"Just me, stupid! Open the door."
The light flickered to me and Jackal. I peered through the haze and saw an older boy, lean and black, his dark eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Who are they?"
"What the hell does it look like?" Roach continued without missing a beat. "Fringers I met topside. People who aren't ripping their faces off. I figured the boss would want me to bring them down here."
"He's pissed at you, Roach." The beam slid back, and the guard lifted a heavy iron bar that had been placed across the grate cover. "You know we're not supposed to go up there alone, especially now."
"Yeah, yeah. Tell me something I don't know."
With an earsplitting screech, the grate opened. Roach passed the guard, who eyed me and Jackal warily but didn't say anything, and led us to a rusty staircase beyond the tunnel. The rickety-looking stairs rose from the concrete floor, spiraled up a narrow shaft and continued into the black.
"Um, they're pretty shaky," Roach said, glancing hopefully back at us. "Probably best we go one at a time-don't want 'em collapsing underneath us, right?"
Jackal chuckled. "Devious little bloodbag, isn't he? I don't know whether to be amused or insulted."
"Nice try," I said, and gestured him forward. "Keep going. We'll be right behind you."
Roach shrugged and continued up the stairs.
The steps were pretty shaky, creaking and groaning under our weight, but they held. We came out of the hole into a large room with cement floors and walls. Crumbling posts held up a low ceiling, and massive cylindrical machines, completely encased in rust, created a narrow corridor down one wall.
"What is this place?" I mused.
"Sub-basement," Jackal echoed behind me. "Or an old boiler room. We're probably below a factory or something." He took a long, deep breath and smiled, showing his fangs. "Ah, the stench of human misery. Can you smell it, sister?"
I didn't know what a boiler room was, and I wasn't going to ask, having bigger worries right now. Jackal was right- the scent of warm-blooded humans was everywhere, even overpowering the smells of rust and mold and greasy smoke. The hot smell of blood, wrapped around the scent of fear and hopelessness and despair, roused the Hunger from its restless hibernation. It made me want to melt into the darkness, to slide between the aisles and wait for an unsuspecting human to walk by, then yank it back into the shadows, never to be seen again.
"Keep it together," I growled, as much to myself as to the vampire next to me. His eyes shone a luminous yellow in a way I didn't like at all, and I glared at him. "We're here for their help, not a snack."
"Perish the thought." Jackal waved a hand in a vague gesture. "I was simply making an observation. What were you thinking of?"
Ignoring him, I trailed Roach down an aisle, the squat, rusty machines lining either side like rotund guardians. Flickering orange light danced over the floor between them, the low crackle of a fire echoing off the barrels. Leaving the maze of machinery, we entered a large open space, where a scattering of blankets, boxes and rag piles surrounded a dying fire.
Half-starved humans milled through the shadows cast by the flames, or huddled close to the fire, shivering. The cold had stopped affecting me long ago, and I didn't think about it anymore, but I realized it must be freezing for them down here. The Fringer that I had been, however, approved. Well hidden, underground, a lot of places to hide. Yeah, Allie the street rat would've liked this place. Whoever had chosen this secure little haven knew what they were doing.
Of course, that didn't account for vampires being allowed past the gates.
"Okay," Roach whispered, glancing at me over his shoulder, "I got you here. You'll let me go now, right?"
I scanned the shivering crowd of humans and frowned. "Who's in charge?"
"Um..." Roach gazed around the camp, too. "There," he said, pointing to one side. "Our fearless leader."
I followed his hand to where a pair of humans stood at the edge of the light, talking in low voices with their backs to us. One of them was unremarkable, thin and ragged and dirty, like all the others. The second human, however, wore sturdier clothes, boots and a black combat vest like I'd seen on some of the Prince's guards. A heavy pistol was holstered to his belt, and across his back was a strange weapon I'd never seen before. It looked like someone had taken a bow and arrow-something I'd only read about before-and attached it to the end of a gun. A long wooden spike lay nestled in the strange weapon, and it sent a chill through my stomach.
"Son of a bitch," Jackal muttered behind me. "The bastard has a crossbow. Well, someone is prepared to run into vampires, aren't they?"
Something clicked in my head, and the world seemed to stop. No, I thought, dazed. It can't be. He can't be here now. It's not possible.
But it was, and I knew who it was, even before he turned around. Blond, blue eyed, lean and tall, like he'd stepped right out of my memory, out of my dreams, and into existence.
"Zeke," I whispered as his piercing, familiar gaze met mine across the room. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Ezekiel Crosse. The adopted son of Jebbadiah Crosse, the fanatical preacher who'd led a group of pilgrims across the country on a search for the mythical city of Eden. Zeke, the human who'd fought so hard to get his people to safety, whom I had left behind at the gates of Eden. The boy I thought I'd never see again, and certainly not here, hundreds of miles from that island, in the territory of a vampire Prince.
Zeke, the boy I couldn't get out of my head, who'd haunted my thoughts even though I knew I'd done the right thing, leaving him behind. Who had kissed me, knowing what I was. Who had offered his own blood to save my life when I lay close to death.
Who was supposed to be safe in Eden now.
He looked older, somehow, more mature, though it had been less than a year since I'd seen him last. His pale hair was shorter, not quite so shaggy, and though he was still lean and muscular, he'd lost the gaunt, wasted look of someone barely eating enough to live. He looked healthy and confident and strong, and achingly familiar.
"Allie." Zeke's voice was a breath, a whisper; I barely caught it even with my vampire hearing. It brought a storm of memories-our first meeting in the dead town, our first kiss, his hot, sweet blood spreading over my tongue. Everything about him came flooding back, and I stood there, reeling in the tide of emotion. Zeke was here, not in Eden with the others. He was right in front of me.
For a moment, Zeke stared back, blue eyes wide with shock, hope, relief...and something else.
But then, they flickered to the vampire standing beside me. And changed.
Recognition, followed by disbelief and rage. Those blue orbs turned icy cold, and a blank mask slammed down across his features. In one smooth movement, he stepped away and yanked the weapon from his back. I heard the hiss as he drew the string and leveled that deadly wooden point at Jackal's chest.
I lunged in front of him as Jackal snarled, the animalistic sound booming through the chamber. Humans shrieked in terror, scattering like birds as they realized what had snuck into their safe little haven. Roach darted away, vanishing into the shadows as pandemonium erupted around us.
"Everyone, freeze!" Zeke's sharp, commanding voice rose over the chaos, stilling the panic. The frantic movement around us slowed as Zeke continued to hold the weapon on me and Jackal. "Stay where you are," Zeke went on, casting a split-second glance around the chamber. His voice rang with authority, composed yet firm. "Be calm, all of you. Do not move unless I give the word."
Smart move. Zeke knew vampires, some of it from me. He knew that we were predators, and that fear, panic and frantic movements could set us off, goad us into giving chase. I felt my own demon rise up, sensing prey, eager to hunt and kill. I forced it down, trying to stay calm, focused. But it was hard, caught between a wooden stake and a volatile, murderous vampire, with the smell of blood and fear thick in the air. I felt balanced on a razor's edge, and needed only a tiny push for everything around me to explode in violence.
Behind me, Jackal chuckled, soft and menacing. "Well, isn't this fun," he crooned, making me want to kick him in the groin. "Tell me, human. How many of these little bloodbags do you think I can kill before you get that shot off?"
I glared back at him, hoping Zeke would not rise to that challenge. "Shut up! You are not helping!"
He shrugged. "Sorry. Kind of hard to think when you have a crossbow pointed in your direction. Makes me a little twitchy."
"If you hadn't noticed," I growled, trying to keep my voice calm, "that crossbow is pointed at me. Because I was stupid enough to jump in front of you. Don't make me regret it even more."
"Allison." Zeke's voice was hard. My heart sank, and I turned to face those cold blue eyes. They glittered with anger, with shock and betrayal, as he shook his head. "Please tell me you have a valid reason for being here with him."
He spat the word like a curse. I didn't blame him-Jackal had kidnapped Zeke's family. He'd murdered Zeke's friend, Darren, to set an example. He was responsible for the death of Zeke's father, Jebbadiah Crosse. He was a ruthless, brutal, cold-blooded killer, and Zeke had every reason to hate him.
So why am I standing here, protecting him?
"Zeke," Jackal growled behind me, as if just figuring something out. "Ezekiel. Ezekiel Crosse. Son of a bitch, you're the kid the old bastard was talking about. You're the old man's son!"
Shit. I spun, but Jackal hit me hard, shoving me aside. I struck the cement floor just as the snap of the crossbow string rang out in the brief moment of silence. Jackal ducked, moving with the inhuman speed of our kind, and the deadly spike zipped by him, missing his face by centimeters. As I cursed and shot to my feet, he roared, baring his fangs, and went for Zeke.
I shot after him, praying to make it there in time. As Jackal closed the distance, Zeke dropped the crossbow and yanked a long wooden spike from a slot in his armored vest. Jackal snarled, but Zeke stood his ground, raising the stake in his fist as the vampire lunged forward.
Drawing my katana, I threw myself between them.
I turned on Jackal with the sword, barring his path and at the same time grabbing the wrist that held the stake. Jackal halted inches from the blade, eyes gleaming, and Zeke stiffened in my grip, but didn't try to yank free. "We are not doing this now!" I hissed at both of them. Jackal growled, and Zeke tensed, ready to lunge, and I shoved them back. "Dammit, we have bigger problems to worry about, like the city tearing itself apart around us. If you haven't noticed, we're sort of in a bad way here. And I'm not going to stand by and watch you two tear each other's throats out." They both glared at me; I glared back and didn't relent. "I don't care about your personal vendettas. Kill each other later-right now, there are other things to deal with. So you boys are just going to have to suck it up and get over it!"
A brittle silence stretched between us. I could feel the violence pulsing on either side. I could feel Jackal's vicious intent and Zeke's pure, unfiltered rage, straining against the barrier that held them back. Me. I swallowed hard and waited, hoping they would not continue this fight. Because then I would be forced to take a side, and I didn't know what side I was going to choose.