toward the end of the road.
I could've ridden forever. The wind in my hair, the open highway ahead of me, f lying down the road at this crazy speed; it never got old. Unfortunately, the approaching dawn and Zeke's condition forced us to stop a couple hours before sunrise, pulling up to a crumbling farmhouse to rest and rebandage Zeke's leg. After clearing out the colony of rats that had made their nest in the dilapidated kitchen, I sat Zeke down at the table to check his wound. The gash didn't look infected, but I poured liberal amounts of peroxide on it before wrapping it in clean bandages. The strong odor of chemicals, mixed with the scent of Zeke's blood, made me a tad nauseated, which I took as a blessing in disguise. I had no desire to bite him when he smelled so strongly of disinfectant.
"Thanks," he muttered as I rose, gathering up the old bandages to bury outside. I didn't think there were rabids nearby, but you could never be too careful. Rabids probably had no issues drinking peroxide-scented blood.
I turned warily. From the tone of his voice, I knew he was just as uncomfortable as me. Zeke was silent for a moment, as if debating whether or not he should say something, then he dropped his shoulders with a sigh.
"Why did you come back?"
I shrugged. "I was bored? I had nowhere else to go? It seemed a good idea at the ti
me? Take your pick. "
"I would've shot you," Zeke went on softly, staring at the ground. "If I'd seen you, hanging around? I would've done my best to kill you. "
"Well, you didn't," I said, sharper than I intended. "And it doesn't matter now-though next time, if you don't want me saving your life, just say so. " Turning away, I started to leave.
"Wait," Zeke called and sighed, running his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry," he said, finally looking up at me. "I'm trying, Allison, I am. It's just. . . you're a vampire, and. . . " He made a frustrated, helpless gesture. "And I wasn't expecting. . . any of this. "
"I didn't bite anyone," I told him quietly. "That's the truth, Zeke. I didn't feed from anyone in the group. "
"I know," he said. "I just thought-"
"But I wanted to. "
He looked up sharply. I faced him, my voice and expression calm. "There were a lot of times," I continued, "where I could have fed off you, Caleb, Darren, Bethany. And it was hard, not to bite them, not to feed from them. The Hunger, it's constantly with you. That's what being a vampire is, unfortunately. You can't be around humans for long and not want to bite them. "
"And, you're telling me this. . . why?"
"Because you need to know," I said simply. "Because this is what I am, and you should know what that is, before we go any further. "
His voice was cold again. "So, you're saying. . . none of us will ever really be safe around you. "
"I can't promise that I will never bite any of you. " I shrugged helplessly. "The Hunger makes it impossible not to crave human blood. We can't survive without it. And maybe you were right to drive me off that night. But I can promise you this-I will keep fighting it. That's the best I can offer.
And if that's not enough, well. . . " I shrugged again. "We can worry about that after we've rescued the others. " Zeke didn't answer. He appeared to be deep in thought, so I left the room without another word, heading outside to dispose of the bloody wrappings.
In the yard, I buried the rags quickly, then stood to gaze down the road. Old Chicago waited at the end of the highway, along with a whole raider army and a mysterious vampire king. Who ruled a vampire city. I found it ironic; the very thing I'd been running from all this time was the place I'd return to in the end.
The sky in the east was lightening. I returned inside to find Zeke still at the table, the open backpack beside him, munch-ing from a bag of pretzels I'd scavenged in town. He glanced up as I came in but didn't stop eating, an instinct I recognized from my Fringer days. No matter what the situation, no matter how awful you felt or how inappropriate it was, you still ate when you could. You never knew when your next meal would be, or if your current meal would be your last.
I also noted he had his gun out, lying on the table within easy reach, and decided to ignore it.
"Dawn is almost here," I told him, and he nodded. "There's painkillers in there if you need them, and some water. The bandages and peroxide are in the front pocket. "
"What about ammo?"
I shook my head. "I couldn't find any back in town, and I didn't have much time to look around. " I deliberately did not look at the pistol close to his hand. "How many bullets do you have left?"
"Then we'll have to make them count. " Glancing through the window, I winced. "I have to go. Take it easy on that leg, okay? If something happens, I can't help you until the sun goes down. I'll see you this evening. " He nodded without looking up. I wandered down the hall, weaving through cobwebs and scattered rubble, until I reached the bedroom at the end. The door was still on its hinges, and I pushed it open with a squeak.
A large bed sat against the wall beneath a broken window, curtains waving gently in the breeze. On the worm-eaten mattress, two adult skeletons lay side by side, the remains of their clothes rotted away. Between them was a much smaller skeleton, being held in the arms of one of the adults, cradling it to its chest.
I gazed at the skeletons, feeling an odd sense of surrealism.
I'd heard stories of the plague, of course, when my mother had told me tales of life before. Sometimes it struck so fast, so suddenly, that entire families would get sick and die within a couple days. These bones, this family, were of another age, another era, before our time. What had it been like, to live here before the plague, when there were no rabids and vampires and silent, empty cities?
I shook those thoughts away. No use in wondering about the past, it wasn't going to do me any good. I backed out of the room and crossed the hall, pushing open the door opposite the bedroom. The space here was smaller, with a single twin bed against the wall, but it was dark, the windows were shuttered closed against the sun, and it didn't have any skeletons.
I lay down on my back, keeping my sword within easy reach on the mattress. Of course, if anyone wanted to sneak up on me during the day, I'd be easy pickings, lying here like the dead, unable to wake up.
I glanced at the closed door, and a thought came to me that turned my insides to ice. Zeke was still out there, awake, mobile and armed. While I slept, would he come creeping into my room to cut off my head? Would he kill me as I lay here, helpless, following the principles that Jeb had instilled in him? Did he hate vampires that much?
Or would he simply take the bike and drive off to confront the raiders alone?
I suddenly wished I'd chosen to sleep outside, buried in the deep earth, away from vengeful demon slayers. But gray bars of light were slanting in beneath the shutters, and I could feel my limbs getting heavy and sluggish. I would have to trust that Zeke was smart enough to know he couldn't rescue the others alone, that his principles weren't nearly as strict as his mentor's, and that even though I was a vampire, he would realize that I was still the person he had known before.
My eyes closed, and just before I lost consciousness, I was almost certain I heard the door creak open.
THE WORLD WAS UPSIDE DOWN.
I couldn't move my arms from behind my back, couldn't move anything. A soft breeze slithered across my naked shoulders. My arms felt broken. Or bound. Or both. Strange that I felt no pain.
The floor, a few feet from my head, was concrete. The walls around me were concrete. It had the feeling of being deep underground, though I remembered nothing of how I came to be here. I turned my head and saw, upside down, a table a few feet away, covered in instruments that glinted at me from the shadows.
Footsteps. And then a pair of boots stepped in front of me, the glowing end of a poker suddenly inches from my face, blindingly hot.
I jerked away as a voice slithered down from the haze above.
"Welcome to my home, old friend. I hope you like it-you're going to be here for a while, I think. Maybe forever, won't that be exciting?
Oh, but before you say anything, let me first give you your official welcome to hell. "
And the point of the poker was suddenly rammed through my stomach, exploding out my back, the smell of blood and seared flesh misting on the air.
And then the pain began.
I jerked awake with a snarl, lashed out at the unfamiliar shadows above me and toppled out of bed. Hissing, I leaped upright, glaring at my surroundings as the phantom pain of a steel bar through my gut ebbed away into reality.
I relaxed, retracting my fangs. Again with the strange nightmares. Only this one was infinitely more awful than the one before. It had felt so real, as if I was right there, hanging from the ceiling, a white-hot poker jammed through my body. I shuddered, remembering that cold, slithering voice.
It seemed familiar, as if I'd heard it before. . .
"Allison. " A knock came at the door. "You all right? I thought I heard a yell. "
"I'm fine," I called back, as relief swept in and drowned everything else. He's still here. He didn't leave, or cut off my head in my sleep. "I'll be right out. " Zeke raised his eyebrows as I opened the door and emerged into the hall, feeling rumpled and tired. "Bad dreams?" he asked, and I
glared at him. "I didn't think vampires had nightmares. "
"There are a lot of things you don't know about us," I muttered, shuff ling past him into the kitchen. A candle f lickered on the table amid opened cans of beans and empty jerky wrappers. He must've discovered a stash of food. "Come on, it's probably a good idea to check the bandages one more time before we head out. "
"Actually, I've been thinking," Zeke admitted, limping as we went into the living room. He definitely looked better this evening; food, rest and painkillers were finally doing their job. "About what you said last night. I want to know more about vampires. . . from you. The only things I've heard are what Jeb has told me. "
I snorted, grabbed the backpack off the f loor. "That we're vicious soulless demons whose only purpose is drinking blood and turning humans into monsters?" I joked, rummaging around for the bandages and gauze.
"Yes," Zeke answered seriously.
I looked at him, and he shrugged. "You were honest with me last night," he said. "You didn't tell me what I wanted to hear, what I expected you to say. So, I thought I could. . .
listen to your side of the story. Hear you out, if you wanted to tell it. Why you became a vampire. What made you want to. . . " He paused.
"Become undead? Drink the blood of the living?" I pulled out the peroxide, the bandages and the gauze, setting them on the f loor in front of the couch. "Never have to worry about sunburns again? Well, maybe once more. " He gave me an exasperated frown. "If you don't want to tell me, that's fine, too. "
I gestured to the couch, and he sat down, resting his elbows on his knees. I knelt and started unwinding the gauze from his leg. "What do you want to know?"
"How old are you?" Zeke asked. "I mean, how long have you been. . . a vampire?"
"Not long. A few months, at most. "
He sounded shocked, and I raised my head to meet his gaze.
"Yeah. How old did you think I was?"
"Not. . . months. " He shook his head. "Vampires are immortal, so I thought. . . maybe. . . "
"That, what? I'm hundreds of years old?" I smirked at the thought, bending over his leg again. 'Believe it or not, this is all very new to me, Zeke. I'm still trying to figure everything out. "
"I didn't know. " Zeke's voice was soft. "So, you really are just as old as me. " He paused a moment, digesting that fact, then shook his head. "What happened to you?" I hesitated. I didn't like discussing or remembering anything about my life before; the past was past-why dwell on something you couldn't change? Still, Zeke was trying to understand me; I felt I owed him an explanation, at least. The truth.
"I didn't lie when I said I was born in a vampire city," I began, focused on my task so I didn't have to look at him. "My mother and I. . . we lived in a small house in one of the sectors.
She was Registered, so that meant twice a month she had to go to the clinic to get 'blooded. ' It was all very civilized-
or that's what the vampires wanted us to believe. No forced feedings, no violent, messy deaths. " I snorted. "Except people still disappeared from the streets all the time. Vampires are hunters. You can never take that out of them-out of us-no matter how civilized things are. "
I felt Zeke's discomfort, his sudden unease at me admitting that all vampires were, more or less, killers. Well, he wanted the truth. No more lies, no more illusions. I was a vampire, and this was how things were. I only hoped he could accept it.
"Anyway," I continued, peeling back the gauze to reveal the wound. It looked angry and deep, but not infected. "Mom got sick one day. She wasn't able to get out of bed, so she missed her scheduled bloodletting. Two days later, the pets came and took the required amount by force, even though she was still too weak to move, or even eat. " I paused, remembering a tiny, cold bedroom, and my mother lying beneath the thin blankets, pale as snow. "She never recovered," I finished, pushing the image away, back to the darkest part of my memories. "It wasn't long before she just. . . faded away. "
"I'm sorry," Zeke murmured. And sounded as if he actually meant it.
"I hated the vampires after that. " I soaked a rag in peroxide and pressed it to the wound, feeling him stiffen, gritting his teeth. "I swore I would never be Registered, that they wouldn't brand me like some piece of meat, that I wouldn't give them even one drop of blood. I found others like me, other Unregistereds, and we scraped out an existence as best we could, stealing, scavenging, begging, anything to survive.
We almost starved, especially in the winter, but it was better than being a vampire's bloodcow. "
"What changed?" Zeke asked softly.
I picked up the bandages, unwinding the roll without seeing it. Memories f lickered again, dark and terrifying. The rain and the blood and the rabids, lying in Kanin's arms, feeling the world fade around me.
"I was attacked by rabids," I finally said. "They killed my friends and tore me up pretty bad, outside the city walls. I was dying. A vampire found me that night, gave me the choice of a quick death, or to become one of them. I still hated the vampires, and I knew, deep down, what I would become, but I also knew I didn't want to die. So I chose this. " Zeke was silent for several minutes. "Do you regret it?" he asked finally. "Becoming a vampire? Choosing this life?" I shrugged. "Sometimes. " I tied off the gauze and met his gaze, searching for reproach. "But if the choice was being dead-really dead-and being alive, I would probably do the same thing. " Zeke nodded thoughtfully. "What about you?" I challenged. "If you were dying and someone offered you a way out, wouldn't you take it?"
He shook his head. "I'm not afraid to die," he said in a voice that was neither boastful or condemning, just quietly confident. "I know. . . I have faith, that something better is waiting for me, after I'm done here. I just have to wait, and do my best, until it's time for me to go. "
"That's a nice sentiment," I said honestly. "But I'm going to keep living for as long as I can, which will be forever if I'm lucky. " Gathering up the supplies, I stood, staring down at him. "So tell me, what happens to vampires when they finally kick it? According to Jeb, we don't have souls anymore.
What happens when we die?"
"I don't know," Zeke murmured.
"Don't know, or don't want to tell me?"
"I don't know," Zeke said a little more firmly, and exhaled.
"Do you want me to tell you what Jeb would say, or do you want my own opinion?"
"I thought Jeb taught you everything he knew. "
"He did," Zeke replied, holding my gaze. "And he's tried very hard to mold me into the leader he wants me to be. " He sighed, looking evasive, defiant and ashamed all at once.
"But, if you haven't noticed, we don't always see eye to eye.
Jeb says I'm stubborn and intractable, but I have my own opinions about certain things, no matter what he believes. "
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow. "Like what?"
"He was wrong about you. I. . . was wrong about you. " I blinked. Abruptly, Zeke rose, his face troubled, as if he really hadn't meant to say that. "We should get going," he said, avoiding my gaze. "We're not far from Old Chicago now, right? I want to find the others as fast as we can. " Outside, the stars were just beginning to show. I noticed three piles of fresh, overturned earth in the front yard, a pile of stones at the head of each one, and glanced at Zeke ques-tioningly.
"They needed to be buried," he said, gazing down at the new graves. His blue eyes grew haunted, and he sighed. "I just hope they're the only ones I'll have to lay to rest. " I didn't want to give him false hope, so I didn't reply.
Mounting the bike, I waited until he slid in behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist, without hesitation this time. Easing the bike from the dirt onto the pavement, I opened it up, and we sped off toward the vampire city waiting at the end of the road.
If I thought New Covington was big, it was nothing compared to Old Chicago.
The wind whipped at my hair, blowing in from the biggest body of water
I'd ever seen. The lake stretched away until it met the sky, and dark waves rose and fell, breaking against the rocks.
On the edge of the lake, rising into the clouds, the city of Old Chicago loomed over everything. Back in New Covington, the three vampire towers were the most prominent buildings in the city, standing proudly over the rest. But the Chicago skyline had buildings that dwarfed even the vampire towers, and there were a lot more of them, even shattered and crumbling as they were. It reminded me of a mouthful of broken teeth, grinning madly against the night sky.
Behind me, Zeke blew out a short breath, tickling my ear.
"Wow, it's huge," he said. "How are we supposed to find anything in that?"
"We'll find them," I said, hoping I wasn't making empty promises. "Just look for the huge band of raiders led by a vampire. How hard can it be?"
I ate my words a few minutes later.
Old Chicago was even more sprawling and massive up close than viewed from afar. It felt as if it went on forever, miles of broken pavement, dead cars and empty buildings. Cruising through the rubble-filled streets, the monstrous skyscrapers looming above us, I wondered what the city had been like when it was alive. How many people had lived here to jus-tify so many buildings packed this close, reaching up to the sky? I couldn't even imagine.
We followed the road until we turned a corner and found the path blocked by the remains of a huge skyscraper. I pulled the bike to a stop and gazed around, trying to get my bearings.
"This is hopeless," Zeke said, looking past me at the collapsed building. "It's too big. We could be searching this place for weeks, months even. And by then who knows what they'll do to everyone?"
"We can't give up, Zeke," I said, turning the bike around.
"They're here somewhere. We just have to keep-" I stopped then, because something else had turned that corner and was coming toward us. A pair of raiders on long, sleek bikes, their handlebars sweeping up like horns, roared out of the shadows, catching us in their headlights. I stiffened, and Zeke tensed as the men pulled to a stop a few yards away, regarding us curiously. One of them had a woman sitting behind him, her frizzy hair tangled by the wind.
One biker jerked his head at us. "Heading to the Floating Pit, huh? Guess you heard the news. "
The what? "Um. . . yeah," I replied, shrugging. "We did. Is that where you're going?"
"Yep. " He turned and spit on the pavement. "Should be a good show tonight. " He eyed us then, forehead creasing.
"Haven't seen you two around before," he said. "You new to the Pit, little girl?"
Zeke's arms around me tightened. I hoped he wouldn't lose it. I was about to make up something about being new to Old Chicago, when the woman on the other bike slapped her driver's shoulder. "We're going to be late," she whined, and the man rolled his eyes. "Jackal promised us a show, and I don't wanna miss it. Let's go, already. "
"Shut up, Irene. " Her raider scowled but jerked his head at the man who'd spoken to us. "Come on, Mike. Talk to the rookies later. Let's go. " He gunned his engine, drove the bike up a ramp that went through the skeletal skyscraper, and was gone. The other raider rolled his eyes and started to follow.
"Mind if we follow you into the Pit?" I asked pleasantly.
He glanced at me, surprised, but shrugged.
"Shit, I don't care, rookie. Just try to keep up. " The Floating Pit, I quickly learned, lived up to its name.
We followed the raiders through the streets of Old Chicago, zooming around dead cars, rubble and more fallen skyscrapers, going faster than we probably needed to. The roar of the engines echoed off the buildings, and sometimes we barely cleared a wall, a tunnel or an overturned vehicle, passing so close I could've reached out and touched it. I loved this, though Zeke wasn't quite as thrilled. His cheek pressed into my back and his arms were locked tightly around my waist, making me glad I didn't have to take a breath.
Finally, we rolled to a stop on the back of another fallen giant, looking over what I guessed had been downtown Chicago, once upon a time. The skyscrapers here defied belief, even skeletal and crumbling as they were. One tower had lurched to the side and was now leaning precariously against another, shortening the lifespan of both. There were several gaps in the skyline where it looked as if buildings had already fallen, but it was impressive nonetheless.
From where we stood, I could make out a long stretch of elevated tracks, looping around the buildings like a huge snake. I remembered, from my mother's stories, a certain type of vehicle had run on those tracks in the days before, shut-tling people back and forth at high speed. Below the tracks, a series of platforms, bridges and catwalks had been cobbled together, stretching between buildings and crisscrossing the streets like a giant web. Which was necessary, because everything at ground level was underwater.
Humans crowded the narrow platforms and walkways like ants, making their way over the dark, turbulent waters. There were swarms of them, more than I'd expected. This wasn't just a raider hideout; this was a city, a real city like New Covington or any other vampire territory. It didn't have a wall-I assumed the deep water kept out the rabids-and the humans here were free to come and go as they pleased, but there was no question that we were stepping into the lair of a vampire king. On the bright side, from the number of humans wandering about, getting through unnoticed would be much easier than I'd feared.
The raiders we'd followed didn't pause to look at the city; I watched their headlights cruise down a ramp, over a ram-shackle bridge and onto an enormous barge sitting at the water's edge. Dozens of bikes were parked there in messy rows, along with a couple of the armored vans I'd seen earlier. I guessed the raiders couldn't take their bikes onto the narrow walkways of the f looded city.
I felt Zeke peering over my shoulder, felt him take a deep breath, and glanced back at him. "Ready for this?" He nodded, eyes grim. "Let's go. "
We followed the same path as the others, down the ramp, over the bridge and onto the barge. Finding a free corner, I killed the engine and stepped away, a little sad that I'd have to leave the bike behind. I wondered if I would get the chance to come back for it.
I turned slowly, gazing at the vast expanse of water on either side. It felt odd, being on top of the water. The ground felt unstable, as if it could suddenly sink into the black depths.
A cold wind hissed through the rows of bikes, and the boat bobbed gently on the waves, making Zeke stumble as he stepped up beside me.
Worried, I grabbed his elbow. "How's the leg?" I asked, noticing he kept his weight off it. "Can you do this? Will you be all right?"
"I'm fine. " He pulled his arm out of my grip, standing on his own. But his face was pale and clammy with sweat, even in the chill. "Don't worry about me. I can keep up. " The growl of bike engines distracted us. More raiders were arriving, several of them this time, laughing and shouting over the noise of their bikes. Zeke and I ducked behind a stack of crates, watching as they killed their engines and swaggered toward another bridge on the other side, pointing into the city.
Zeke and I exchanged a glance. "Sure you don't want to wait?" I asked, and he scowled at me. I frowned back. "You're still hurt, Zeke. I can find the others on my own if I have to. "
"No. " His voice was rough, final. "It's my family. I have to do this. Don't ask me again. "
"Fine. " I glared at him and shook my head. Stubborn idiot.
"But at least try to look a little more raider-ish, okay? We don't want to attract attention. "
Zeke's snort sounded suspiciously like laughter. "Allie, you're a beautiful, exotic-looking vampire girl with a katana. Trust me, if anyone is going to attract attention, it's not going be me. "
I didn't answer as we crossed the f limsy, creaking bridge into the lair of the vampire king. We didn't talk to each other for several minutes. If Zeke had asked, I would've said that I was thinking of how to find everyone, but that wasn't entirely true. I was thinking of the
others and how I was going to get them out alive. . . but I kept being distracted by the thought that Zeke had called me beautiful.
The city was like a maze, a labyrinth of walkways, bridges and catwalks, all strung together in the most confusing way possible. A catwalk would lead to a platform, which led to a bridge, which led to the roof of a sunken building, which led right back to the same catwalk we'd already been on.
After wandering in circles a couple times, I was ready to jump into the dark water and swim my way out. Torches and steel drums burned along ramps and walkways, the f lickering lights ref lecting in the dark water and only adding to the sense of disorder.
People hurried by on the narrow walkways, bumping us, jostling us out of the way, sometimes on purpose. Sometimes they would snicker or bark curses as they shoved me aside.
I kept my head down and clenched my teeth every time someone hit me, fighting the urge to snap at them. There was no law here, no pets to keep order, no guards to contain an outbreak of violence. A fight erupted once, with two raiders throwing punches atop a narrow platform, until one pulled out a knife and stabbed the other in the neck. Choking, the man toppled off the platform, hit the water and sank from view. After a cursory glance, everyone went about their business.
"This is crazy," Zeke muttered, pressing close. His blue eyes swept nervously over the crowd. "Jeb told me about places like this. We have to find the others and get them out now, before someone shoots us in the back for no reason. " I nodded. "The raiders said something about Jackal 'putting on a show' at the Floating Pit," I mused. "He's the one we want. If we find him, we'll probably find the others. "
"Right. So, we have to find the Floating Pit. " Zeke looked around, noticed a dark, wild-haired woman walking toward us, and sighed.
"Excuse me," he said, reaching out to stop her. "Would you help us, please?" She jerked back, eyes narrowing as she raked Zeke up and down, then her thin lips curved into a smile.
"Excuse me?" she mocked, her voice high and nasal.
"Excuse me, the boy says. Oh, well, how polite and proper.
Makes me feel like a lady again. " The grin grew wider, showing missing teeth. "How can I help you, polite boy?"
"We're looking for the Floating Pit," Zeke said calmly, ignoring the way she leered at him, her tongue f licking through the spaces in her teeth. "Can you tell us where it is?"
"I could. " The woman stepped closer. "Or I could show you where it is. How 'bout it, boy? I wasn't going myself-
Jackal's little shows are a bit much for me-but for you, I'd make an exception, hey?"
I stepped up beside Zeke, resisting the urge to growl. "Just directions, if you don't mind," I said pleasantly, with an un-dertone that warned get away from him or I'll tear your throat out.
The woman snickered and drew back.
"Ah, well, that's too bad. I would've made it worth your while. " She sniffed and pointed down a catwalk, where a group of people were already headed. "Just follow that path till you reach the Pit. It'll be all lit up this time of night. You really can't miss it. "
"Thank you," Zeke said, and the woman cackled, holding her hand to her heart.
"Such manners," she said, pretending to wipe away a tear.
"If only my slug of a man spouted that poetry, I might actually want to stay with him. Well, have fun, you two. This is your first show, eh?" She snickered again and brushed past us, shaking her head, calling back over her shoulder. "You might want to bring something to throw up in. " Zeke and I exchanged a worried glance.
"That sounds ominous," I muttered.
The woman was right, the Floating Pit was impossible to miss. Standing on a street corner, the square stone building wasn't as tall as the skyscrapers around it, but the towering, neon red CHI AGO sign next to the entrance glowed brilliantly against the darkness. Besides missing its letter C, the sign was full of holes and cracks. But despite the damage, it still functioned. For what purpose, I had no idea.
"I guess that's the Floating Pit?" Zeke muttered, watching raiders crowd through the door. Since the first f loor was underwater, the walkway connected to a wooden platform that led inside the building. "Doesn't look like a pit to me. And the sign says Chicago. You'd think they'd call it something different. "
"I'm guessing literacy isn't high on a raider's priority list," I murmured as we approached the building, craning my neck to gaze up at the sign. Looking down, I saw an overhang shimmering beneath the water, probably where the original doors would be. The entrance into the building was an arched stone frame with no hinges or doors, making me think it must've been a window at one point.
More walkways and bridges covered the f looded front hall of the building. I couldn't see the first level, but stairwells rose out of the water and ran up to second story balconies, where the crowd was headed. We followed them up the stairs and through the doors into a dimly lit arena, where anticipation hung thick on the air and in the crowds milling about the room.
"And this is why it's called the Pit," I said, looking around in amazement.
The chamber we'd stepped into was huge, an enormous domed room that soared majestically overhead. A balcony stretched around the room, lined with moldy seats that folded into themselves. On the left side, part of the balcony had fallen away, leaving a jagged, gaping hole, but there were still enough seats here to hold every raider in the city. Narrow aisles led down to the edge of the overhang, where it dropped away into the dark waters below.
Below us, an enormous red curtain stretched across the back wall, dropping down until it touched a f loating wooden stage. A cage covered most of the platform, twenty feet high, with wire mesh covering the top so nothing could escape.
The back half of the stage was hidden by the curtain, and I wondered what they were keeping back there.
Then Zeke touched my arm, pointing to something inside the cage.
A steel kennel had been shoved against a wall, with only tiny barred slits for windows. Every so often, the box would shake as whatever was inside moved around, but it was too dark to see through the slits. The wooden f loor was stained with old blood.
"Blood sport," Zeke muttered as we hovered near the back.
"This must be Jackal's idea of entertainment. They place bets to see which animal comes out of it alive. " He looked around at the excited mob and shivered. "I don't particularly want to see two dogs rip each other to pieces. We should look for the others. "
Before I could reply, a spotlight f licked on, shining down on the arena. I blinked. The stage had been empty a few seconds ago, I was sure of it. But a man now stood at the front, smiling at the crowd. He was tall, lean but muscular as well; I could see the cut of his chest beneath his shirt and faded leather duster. Thick black hair had been pulled into a pony-tail, accenting a young, handsome face and smooth, pale skin.
His eyes, sweeping over the crowd, were a lazy gold.
The man raised his arms as if to embrace us all, and the crowd went wild, roaring, beating on the f loor, even firing their weapons into the air. And I suddenly knew. We had found him. This was Jackal, the vampire raider king.
"Good evening, minions!" Jackal bellowed, to a chorus of hoots and howls and screams. "I am in a fabulous mood tonight. What about you?" His voice carried easily over the noisy room, clear, confident and magnetic. Even the rough-est bandit was hanging on his every word. "Never mind! I don't really care how you feel, but thank you all for coming to this little spectacle. As you might've heard, we have some exciting news! For the past three-and-a-half years, we've been searching for something, haven't we? Something important!
Something that could change not only our world, but the entire world as we know it. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"
I didn't, but listening to the raider king speak, I felt a glimmer of recognition. Like I should know him from. . . somewhere, though I didn't know why I felt that way. I was positive I'd never seen him before.
> "Anyway," Jackal continued, "I wanted to let everyone know that a few nights ago, our search finally came to an end.
We have found what we've been looking for all this time. " Zeke stiffened beside me. Behind Jackal, a pair of raiders pushed aside the curtain and shoved someone onto the stage.
Jackal spun with shocking grace, grabbed the figure by the collar and dragged him forward, into the light.
Jebbadiah. His wrists were bound, and dark bruises covered his face and eyes, but he stood tall and proud next to the raider king, glaring at the mob with icy contempt. I put a warning hand on Zeke's arm, in case he forgot where he was. With a few hundred raiders and only two of us, now was not the time for a suicide rescue.
The crowd booed and jeered as Jeb regarded them coldly, but Jackal smiled and threw an arm around his shoulders, patting his chest.
"Now, now," he chided. "Be polite, all of you. You'll make him think we don't want him here. " Jackal grinned, looking entirely animalistic. "After all, this is the man who holds the key to your immortality. This is the man who will be re-sponsible for our rise to glory. This is the man who is going to cure Rabidism for us!"
The crowd erupted into chaos, but I still heard Zeke draw in a sharp breath. Stunned, I turned to him, seeing him pale, as if he already knew. And suddenly, everything made a lot more sense.
"That's why he's been after you," I hissed, leaning close to be heard over the howling mob. "He thinks Jeb can cure the virus, that's why he's hunted you for so long. Anyone would want that. " Zeke looked away, but I grabbed his arm, pulling him back. "Does Jeb have the cure? Is that what you've been hiding, this whole time?"
"No," Zeke rasped, finally turning to face me. "No, he doesn't have the cure. There is no cure. But-" I held up my hand, silencing him. The mob had finally quieted down. Jackal waited until the last few revelers had stopped, then turned to pat Jeb on the shoulder. "Unfortunately," he went on in a sorrowful voice, "our good friend here is somewhat reluctant to share what he knows! Can you believe it? I have a lovely lab all set up, waiting for him for three years, with everything he needs or could possibly want, and he doesn't seem to appreciate it. " A chorus of loud boos and insults. Jackal held up a hand again.
"I know, I know. But we can't force him to work, can we?
I mean, it's not like I can break his fingers or bash his head in to get him to do what I want, right?" He laughed good-naturedly, and it sent a chill down my spine. "Which is why we're here tonight," he went on. "I've set up a bit of entertainment for our guest of honor, but I hope the rest of you enjoy it, too. Hopefully, it won't be over too quickly, but we do have a whole troop of new faces we can toss in if things get dull. " He turned and stared directly at Jeb as he said this, lips pulled into a demonic smile, before turning back to the crowd. "So, I guess I don't have anything else to say except-
on with the show!"
He exited the stage to a cacophony of cheers and howls, pulling Jebbadiah out with him. Zeke reached down and took my hand, squeezing tightly, as if to anchor himself for what was to come.
The curtains parted, and two more raiders marched out with another figure between them, his head covered with a dark bag. Opening the cage, they jerked the bag off, shoved him inside the cage, and slammed the door.
"Darren," Zeke moaned, starting forward. I tightened my grip on his hand and grabbed his arm, holding him back.
"Zeke, don't. " He gave me a desperate look, but I held firm.
"Go out there and you'll just get yourself caught or killed," I said, meeting his tortured gaze. "There's nothing we can do for him now. "
A chilling screech drew my attention back to the ring. Darren, standing fearfully in the center of the cage, glanced at the kennel on the far wall. A rope that I hadn't noticed earlier had been tied to the door, drawn through the cage bars, and was now in the hands of a raider, bracing himself to yank on it. And I suddenly knew, with terrible certainty, what was in that kennel.
For a split second, the whole room was silent, voices fading away as the onlookers held their breath. Darren, alone in the arena, looked around desperately for an escape route, but there was nothing, nowhere he could run. Zeke was rigid; I could feel him shaking beneath my hands, unable to look away. For just a moment, Darren looked up, and their gazes met. . .
Then the hollow clang of the kennel door opening echoed in the silence, and Darren didn't even have time to turn before the rabid slammed into him, pulling him down with a screech.
The crowd roared and surged to their feet, and for a moment Darren was lost in the swell, though his screams could be heard even over the crowd. Zeke let out a breathless sob and turned away, wrenching himself from my grip, but I forced myself to watch, searing the images into my brain. It was the least I could do for Darren, to remember his last moments and to remind myself of what I could become. Not a rabid but something worse; something ruthless and savage and power-hungry, a true monster, like the raider king. Jackal had abandoned his humanity long ago, but I would not forget. I would remember this moment, and Darren's life would not go to waste.
Thankfully, it was over very quickly. Darren's limbs hadn't even stopped twitching when Jackal sauntered up to a bench and stood on it, raising his arms to the cheers of the crowd.
Jeb stood behind him, his face white, shaking with grief and fury. "How's that for entertainment?" Jackal called, and the mob roared approval. I found myself hating all of them, wishing I could f ly down and start ripping their jeering mouths off their faces. "And, good news-there's plenty more where that came from!" He whirled on Jeb, eyes gleaming. "So, what'dya say, old man? I think the next one in the cage should be that pretty girl. Or maybe one of the kids? It really makes no difference to me. Or. . . did you have something else in mind?" I couldn't hear Jebbadiah, over the crowd, but I saw his lips move as he stared at Jackal, fear and hatred lining every part of his body. "I have no choice," I thought he said, and Jackal nodded, smiling. "I will do as you ask. "
"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Jackal motioned to one of his raiders, and they took Jeb away. Turning back toward the crowd, the vampire grinned, showing a pair of extremely long, deadly fangs. "Minions, I promised you immortality, and I'm going to deliver! Now, the only thing left to choose is who I'll Turn first once we find the cure. Who is going to have that prestigious honor? Hmm. " He snapped his fingers. "Maybe we'll just hold a huge free-for-all, and whoever comes out alive gets to be immortal, what'dya say?" The crowd roared again, beating the seats, pumping fists and weapons into the air, screaming his name. Jackal raised his arms again, accepting the applause, the adoration, while behind him, Darren's blood pooled over the side of the cage and dripped into the water.
Zeke made a strangled noise and walked away, staggering toward the doors as if he was drunk. No one noticed him; their attention was riveted on Jackal and the show he'd put on in the center. But as I drew back, preparing to hurry after Zeke, Jackal raised gleaming yellow eyes over the crowd and caught my stare. He blinked as our eyes met, a puzzled expression crossing his face, and then I was out the door, following Zeke into the dark corridor.