The immortal rules, p.21
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       The Immortal Rules, p.21

         Part #1 of Blood of Eden series by Julie Kagawa
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Chapter 21

 

  "Zeke!"

  I caught him and yanked him around a corner just as a pair of rough-looking men came down the hall, laughing and swearing at each other. The raiders continued into the main room, where the echo of the crowd could still be heard through the open doors. I wondered what Jackal was doing and hoped he didn't have any more "entertainment" planned for the night.

  Zeke was leaning with his back against the wall, but, as I approached, he slid down until he was sitting in the corner, gazing straight ahead at nothing. For a few heartbeats, he stayed like that, his expression glazed and dead. Then a shudder racked his frame, and he slowly hunched over, bending his head to his knees, as he sobbed quietly into his hands.

  I watched him silently, my own throat suspiciously tight. I wished I knew what to say, the right words to comfort him, but sympathy was never my strong suit, and besides, anything I said would probably end up sounding forced. Especially after the horrible scene we'd just witnessed.

  Guessing he wanted a moment alone, I drew back and left him at the back of the hall, letting him mourn the death of his friend. Truthfully, I needed a few minutes by myself, as well.

  My eyes stung, and I let a bloody tear slide down my cheek before swiping it away. First Dorothy and now Darren.

  Darren, who had joked around with me, who had stood up for me, even to Zeke. Who had been a good hunter, a companion, maybe even a friend. I would miss his company, I realized. He hadn't deserved that death, to come so far only to be torn apart by a rabid in the end. I clenched my fists, feeling the nails bite into my palms. Jackal would pay for this.

  He would pay for everything.

  I turned and walked back to Zeke, trying to formulate some kind of plan, hoping he was clearheaded enough to help me out. He was still sitting in the corner, staring at the wall, but his face and eyes were clear.

  I crouched beside him. "You okay?" Not the most brilliant or comforting question ever, but there was nothing else I could think of.

  He shook his head. "We have to find the rest of them," he whispered, struggling to his feet. Leaning against the wall again, he took a deep breath and looked at me, his voice growing stronger. "Where do you think Jackal is keeping everyone?"

  "I have no idea," I muttered. "But I'm guessing it's nearby.

  With everything underwater, it's probably not easy to trans-port prisoners back and forth. He'll want to keep them close. "

  "We should search the building," Zeke said, nodding, "once everyone has cleared out-"

  A cheer from the open doors to the main hall drew our attention. Either Jackal was on a roll, or someone else was being torn apart. I shuddered and hoped it wasn't the latter.

  Zeke and I glanced at each other, thinking the same thing.

  There was no time. For every minute we waited, another person could die, shoved into a cage and ripped apart for the crowd's entertainment. Jackal was ruthless, and I had no doubt he would sacrifice Caleb or even Bethany to get what he wanted. We had to find our people now.

  "Backstage," Zeke whispered, his eyes hard. "They brought Jeb and Darren out through the curtain. Maybe they're keeping the others back there, as well. "

  I nodded. "Makes sense. It's a good place to start looking anyway. "

  But there were two hundred raiders and thirty feet of water between us and the stage, not to mention Jackal himself. I had no clue how powerful the raider king was and no desire to find out. "There has to be a back door," I muttered. "A way to get in from behind. "

  "There are plenty of windows," Zeke pointed out.

  "Yeah," I said, turning away. "I hope you're up for a swim. " In the shadows of the outside wall, we made our way through the black, grimy water, easing around the side of the building. I wasn't the best swimmer, not like Zeke, but there were plenty of handholds as we clung to the side of the wall. And of course, I didn't have to worry about drowning. Every so often, my leg would brush something beneath the surface of the water, a branch or a pole or the roof of a car, making me wonder what else was down there. Hopefully nothing alive. Or, if it was alive, hopefully nothing that wanted to eat us. I imagined huge rabid fish, gliding silently through the black waters, circling our legs, and decided not to voice that worry to Zeke.

  "There," I said, pointing to a rusty metal staircase against the wall. Twisted and bent, it zigzagged up the outside wall to a platform on the top f loor. Maneuvering around rubble, pipes and rusty beams, I made my way through the murky black water until I could grab the lowest rung. Heaving myself up, I turned to help Zeke, grabbing his arm as he pulled himself onto the first step. He was shivering, teeth clacking together, and I was reminded that he was only human. The water here was colder than the river had been, far colder. It didn't bother me, but Zeke was in danger of freezing to death if we weren't careful.

  "You all right?" I asked as he crossed his arms, shivering in the wind. His pale hair lay plastered to his forehead, and his shirt clung to his chest, emphasizing his leanness. His face was tight. "Do you need to wait here? I can go on alone, if you want. "

  "I'm fine," he gritted out, clenching his jaw. "Let's keep moving. "

  The metal staircase creaked horribly as we made our way up the steps, and I could feel it swaying under our weight.

  But it held until we reached the top platform and crawled in through the broken window.

  "I can't see a thing," muttered Zeke, pressing close to my back.

  I could. The room here had the same crumbling, gutted feel of most other city buildings; cracked ceiling, peeling walls, f loor strewn with rubble and trash. Looking closer, I had to fight the urge to hiss. Blank-eyed humans stared at me from the shadows of the room, some draped in rotted costumes, arms and legs missing or lying scattered on the f loor. It took me a moment to realize they weren't real. Just plastic figures made to resemble humans.

  Zeke gave a start, one hand dropping to his gun. He'd seen the creepy plastic figures, too, and in the dark, with normal human vision, it might freak anyone out.

  "Relax," I told him. "They're not real. They're statues or something. "

  Zeke shuddered and took his hand away. "I've seen a lot of weird things," he muttered, shaking his head, "but I think this takes the prize. Let's get out of here before I start seeing them in my dreams. . . or before they start moving. " I glimpsed a dismembered arm on the f loor, and a remark about needing a hand sprang to mind, but this wasn't the time for jokes. We carefully picked our way across the room and opened the door into another dark, narrow hallway.

  The door creaked shut behind us, plunging the corridor into darkness thicker than ink. In complete blackness, the world looked shadowy gray to my vampire sight. But at least I could still see. Zeke was edging forward with one hand outstretched, the other on the wall beside him.

  "Here," I said quietly, and took his hand. He stiffened, muscles coiled to pull back, but then relaxed with a tight nod. "Just follow my lead," I told him, ignoring the pulse at his wrist, the beat of life through his veins. "I won't let you fall. "

  We crept through the lightless hallway, passing rooms filled with dusty boxes, racks of rotting clothes and furniture covered in plastic sheets. It was obvious the raiders didn't use this part of the building; the dirt and plaster dust lining these hallways hadn't been disturbed in years-except for the countless rats and mice that went scurrying away, vanishing into the walls and f loor. At one point, I stepped in something soft, like mud, and looked up to see the ceiling crawling with what looked like hundreds of winged mice. I didn't mention this to Zeke as we hurried forward, though for some bizarre reason I felt a strange kinship with the tiny grotesque creatures.

  The back of the building was like a maze, with endless rooms, hallways and scattered rubble. Some of the walls had fallen in, and sometimes we had to pick our way over a section of ceiling or edge around a f loor that had collapsed. Zeke kept a tight grip on my hand as we maneuvered the labyrinth, occasionally s
tumbling as his wounded leg gave out but for the most part keeping up with me.

  As we stepped over a fallen girder, a splintering crack rang out like a gunshot, and a section of f loor gave way beneath us. I grabbed wildly for the beam with one hand, keeping a tight grip on Zeke with the other, as we plummeted straight down. My fingers hit the rusty edge of the girder, latching on desperately, as the weight of Zeke's body nearly tore my arm out of the socket.

  For a moment, we dangled over empty blackness. I could hear Zeke's panting, feel his pulse racing under my fingers.

  Overhead, the f loorboards groaned threateningly, showering me with dust, but the girder itself didn't move.

  The weight on the end of my arm gave a strangled gasp, hand tightening around my wrist. My fingers digging into the girder slipped a fraction of an inch. "Zeke," I gritted out, "there's a beam right above us. If I pull you up, can you grab it?"

  "I. . . can't see anything," Zeke replied, his voice tight with suppressed fear, "so you'll have to be my eyes. Just tell me when I'm getting close. "

  I half swung, half lifted him to the edge of the hole, feeling my shoulders scream in protest. "Now," I muttered, and Zeke lashed out with his free arm, hitting the girder on his first try. The weight dragging me down vanished as Zeke grabbed the beam like a lifeline and hauled himself up.

  I followed, crawling out of the hole and rolling onto my back next to Zeke, who had done the same. He was breathing hard, shaking with adrenaline, his heart crashing in his chest.

  I felt nothing. No pounding heartbeat, no gasping breaths, nothing. A near-death experience, and I didn't feel a thing.

  Wait, scratch that. I did feel something. Relief. I was relieved that Zeke was alive and still with me. And now that the excitement was fading somewhat, I felt a stirring of real fear in my stomach, not for me, but for what could've happened. I'd almost lost him. If I had let him fall, he would be dead.

  Zeke stirred, shifting to his elbow, squinting into the darkness. "Allie?" His voice was hesitant, probing the black. "You still there?"

  "Yeah," I muttered and felt him relax. "Still here. "

  He shifted to his knees, one hand reaching out tentatively.

  "Where are you?" he murmured, frowning. In the dark, I watched his face, seeing his gaze pass over me without seeing. "You're so quiet-it's like you're not even here. You're not even breathing hard. "

  I sighed, deliberately, just to make some kind of noise.

  "That's what happens when you're dead," I murmured and rolled to my knees to face him. "That whole breathing thing isn't so important anymore. "

  I reached for his hand, but he suddenly leaned in, and his fingers brushed my cheek. Warmth f looded my skin, and I froze, waiting for him to pull back.

  He didn't. The tips of his fingers lingered on my cheek for a moment. Then, very slowly, his hand slipped forward, the palm brushing my skin. Frozen, I stared at him, watching his face as his fingers moved from my cheek to my forehead to my chin, like a blind man tracing someone's features to see them in his mind.

  "What are you doing to me?" he whispered, as his hand moved down to my neck, tracing my collarbone. I couldn't answer even if I wanted to. "You make me question everything I've learned, everything I know. Truths I've believed since I was a kid, gone. " He sighed, and I felt a shiver go through him, but he didn't pull his hand back. "What's wrong with me?" he groaned, low and anguished. "I shouldn't be feeling any of this. Not for a. . . "

  He trailed off, but the word hung between us, raw and painful. I could sense Zeke's struggle with himself, perhaps trying to find the will to pull away, perhaps to do something that went against everything he'd been taught. I wanted, desperately, to lean forward, to respond to his touch, but I was afraid that if I moved, he would pull back and the moment would shatter. So I remained still, passive and unthreatening, letting him decide what he wanted. Silence stretched between us, but his hand, his gentle fingers, never left my skin.

  "Say something," he murmured at last, cupping my cheek like he couldn't bear to pull back. "I can't see you, so. . . I don't know what you're thinking. Talk to me. "

  "And say what?" I whispered.

  "I don't know. Just. . . " Zeke bowed his head, his voice quietly desperate. "Just. . . tell me I'm not crazy," he whispered.

  "That this. . . isn't as insane as I think it is. " His heartbeat stuttered, racing in my ears. The Hunger stirred curiously, always eager, but I could ignore it this time.

  I wasn't thinking of his blood, rushing just below the skin. I wasn't thinking of his heartbeat or his touch or the pulse at his throat. Right now, all I was thinking of was Zeke.

  "I don't know," I told him softly as he shifted closer, radiating warmth even through his wet clothes. I knew I should pull away, but what was the point? I was tired of fighting. In this absolute darkness, with no one to see or judge, our secret seemed safe. "Maybe we're both a little crazy. "

  "I can live with that," Zeke murmured and finally did what I'd been fearing and hoping and dreaming he'd do from the very start. His other hand reached up, framing my face, as he leaned in and kissed me.

  His lips were warm and soft, and his scent was everywhere, surrounding me. I gripped his arms, kissing him back. . . and the Hunger rose up, as powerful as ever, yet different from before. I didn't just want to bite him and drink his blood; I wanted to draw him in slowly, make him a part of me. And I wanted to share a part of myself with him, so that we became one.

  I could feel my fangs against my gums, aching to slip out.

  To drop to the hollow at Zeke's throat, where his pulse beat the hardest against his skin, and sink below the surface. I felt the urge to tip my head back as well, baring my throat so that he could do the same.

  And that scared me back to my senses.

  I pulled away, breaking the kiss, an instant before my fangs lengthened and slipped through my gums. Zeke watched me with a puzzled expression, but in the darkness he couldn't see the monster kneeling not six inches from his throat.

  "Zeke," I began, once I had firm control over myself. But before I could say anything else, a guilty expression crossed his face, and he sat back on his heels.

  "Sorry," he whispered, sounding horrified with himself.

  He stood quickly, and I did the same, almost relieved for the distraction. "God, what am I thinking? I'm sorry, I shouldn't be stalling us like this. We have to find the others. "

  "This way," I said, and this time I didn't have to reach back for his arm. His hand sought my own and gripped it tightly, twining our fingers together. Treading lightly, we picked our way over the f loor and continued into the ruin of the old building.

  We slipped through more hallways, more crumbling steps, being extremely careful now as we made our way down to the lower f loors. Finally, I saw a sign painted in faded red letters that said Backstage, with an arrow pointing down a f light of stairs. As we made our way down the musty staircase, I started to hear the noise from the auditorium; the ruckus of the crowd still had not died down.

  "I hope they're all right," Zeke muttered behind me. "I hope no one else ended up like. . . like Darren. " His voice caught, and when I glanced back at him, I pretended not to see the glimmer in his eyes.

  The stairwell ended in a swath of jet-black water, lapping against the metal steps. That meant we had reached the ground level of the theater. Another Backstage arrow lay half submerged against the wall, pointing downward.

  "I think we're going to have to swim again," I muttered, releasing Zeke's hand. He nodded bravely, just as I caught a faint shimmer of light somewhere in the depths. "Wait a second," I cautioned as he stepped forward. "I think there's a door down there. I'll see if I can get it open. "

  "All right," Zeke said. "I'll wait here for you. Be careful. " He sank down onto one of the steps, arms around himself, and leaned forward, shivering. For a moment, I wanted to bend down and kiss him, to reassure him that it would be all right.
I didn't. I walked down the stairs, straight into the murky depths, and continued downward as the water closed over my head.

  The steps went down another f light and a half, ending at a rusty metal door. A faint orange glow trickled out between the cracks, but pushing on it revealed the door was locked or stuck. It was difficult to find the leverage I needed to force it open, but vampire strength, plus the handy benefit of not having to breathe while underwater, won out in the end. After bashing my shoulder against the surface repeatedly, it finally gave way.

  Orange light f looded the stairwell, coming from somewhere beyond the door. I turned and swam back up the steps to Zeke, waiting anxiously at the edge of the water.

  "Got it open," I said, unnecessarily. The stairwell was no longer pitch-black. Though it was still plenty dark, Zeke was no longer blind. He nodded and gazed past me, into the water.

  "Did you see anyone?"

  "Not yet. But there's light coming from that room, so I'm guessing we're backstage, behind the curtain. " I gestured back to the exit, making a small splash. "The door is underwater, but it's not far. Follow me and you'll be fine. " Zeke nodded and, without hesitation, plunged into the icy waters. Pulling ourselves down by the railings, we swam through the f looded stairwell, through the door, and surfaced cautiously. Treading water, I gazed around the small lake, trying to get my bearings.

  We were definitely backstage. The f loating platform bobbed on the water's surface about fifty feet away, each corner lit by f lickering oil lamps, sputtering on their posts. The massive red curtain hung across the center, moldy and tattered, but still a barrier separating the backstage from the auditorium.

  A raucous cheer came from the other side; the raider audience was still out there and getting rowdier.

  Puzzled, I gazed around the room, wondering where everyone was. Chairs f loated or lay half submerged in the murky water, which was also choked with f loating black wires and bits of rope. A plastic arm bobbed past my face, and I could see the remains of a couch, bloated and falling apart, beneath me. But, except for the f loating stage and the huge red curtain, the room appeared empty.

  Then I heard voices above me, and looked up.

  A maze of catwalks and platforms stretched above the room, dangling twenty or so feet above the water. They crisscrossed their way through the open air, between coils of ropes and pulleys, surrounding a pair of cages hanging from the rafters.

  The cages, made of rusty iron and steel, hung a little below the catwalks, each suspended by a single thick rope that swayed gently in the open air. Soft sobbing noises came from inside, as a group of people huddled together behind the bars.

  Zeke drew in a sharp breath. He'd seen them, too. We started forward, but the beam of a f lashlight suddenly pierced the gloom above the catwalks as a raider stalked out of the darkness, shining the light into the cage.

  "Hey, shut up in there!" he ordered, aiming the beam into the face of a terrified Caleb, who cringed back and clung to Ruth. I felt Zeke's fury, the tight coil of his muscles under his shirt, and put a warning hand on his shoulder.

  "You little shits should be thankful," the raider continued, as two more guards emerged from the shadows, ambling along the catwalk. "No more 'spectacles,' at least for tonight. Let's hope the old man can do what Jackal says he can, otherwise we might have to feed one of you to the rabids for inspira-tion, hey? Chew on that for a while, ha!" He spat over the railing and sauntered off, joining his friend on another platform. I turned to see Zeke draw his gun, aiming it at the raider's back, and grabbed his arm.

  "Zeke, don't!" I forced his wrist underwater, and he glared at me. "You'll alert the whole compound," I whispered, gesturing back toward the curtain. "Let me go first. I can take them out quietly. Even if they see me, it won't matter if I get shot. "

  He hesitated but gave a tight nod. Silently, we made our way to the f loating platform, and I started up the ladder to the catwalks above.

  I landed over the railings in a crouch, searching for my targets. I could hear their footsteps, sense their beating hearts.

  One was very close. I crept along the walk, weaving through thick tangles of rope, until I found him, leaning against the railing smoking a cigarette.

  He didn't see the arms that reached through the ropes until it was too late. I snaked one arm around his neck, one hand against his mouth, and yanked him back into the coils. He let out a muff led yelp, but then my fangs were already in his throat.

  That was easy, I mused, pushing the ropes aside as I stepped out, smiling. Now, where are the other two?

  There was another one, standing at the edge of a platform, smoking. His friend was wandering away, back toward the far wall, leaving the other alone. His back was to me, but I'd have to creep around the cages to get to him. And I'd have to do it before he could alert his friend.

  Crouching down, I started forward. I'd just have to be quick-

  "Allie!"

  The shrill cry echoed through the room, making me jump, and the guard's attention snapped to the cage. Caleb's small form was pressed against the bars, his wide eyes fastened on me, one hand outstretched. The raiders followed his gaze and jerked upright as they saw me.

  Damn. So much for the element of surprise. As the guards went for their guns, I took two running steps toward the edge of the platform and hurled myself into space. My coat snapped out behind me as I f lew over the water, and the raiders' eyes bulged as I soared from one side of the catwalks to the other.

  At the last second, one tried bringing up his gun, but I was already on top of him, slamming my knee into his chest. We hit the platform with a ringing clang, and the back of his skull hit the metal edge. He slumped off the platform, hitting the water with a loud splash. The other raider screamed a curse.

  I whirled with a snarl, showing fangs, but the guard was already f leeing down the maze of catwalks. Ducking behind the cages, he paused to look back and paled when he saw me running toward him with my sword drawn.

  Caleb cried out again, and the guard's gaze snapped eerily to the child, a chilling look crossing his face. Pulling a huge knife from his belt, he leaned out and slashed at the thick ropes holding the cages above the water. The first snapped, and the cage with Caleb, Ruth, Bethany and Teresa plummeted to a chorus of screams into the icy water.

  As the second rope frayed, and the raider raised an arm to hack at it again, a shot rang out from behind. The man jerked. Blood exploded from his chest in a thin spray, and he fell backward. Still clutching the smoking pistol, Zeke rushed onto the platform just as the second rope snapped and the cage joined the first one in the waters below.

  I leaped over the edge, plummeting into the foaming water.

  The second cage had, miraculously, fallen skewed on an underwater table, so a corner still stuck out above the surface.

  Jake, Silas and Matthew were clinging to the bars, struggling to keep their faces above water. But the other cage, lying on the wooden f loor, was fully submerged, and bubbles foamed up where it had fallen.

  I dove to where the cage landed, searching frantically for the door. The bodies within were thrashing about, shaking the iron bars, their eyes wide with terror. I found the door padlocked shut and yanked on it. It wouldn't budge. Snarling under my breath, I yanked harder, straining at the metal, but it stubbornly refused to give.

  Looking through the bars, I saw Teresa's limp body, f loating toward the top, and Caleb's frantic expression as he tried squeezing through.

  One last time, I wrenched at the iron door and finally felt it give way. Pulling it open, I grabbed Ruth and Bethany, shoving them through the door, then went after Caleb and Teresa. Caleb was so frantic he refused to let go of the bars at first, and I had to pry him off and shove him out of the cage.

  Grabbing Teresa's limp form, I swam for the surface, hoping I wasn't too late.

  I broke the surface of the water to chaos. The kids were screaming, f lailing in the water. Ruth w
as trying desperately to lead them to the stage, but it was obvious Bethany couldn't swim and Caleb was hysterical. A few feet away, Zeke was at the other cage, trying to work it open. I saw the f lash of keys in his hand-taken from the dead raider, probably-a second before he pried the door open, letting the captives swim out.

  As I hauled Teresa's unconscious body onto the stage, the curtain behind me parted, and a raider came through, probably drawn by the racket of the kids and gunfire and falling cages. For just a moment, he stared at us in shock, then turned to shout a warning. But that second was all the time I needed to lunge in and drive a sword between his ribs. His shout turned into a startled gurgle, and he dropped to the stage with a thud.

  But other raiders would soon be arriving. I could see them through the holes in the curtain, clambering over the seats toward the stage. I glanced back, seeing Zeke emerge from the water with a shaking, hiccuping Bethany, Caleb clinging to his neck from behind. Near my feet, Teresa began to cough up water.

  Ruth pulled herself up to the platform and, as Zeke set Caleb and Bethany on solid ground, f lung herself into his arms. "You're alive!" she sobbed into his chest, as he held her close and the kids plastered themselves to his waist. "We were sure you were dead! Oh, God, it's been horrible, what they did to us. Darren-"

  "I know," Zeke said, his face tightening. "And I'm so sorry I couldn't. . . " He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

  "That won't happen again, I swear. "

  "Zeke," I warned, and his eyes f lickered to me. "No time for this. The men are coming. We have to get them out of here. "

  He nodded, composed and businesslike again, but Ruth turned on me, eyes blazing with suspicion and fear.

  "What

  is

  she doing here?" Ruth hissed, still clinging to Zeke, one delicate hand on his chest. "She's a vampire! Jeb told us to kill her if she came poking around again. "

  "Stop it, Ruth. " Zeke's voice was hard, and we both blinked at him in shock. "She saved my life," he continued in a calmer voice. "And yours, too, in case you didn't notice. I wouldn't have gotten this far if she hadn't come back. "

  "But. . . Jeb

  said-"

  "Save it," I barked at her, and she cringed back, eyes wide.

  "We're not out of here, yet. And, now that you mention it, where is Jeb? He's not here, that's for sure. Where did they take him?"

  "I'm not telling you, vampire!" Ruth shrieked, on the verge of hysterics. "I'm not telling you anything!" I snarled, ready to smack some sense into her, but Zeke held up a hand, stopping me. "Ruth. " He shook her gently, bringing her attention back to him. "Where is Jeb? Did they say where they took him, where he's being held?" The girl nodded, clinging to his shirt. "Jackal's tower," she whispered. "They said he's being taken to Jackal's tower. " The words were barely out of her mouth when Bethany screamed and another raider came through the curtain, followed by a friend. I spun, blade f lashing, and quickly beheaded one, making Bethany and Ruth scream again, but the other got off a yell before I could silence him. As their bodies hit the stage, I spun toward Zeke.

  "Move! Get them out of here!" I swept a hand toward the catwalks, to the door the guards had used. "Don't wait for me-I'll catch up when I can. Just get them out of the city and don't look back. "

  "Catch up?" Zeke had started ushering the group up the ladder to the catwalks but now turned back with a frown.

  "You're not coming with us?"

  "No. " I shot a quick glance at the curtain, hearing the crowd rushing the stage, the splashes as the raiders plunged into the water. "I'm going back for Jeb. " He stared at me. "You? But. . . no, I should be the one. He's family. It should be me. "

  "You're still hurt, Zeke. Besides-" I nodded to the group as the last of them scrambled up the ladder, peering down at us "-you have to lead them out of here. I'll have the best chance to find Jeb if I'm alone. "

  "But. . . " Zeke hesitated, torn. "Even if you find him, he might not go with you. Allie, he might. . . try to kill you. "

  "I know. " I stepped away from him, toward the curtain.

  The raiders were climbing the stage now, hauling themselves out of the water. "But if I don't do this, I'll be the monster he thinks I am. " Spinning, I slashed at a raider who charged through the curtain, splitting him open to the shrieks of the kids. As he staggered and fell into the water, I whirled back on Zeke. "If Jeb is alive, I swear I'll find him! But you need to get them out of here, Zeke! Go, now! If I'm not back by dawn, don't wait for us, because we'll be dead. Go!" With one last tortured look, Zeke turned and f led up the ladder. I spun toward the stage, slashing at another raider, and grabbed the oil lamp from the post. As the mob outside drew close, I raised the lamp over my head and smashed it to the f loor, shattering glass and sending f laming oil over the red fabric.

  The old curtain caught fire instantly, and tongues of orange f lame sprang up with a roar, engulfing the cloth and spreading to the wood beside it. As a pair of raiders came through, I snatched the second lantern and did the same to the other side, f linching away as the oil splattered everywhere, catching the two men in the spray. They howled, f lailing their arms as their clothes caught fire, and f led back the way they had come.

  The inferno roared, eating rapidly at the old curtain, licking at the wooden frame around it. I stumbled back, clutching the last lantern, fighting the instinct to run as the f lames snapped and reached for me, blistering and lethal. For the first time, I felt an almost primal terror, facing down one of a vampire's greatest fears. Fire could destroy me. The wind, rushing in from the roof and shattered windows, blew clouds of embers and burning cloth into the air; one landed on my coat sleeve, and I hissed as I slapped it away.

  I smashed the final lantern at the base of the stage, turned and f led up the ladder, feeling the heat sizzle against my back.

  Cries of alarm echoed over the roar of the fire as the raiders scattered back and forth, not knowing what to do. Some jumped into the water to f lee and some tried dousing the f lames with whatever they could find, but the inferno was licking at the walls and ceiling now, spreading to the oiled wood without any sign of slowing down.

  At the top of the ladder, I looked over to see Zeke usher the last of the group through a door at the end of the catwalk.

  He glanced back, and our gazes met. For just a moment, we stared at each other, as the wind and f lames shrieked around us, snapping at hair and clothes. I saw regret that he wasn't able to come with me, a fierce determination to get the rest of them out alive. . . and a trust that hadn't been there before.

  I gave him a brief nod, and he returned it solemnly before vanishing through the doorway.

  I turned. The f lames were spreading faster than I thought possible, tearing at the walls, the wind carrying burning embers to the plush seats to catch fire. I faced part of the outer wall that had collapsed, seeing crumbled buildings through the gaping hole, the dark outline of the city through the smoke.

  I sprinted for the end of the catwalk and leaped, hurling myself over the water, grabbing rough wood and plaster as I hit the wall. A section gave way beneath my hand, plummeting down with a splash as I pulled myself up. Finding handholds along the outer wall, I easily climbed up to the roof and gazed out on the city.

  Skeletal buildings loomed above me, dark and crumbling, brushing the sky. I turned, scanning the towers, looking for anything that might indicate Jackal's lair. They all looked the same, broken and empty, and I spat out a curse. How was I going to find that old man in such an enormous. . .

  I stopped, blinking. A light suddenly glimmered against the darkness like a stray star, a glow at the very top of a massive black tower.

  The tower of a vampire king. If I was lucky, I would find Jebbadiah waiting there, alive and unharmed. If my luck held, I would not find a certain raider king waiting for me, as well.

  And if I was really lucky, I could rescue the old man and bring him back without being kill
ed, by Jackal or Jebbadiah Crosse.

 
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