"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.
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.