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The Immortal Rules, Page 24

Julie Kagawa

Chapter 24


  The Floating Pit was in full blazing glory when Zeke and I left Jackal's tower, a huge fireball burning against the night.

  Several smaller fires burned around it as the wind carried live embers to empty rooftops and through shattered windows, setting them af lame. We met no resistance on our way down; the f looded streets and walkways were remarkably clear as we hurried through the city, all attention being diverted to the huge inferno that lit up the sky.

  Zeke was silent as we f led Jackal's tower, brooding and drawn into himself. In a single day, he'd lost a best friend and a father and was now expected to lead in Jeb's place. I wished I could talk to him, but there'd be time for that later. Right now, we had to escape the city and get everyone to safety. If such a thing existed.

  The Hunger still raged within, gnawing at my insides, urging me to pounce on the human in front of me and tear him open. Zeke's blood had helped with the worst of the damage, but I was still starving. Worse, the sky over the buildings was growing lighter. The sun would be up soon, and we had to be clear of Jackal's city before then or I'd be toast.

  However, as we hurried along the bridges and catwalks, I realized we had another problem. The Floating Pit sat between us and our exit, and right now it was surrounded by a horde of Jackal's men, not to mention the firestorm sweeping through the buildings around it.

  "Where are the others?" I asked Zeke as we crouched inside a half-crumbled building, watching long streamers of fire snap in the wind. My vampire instincts were screaming at me to go the other direction, but the only way out was through that firestorm.

  Next time, try burning your bridges after you've crossed them, Allison.

  "They're just over the bridge," Zeke replied, observing the f lames worriedly. "At least, that's where I left them. I hope they're still okay. "

  "How did you get them out?"

  Zeke pointed to the elevated tracks circling the district, passing, I noticed, right next to the theater. "We followed the tracks," he said, sweeping his finger around. "It takes you right out of the city, like you said. Once we got to the barge, we sort of. . . hijacked one of the vans. " A shadow crossed his face, guilt that he'd had to kill yet again. "The others are waiting just outside the city," he continued, "hidden, and safe. If we can get to them, we're home free. "

  "Well," I muttered, turning back to the fire, feeling the heat from the f lames, even here, "we're going to have to get through that. Ready for another swim?"

  Zeke nodded solemnly. "Lead the way. " Entering the water, we swam through the f looded streets, passing between the burning buildings. The air was thick with smoke, and f laming rubble toppled into the waters around us, hissing as it struck the surface. I concentrated on moving forward, ignoring the canyons of fire around me, ignoring the Hunger that still cramped my stomach, and the warm body next to mine.

  As we passed under a walkway, Zeke hanging a little behind, footsteps echoed above us, and a raider peered over the railing.

  "You!" he shouted, pulling the gun from his belt. "I saw you in the Pit! You're the bitch who set it on fire!" A shot rang out, and pain exploded through my chest with a spray of blood. I heard Zeke cry out as the water closed over my head.

  Anger and Hunger roared to life. I was sick of being shot, stabbed, burned, gutted, staked and thrown out windows.

  Snarling, I exploded back to the surface, grabbed the raider by the belt and dragged him over the edge. We hit the water with a splash and sank like a rock, the human thrashing frantically in my grip. He stiffened as I plunged my fangs into his throat and stopped moving by the time we hit the bottom.

  I finished feeding and hesitated, tempted to leave him for the fishes and the worms. But Zeke would be waiting up top, and he had seen me pull the raider into the water. With a growl, I grabbed the limp body and struck back for the surface. He might still succumb to hypothermia and blood loss, but at least I wouldn't leave him to drown.

  Zeke gaped as I broke the surface, shaking water from my ears. "You're alive," he gasped, teeth chattering with cold.

  "But. . . you took a shot right to the chest. I was right there and I saw. . . "

  "It takes a lot to kill me," I muttered. "Well, scratch that.

  It takes a lot to kill me again. I'm already dead, remember?" Swimming beneath the walkway, I heaved the raider's limp body out of the water onto the edge of the platform. His head lolled to the side, revealing two oozing bite marks that I hadn't sealed. Zeke's gaze followed mine, and his face tightened, but he didn't say anything.

  I could feel him thinking, however, as we swam through the streets and finally reached the elevated tracks leading out of Jackal's territory. Dripping, shivering, he followed me up the framework to the top, grabbing my hand as I pulled him onto the planks. An icy wind rushed along the surface, and I was struck by how miserable he looked, wounded, wet and freezing, with his hair and clothes plastered to his body. Yet his eyes still gleamed with iron determination as he gazed across the bridge, only looking forward. Unlike me, who turned and glanced back toward the city and the fires that raged through it.

  So many gone. So many lives lost. People I had known, talked to. Dorothy, Darren, Jeb. . . I hadn't been able to save them. I swallowed hard and rubbed my eyes. When had I started caring so much? Before Kanin Turned me, death was something I faced every day. People died, often; it was just how the world worked. I thought that, after the deaths of my old gang and Stick's betrayal, I wouldn't worry about anyone else. And yet, here I was, a vampire, wishing I could have saved the very person who hated me most.

  "Allison. " Zeke's voice made me turn around. He shivered in the cold wind but stood tall and unbowed at the edge of the tracks. "The sun is coming up," he said, nodding to the tops of the buildings. "We have to get you and everyone else to shelter soon. Come on. "

  I nodded and wordlessly followed him, sprinting down the tracks, over the bridge leading out of the city and into the ruins of Old Chicago, leaving Jackal's territory behind to burn.

  "HELLO, OLD FRIEND," Sarren crooned, bringing his scarred face very close, so that I could see the madness raging in his black eyes. "You can't go to sleep yet, I'm afraid. What fun would that be? I have the whole night planned out. " He chuckled and stepped back, watching me hang limply from the chains. At least I was no longer upside down, though I suspected one of my arms was still broken. It was difficult to tell; my body had been broken, healed and systematically broken again; the only thing I was aware of now was the Hunger.

  Sarren smiled. "Hungry, are you? I can't imagine how that feels-

  it's been four days. Oh, wait. Yes, I can. They used to starve us before an experiment, so we would attack whatever beast they put in our rooms. Did you know that?"

  I did not answer. I had not spoken for the entire length of my captivity, and I would not begin now. Nothing I said would sway this madman; he was only looking for ways to torment me further, to break me. And I would not give him that, not as long as my mind was my own.

  Tonight, however, he might torture me all he wanted; it would not come close to the pain that I had endured earlier, the visions of my two offspring killing each other far from my reach. Two children that I had failed.

  Allison. Forgive me, I wish I could have prepared you better. What were the odds that you would meet your blood brother so far from your origins?

  "You seem distracted tonight, old friend. " Sarren smiled and picked up a scalpel, holding it up to his face. His tongue flicked out, sliding along the surface. "Let us see if we can't bring your mind back to where it's supposed to be. I've heard blood tastes the best straight off the blade. Why don't we see if that is true?" I closed my eyes, preparing myself. I would not survive much longer; already I could feel my sanity slipping, succumbing to pain and madness. My only comfort was that at least Sarren had found me first, that I was taking the brunt of his hate, and that my offspring were safe from his demented clutches.

; Then the blade found my skin, and all thoughts melted away and turned to pain.


  Sand f looded my mouth, clogging my nose and the back of my throat. Spitting and choking, I bolted upright, clawing through layers of dirt until I reached the surface.

  Zeke rose quickly from where he sat against a half-buried rail. Bewildered, I gazed around, trying to remember where we were. A few yards away, waves rose and fell against a strip of white sand, making hissing noises as they returned to the lake. Behind us, Chicago's ruined skyscrapers crowded the skyline, threatening to topple into the sand.

  Pieces of the night came back to me. Zeke and I had found the others across the bridge where he'd left them, sitting in one of the very same vans used to kidnap them. With only minutes till sunrise, we had torn off down the streets, putting as much distance as we could between ourselves and the raiders, until we hit the coast. With nothing on my mind except getting out of the sun, I'd buried myself in the sand moments before the light peeked over the water and instantly blacked out.

  "You all right?" Zeke asked, his hair whipping about in the wind. He looked stronger this evening, not quite as pale, wearing a heavier jacket over his tattered clothes. "More nightmares?"

  "Yeah," I muttered, though I knew it wasn't a dream. It was Kanin. In trouble. "Where are the others?" I asked. "Are they all right?"

  Zeke gestured to the building behind us, where the truck had been parked near the door, sand piling around its tires.

  Every so often, the wind scoured away the dusty coating, showing spots of pavement beneath. "Caleb is sick and Teresa sprained her ankle," he replied, "but other than that, they seem fine. Healthwise, anyway. It's amazing, really. That no one else was seriously hurt. "

  A slender figure appeared in the doorway, watching Zeke and me. When she saw me gazing at her, however, she quickly vanished back inside.

  "They're afraid of me, aren't they?"

  Zeke sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "They've been taught their whole lives that vampires are predators and demons," he said, not apologetic, or defensive, just matter-of-fact. "Yes. They're afraid of you, despite everything I told them. And Ruth. . . "

  "Hates me," I finished, shrugging. "Not much of a change, there. "

  "She kept insisting I dig up your body and kill you while you were sleeping. " Zeke frowned, shaking his head. "She even tried to get Jake to do it when I refused. We had to have. . . a talk. " His face fell, and he looked away. "She's scared.

  They all are. After what they've been through, I don't blame them. But she won't get in your way or cause trouble," he continued in a firm voice. "And the others have accepted that you'll be traveling with us for now. You're still coming, right?

  You'll still see us there?"

  "To Eden?" I shrugged again and looked away, toward the water, so I didn't see his face. Looking at him would make it that much harder. "I don't know, Zeke. I don't think Eden is the type of place that will welcome someone like me. " Kanin's face swam across my mind again, tortured and in agony. "And I have. . . something I have to do. Someone to find. " I owe him that.

  "They'll be all right with you now. " I finally gave Zeke a sideways glance. "You can get them there. According to Jackal's map, Eden isn't far. "

  "Forget the others then. " Zeke stepped toward me, not touching, but close. "I'm asking you. Please. Will you see us through the final stretch?"

  I looked at him, at his pale, earnest face, at his blue eyes, quietly pleading, and felt my resolve crumble. Kanin needed me, but. . . Zeke needed me, too. I wanted to stay with him, despite knowing that this-whatever we had-would only end in tragedy. I was a vampire, and he was still very much human. Whatever my feelings, I couldn't separate them from the Hunger. Being around Zeke put him in danger, and yet, I was willing to risk it, even his life, just to be close to him.

  And that-that dependency-scared me more than anything I'd ever faced. Allie the Fringer knew all too well: the closer you got to someone, the more it would destroy you when they were inevitably gone.

  But we'd come so far; it didn't feel right, not seeing this through to the end. "All right," I murmured, hoping Kanin could hang on a little longer. I'll be there soon, Kanin, I swear.

  "To Eden, then. Let's finish what we started. " Zeke smiled, and I returned it. Together, we walked up the beach, to where the group waited for us in the shadow of the building.

  Seven people huddled in the back of the van, silent, terrified. Two young adults, two older people and three kids, one who kept coughing and sniff ling into his sleeve. Zeke drove, and I sat next to him in the passenger's seat, gazing out the window. Nobody spoke much. I offered to switch seats once, to let someone else sit up front, but was met with horrified silence. Nobody wanted the vampire in the back with them.

  So Zeke and I remained up front, the weight of words unsaid lingering between us.

  We drove east along the seemingly endless lake, following the road and Jackal's map, keeping a wary eye on the city fading behind us. I kept glancing at the side mirrors, waiting for headlights to break over the road and come swarming toward us. It didn't happen. The road remained dark and empty, the landscape silent except for the hiss of falling waves, as if we were the only people alive.

  "We're getting low on fuel," Zeke muttered after several hours of driving. He tapped the dashboard of the van, frowning, then sighed. "How far from Eden do you think we are?"

  "I don't know," I replied, gazing at the map again. "All I know is we have to follow the road east until we get there. "

  "God, I hope it's really there," Zeke whispered, gripping the steering wheel, his eyes hard. "Please, please, let it be there. This time, let it be real. "

  We drove through another dead city on the edge of a lake, passing crumbling skyscrapers, the ruins of old buildings and an endless number of cars clogging the cracked streets. Weaving through a choked sea of rusting vehicles, I wondered how chaotic it would've been in the time before, how people ever got anywhere without crashing into each other.

  Zeke suddenly pulled the van to a stop alongside a faded red truck and shut off the engine. I blinked at him. "Why are we stopping?"

  "We're almost out of gas. There's a hose and a gas container in the back-I saw them when we hijacked the van. I figure I can siphon something from a few cars, at least. Watch my back?"

  I nodded. Zeke half turned, poking his head toward the back as the other passengers stirred and muttered uneasily.

  "Everyone, stay put. We're just stopping for fuel. We'll be on our way soon, okay?"

  "I'm hungry," muttered Caleb, sniff ling. Zeke smiled at him.

  "We'll take a break soon, I promise. Let's just get out of the city first. "

  I watched Zeke, fascinated, as he opened a lid on the side of a vehicle, stuck the hose in, and sucked on the end. The first two cars yielded nothing, but on the third try, Zeke suddenly choked, turned and spit out a mouthful of clear liquid, before sticking the hose into the plastic container. Wiping his mouth, he leaned against another car and watched the gas trickle into the canister.

  I walked up beside him and leaned back against the car door, our shoulders barely touching. "How're you holding up?"

  He shrugged. "All right, I guess. " He sighed, rubbing his arm. "It still hasn't hit me yet, you know? I keep expecting Jeb to give me directions, tell me where we're going next, when we should stop. " He sighed again, heavily, looking out toward the city. "But he's gone. And it's all up to me now. " I hesitated, then reached down and took his hand, lightly weaving our fingers together. He squeezed them gratefully.

  "Thank you," he murmured, so soft I barely caught it.

  "I wouldn't. . . be doing nearly so well if you weren't here. "

  "We're almost there," I told him. "Just a few more miles, I think. And you can relax. No more vampires, no more rabids, no more raider kings hunting you down. You'll finally be able to breathe. "

  "If Eden
really exists. " He sounded so melancholy I turned to stare at him.

  "What's this?" I asked, giving him a challenging smile.

  "Don't tell me you're losing your faith, Ezekiel Crosse. " His mouth twitched into a smirk. "You're right," he said, pushing himself off the car. "We can't give up now. Let's get there first, and see what happens next. " He bent down and picked up the container, peering at the contents. "That's. . . what, about three gallons? Two and a half ? Think we can get a few more before we leave?"

  "Zeke," I growled, gazing down the road. Zeke's gaze followed mine, and he went perfectly still.

  A spindly, emaciated creature crouched atop a dead car about a hundred yards away, its white skin pale in the moonlight. It hadn't seen us yet, but I saw another rabid skitter behind a truck, and the one atop the car snarled and hopped down after it, vanishing into the sea of vehicles.

  "Let's get out of here," Zeke murmured, and we hurried back toward the van. Grimly, Zeke poured the gas into the fuel tank, while I scanned the darkness and ocean of cars for rabids. Nothing moved, but I heard scuttling noises between the vehicles, and knew they were out there. It was only a matter of time before they saw us.

  "Done," he muttered, slamming the lid shut. Tossing me the gas can, we moved toward the front, but suddenly, the side door slid open and Caleb stumbled out, rubbing his eyes.

  "I'm tired of sitting," he announced. "When can we stop to eat?"

  "Caleb, get inside," Zeke ordered, but at that moment, a piercing shriek rent the air as a rabid hurled itself over a nearby car and lunged for him.

  I dived forward, grabbed Caleb around the waist and spun, hugging him to my body. The rabid hit me hard, ripping at me with its claws, sinking jagged fangs into my neck. I hissed in pain, hunching my shoulders to protect Caleb as the rabid clawed frantically at my back.

  Ruth suddenly shot out of the van, screaming, clutching a rusty tire iron. She swung it wildly, striking the rabid in the arm, and the monster whirled on her with a hiss.

  "Get away from my brother!" Ruth shrieked and hit its cheek with a satisfying crack. The rabid staggered, roared and lashed out, curved talons catching the girl in the stomach, ripping through cloth and skin, tearing her open. Blood spattered the side of the van. As she fell back, gasping, Zeke lunged over the hood of the van, swung his machete and buried it in the rabid's neck.

  The monster collapsed, mouth working frantically, as howls and wails began to rise around us. I tossed Caleb in the van, ignoring his frantic cries, as Zeke scooped up Ruth and dived inside with her. Slamming the side door, I leaped over the hood and swung into the driver's seat, yanking the door shut just as a rabid bounced off the glass, leaving a bloody spiderweb of cracks.

  Another rabid leaped on the hood, hissing, as I turned the keys Zeke had left in the ignition and threw the van into Drive. The rabid smacked into the windshield, rolled off, and suddenly I had a clear shot at the open road. As I slammed my foot onto the pedal, the van leaped forward and screeched away down the sidewalk, striking a few rabids, as we escaped the city and f led into the night.

  We buried Ruth just before dawn, on a small strip of farm-land about an hour outside the city. She was conscious up until the end, surrounded by her family, cradled gently in Zeke's arms the whole time. I concentrated on driving the van, trying to ignore the smell of blood soaking everything, and the soft, hopeless sobs coming from the back. Sometime near the end, I heard her whisper to Zeke that she loved him, and I listened to her heartbeat as it grew softer and softer, and finally stopped altogether.

  "Allison," Zeke called a few minutes later, over Caleb's hysterical sobbing and pleas for his sister to wake up, "it'll be dawn soon. Look for a place to stop. " I pulled to a stop in front of an abandoned farmhouse, and even though dawn was close, I helped Zeke dig the grave in the hard clay outside the building. And with everyone gathered silently, Zeke said a few words for everyone we'd lost: Ruth and Dorothy, Darren and Jeb. His voice broke a few times, but he remained calm and matter-of-fact, even with the tears streaming down his face.

  I couldn't stay for the whole thing. With the sun threatening to peek over the horizon, I met Zeke's eyes over the mound of earth, and he nodded. Drawing away from the much smaller group, I found a bare patch of soil behind the farmhouse and sank into the earth as Zeke's quiet, grief-stricken voice followed me down into the darkness.