"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-
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.