I glanced once more at the broken corpse, wondering if his people would come for him and what they would do with his body if they did. Shying away from those thoughts, I stalked past Jackal and continued down the tunnel.
* * *
The rusty ladder that led up to the surface was exactly where I remembered it, and I felt another weird flicker of deja vu as I pushed back the heavy round cover and emerged topside. Nothing had changed. The buildings were still there, dark and skeletal, falling to dust beneath vines and weeds. The rusted hulks of cars, their innards gutted and stripped away, sat decaying along sidewalks and half-buried in ditches. The vampire towers glimmered in the distant Inner City, as they had every night before this. Familiar and unchanged, though I didn't know what I'd expected. Maybe I'd thought things would be different, because I was so different.
"Huh," Jackal commented as he emerged from underground, gazing around at the crumbling buildings, the roots and weeds that grew over everything and pushed up through the pavement. "This place is a right mess, isn't it? Where is everyone?"
"Nobody stays out after dark," I muttered as we walked through the weed-tangled ditch, hopped the embankment and strode into the street. "Even though the vamps force the Registered humans to give blood every two weeks, and have plenty of bloodslaves in the Inner City, they still go hunting sometimes."
"Of course they do," Jackal said, as if that was obvious. "What fun is feeding from bloodbags you don't catch yourself? It's like having a stocked lake and never fishing from it."
I ignored that comment, nodding to the very center of the city, where the three vampire towers were lit up against the night sky. "That's where the Prince lives. Him and his coven. They never come down to the Fringe. At least, I never saw them when I lived here."
Jackal grunted, following my gaze. "According to vampire law, as visitors to the city, we're supposed to check in with the Prince," he muttered. "Tell him where we're from, what our business is here, how long we're staying." He snorted and curled a lip. "I don't really feel like playing by the little Prince's rules, and normally I would say 'the hell with it,' but that's going to be a problem now, isn't it?"
"Yeah," I agreed. I could feel the pull that drew me toward my sire. It was faint now, flickering erratically, as if Kanin was barely hanging on to life, but it still pulled at me, right toward the three towers in the center of New Covington. "He's in the Inner City." I sighed.
"Yep. And we'll probably run into Salazar's men while we're there. Could make searching for Kanin challenging if they decide we don't belong." Jackal grimaced as if speaking from experience. "Princes tend to be irrationally paranoid about strange vamps in their cities."
"We'll just have to take that chance." I gazed at the vampire towers and narrowed my eyes. "Salazar tried to kill Kanin and me both after he found us in the city." Jackal snickered, and I scowled at him. "He won't be too fond of you, either, because you're Kanin's blood. He hates Kanin with a vengeance."
"Everyone hates Kanin," Jackal said with a shrug. "All the old Masters know what he did, what he helped create. If we say we're looking for him, Salazar will probably assume we want to kill him. He doesn't have to know the truth."
"And what if he decides he wants to come with us and do the honors himself?"
"Salazar is a Master." Jackal smiled evilly. "It would be helpful to have a Master around when we run into Sarren- they can tear each other to pieces, and we can sneak out with Kanin. If we're lucky, they'll kill each other. If not..." He shrugged. "Then we'll just finish off the survivor when he's distracted."
"I don't like it."
"Why does that not surprise me?" Jackal's voice was flat. "What, exactly, is tripping you up here, sister? Having the Prince help us? Letting him fight our psychotically murderous vampire friend? Or is it the whole 'kick him when he's down' thing that's tweaking your conscience?" He shook his head. "Don't be so bloody naive. Salazar is a vampire, one who's lived a very long time and has become a Prince the old-fashioned way-by killing all his competition. He'll do exactly the same to us if he has the chance." He bared his fangs. "And you are going to have to start thinking like a vampire, my dear little sister, or you're never going to survive this world."
His words had an eerily familiar ring to them. I'd told Zeke Crosse the same thing once, that the world was harsh and unmerciful, and he wasn't going to survive if he didn't see it for what it was.
"All right," I snarled. "Fine. Let's go see the Prince, but I'm not spending any more time with him than we have to. We're here for Kanin, nothing else."
"Finally." Jackal rolled his eyes. "The shrew can see reason after all." Bristling, I was about to tell him what he could do with his reason, when a noise stopped me. A soft noise. One that, for whatever reason, raised the hair on the back of my neck.
We both turned to see a lone figure staggering down the street toward us.
The human moved like it was drunk-shuffling, swaying from side to side, nearly tripping over its own feet. It would hit a car or the side of a building and lurch back, staggering and confused. I gave a soft growl, resisting the urge to pull away. Maybe because it reminded me of the animals bitten by rabids: stumbling around one moment, trying to eat your face off the next. Or maybe because there was just something off about it. Humans, even drunk humans, never ventured out this late at night. Save for a few of the more vicious gangs (and one very stubborn street rat who, incidentally, was no longer alive), all residents of New Covington fled inside when the sun went down. They had nothing to fear from rabids, of course, but wander the streets after dark, and you were just begging to be noticed by a vampire out hunting for live prey.
As the human drew closer, pawing blindly at its face, it tripped over a curb and fell, striking its head on the pavement. I saw its skull bounce on the asphalt, and the body collapse, twitching and gasping, in the gutter. At first, I thought it was dead, or at least dying.
Then, I realized it was laughing.
"Nice. Bloodbag's either too drunk to live or has gone right off the deep end," Jackal said, in what would've been a conversational tone if his fangs hadn't been showing through his gums. "I don't know whether to laugh or put it out of its misery."
At his voice, the human raised its head, regarding us with eyes that were as blank and glassy as a mirror. It was a woman, though it had been difficult to tell at first. Her hair had either been cut or torn out, as the top of her head was sticky with blood. Long gashes ran down both sides of her face, bleeding freely over her skin, but she didn't seem to notice the open wounds.
I resisted the urge to take several steps back. "Are you all right?" I asked, ignoring Jackal, who snorted. "You're hurt. What happened?"
The woman stared at me a second before her face contorted in a gaping, laughing scream. Baring bloodstained teeth, she lurched to her feet and charged me, swinging her arms. I leaped aside, and she ran headfirst into a cement wall, hitting the bricks with a muffled thump and reeling back. Shaking her head, she turned, spotting me through the curtain of blood running down her face, and shrieked with laughter.
As she lurched forward again, I drew my sword. At the sight of the weapon, she paused, still giggling, and suddenly clawed at her face, tearing open the already bleeding scars. More dark blood oozed down her cheeks.
"Is it...someone new?" she rasped, making my skin crawl. "Someone new, to make the burning stop?"
"What the hell-?" Jackal began, just as she lunged again, howling. Again, I dodged, but she followed me this time, swinging and flailing in complete abandon.
"Back off!" I snarled at her, baring my teeth. But the sight of fangs seemed to incense the human further. With a screech, she leaped, swiping at my face. I ducked her wild slashing and drove my sword hilt between her eyes, knocking her off her feet.
The human fell backward, her skull giving a faint crack as it hit the pavement again. She twitched, moaning, but didn't get up. Stepping past her body, I shot Jackal an evil look.
"Thanks for the help," I growled, and he smirked back.
"Hey, I am forbidden to kill any more bloodbags." Jackal crossed his arms and peered down at me, enjoying himself. "You were the one who told me to stop killing indiscriminately. I'm just following orders, here."
I bristled. "You can be such a-"
The woman screamed and, this time, I reacted on instinct, spinning around. As the human lunged for me, my blade sliced through ribs and out the other side, nearly cutting her in two. The body struck the curb with a wet splat, and though it thrashed and spasmed for a while as we watched it warily, it did not rise again.
Jackal and I exchanged a look as the body finally stopped moving. The night seemed deathly quiet and still.
"Okay." My blood brother nudged the corpse's leg with the toe of his boot. It flopped limply. "That's something completely new. Any guesses as to what that was all about?"
I peered down at the body, though I certainly wasn't going to touch it. "Maybe a rabid got in somehow," I mused. "Maybe that's why they shut down the city."
Jackal shook his head. "This wasn't a rabid. Look at it." He nudged the body, harder this time, flipping it over. He was right, and I had known it wasn't a rabid from the beginning. The rabids were pale, emaciated things, with blank white eyes, hooked fingernails and a mouthful of jagged fangs. This wasn't a rabid corpse. It looked perfectly human, except for the deep gouges down its cheek, and the wild, bulging stare.
"Smells human, too," Jackal added, taking a slow breath before wrinkling his nose. "Or at least, she doesn't smell dead. Not like they do. Though she must've been pumping herself full of something good, the way she put a hole through those bricks." He nodded at the cement wall, where the cracked indentation of a human skull sat in the middle of a bloody smear. "What did the crazy say to you? Something about making the burning stop?"
"Jackal," I growled, lifting my sword again. My blood brother looked up, following my gaze, and his eyes narrowed.
Across the street, two more humans shambled from a skeletal building, heads and faces torn, bright mad gazes searching the road. They muttered in low, harsh voices, garbled nonsense with only a few recognizable words. One of them held a lead pipe, which he banged on a line of dead cars as he crossed the street. Glass shattered and metal crumpled with hollow booms, ringing into the silence.
And then, another human emerged from an alleyway, followed by a friend.
More torn, bloody faces. More glassy eyes and mad, wild laughter, echoing all around us. The mob of humans hadn't seen us yet, but they were steadily drawing closer, and there were a lot of them. Their raspy voices slithered off the stones and rose into the air, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Vampire or no, I did not want to fight my way through that.
I snuck a glance at Jackal and saw that, for once, he was thinking the same. He jerked his head toward a building, and we quickly slipped away, ducking through a shattered window into the gutted remains of an old store. Dust and cobwebs clung to everything, and the floor was littered with rubble and glass, though the shelves were bare. Anything useful had been ripped out and taken long ago.