I had to be careful. One wrong word or action, and we'd be down there with Kanin, chained to a wall and waiting for Hunger to drive us insane. "There has to be something we can agree on," I said cautiously. "Something we can offer for Kanin's life."
"Oh?" The Master vamp raised an eyebrow, amused. "Tell me, then, Kanin's daughter. What do you think his life, and the billions of humans and vampires he helped destroy, is worth?"
"How about your city?" Jackal broke in, and Salazar turned to him in surprise. "How about the knowledge of what's really going on out there, and the name of someone who can stop it?"
Very slowly, the Prince sat back, regarding Jackal with intense black eyes. "I'm listening," he said in a low, controlled voice.
"It's not just a random plague," Jackal went on. "Someone created the virus inside your city and released it into the population. It's too similar to Red Lung to be a coincidence. We know who did it. He's the one you really want, because he's the only one who has the cure."
Cure? I wondered how much of that was truth and how much Jackal was making up. We really didn't know if Sarren had a cure or could create one. We didn't even know if he was still in the city. But Salazar stood, looming over us, his expression cold and terrible. "Let's say I believe you," he said. "What is the name of the person who unleashed hell upon my city? Who is this creature who will soon regret he was ever born?"
"If we give you his name," I said, "will you release Kanin?"
Salazar regarded me with blank, scary eyes. "You are in no position to bargain with me, Kanin's daughter," he warned in a quiet voice. "It is only my will and my own laws that have kept you alive this long. One word from me, and you will share your sire's fate. So perhaps it is your own life you should be bargaining for, not his.
"However," he went on, "the fate of my city is more important than the existence of one vampire. Even one as cursed as him. Give me the one responsible for this chaos, and I will... consider...releasing Kanin to you."
I looked at Jackal. He nodded. "Sarren," I told the Prince. "His name is Sarren. You might remember him-he came to your city several months ago, looking for Kanin. Tall, bald, scarred-up face, a little on the bat-shit-crazy side?"
"Sarren." The Prince's voice was flat. Turning, he walked to the window, gazing out on the city. I watched his reflection in the glass, serious and pondering, and waited impatiently for his response.
"Serious accusations," the Prince said, turning back. His voice was grim as he turned his head, facing the corner. "What do you have to say to this...Sarren?"
"I would say," a cold, terrifyingly familiar voice hissed out of the darkness, "that some little birdie is lying to you."
He was here.
My blood turned to ice. I leaped to my feet, causing Zeke and Jackal to do the same, as a pale, thin form slid out of the shadows, smiling his awful smile. The guards, forgotten around us, closed in, hands on their weapons. From the corner of my eye, I saw the Prince watching intently, waiting to see what would happen. But I couldn't take my eyes off Sarren.
"It isn't wise to deceive the Prince, little bird," Sarren crooned as his grinning, hideously scarred face came into the light. One hollow black eye fixed on me, the other, covered in blue film, stared sightlessly. "What venomous lies you are spreading, just to save your sire."
"They're not lies," I shot back, really, really wishing I had my sword. Something, anything, between me and him. Screw the Prince and the vampire Elite. Sarren was the most dangerous thing in the room now, and I didn't trust even the guards and their crossbows to keep us safe. "We know you went to Old D.C., to the other lab. We found the room with the live virus samples, and know you took them before you came here."
"Do you now?" Sarren sidled closer, and I tensed. On either side of me, Jackal and Zeke were just as alert. Only the Prince watched us calmly, no change in his demeanor. I wondered if he would be so calm if he knew the true monster he'd invited into his tower. "I think you are grasping at straws, little bird," Sarren went on. "To weave your nest of deceit. Oh, what a tangled web we weave."
"You took something from the lab," I insisted, refusing to let his craziness draw me in. "You brought it here. And you turned it loose in the Fringe. That's why every Fringer is tearing his face off and puking blood in the streets. Why? Why would you risk another plague? We haven't recovered from the last one."
"Can you hear him?" Sarren whispered, either not hearing or ignoring the question. "Can you hear his screams? Do they haunt your sleep, his cries of anguish? Can you feel his pain, the exquisite torture? Oh, I envy you."
"Azura will vouch for me," Jackal said, speaking not to Sarren, but to the Prince. "The Prince of Old D.C. knows Sarren came to her city and went searching for the government's secret lab beneath the tunnels. If you ask her, she'll confirm what we just told you."
"Where is Kanin?" I demanded, glaring at the scarred madman in front of me. "What did you do to him?"
"There's nothing left of him," Sarren said dreamily, almost in a daze now. "Not anymore. His mind has broken. Just like mine." He chuckled, and it made my skin crawl. "Only he won't be coming back. Pity that. I've enjoyed our interactions so. But now, I have a greater purpose. I do miss his screams, though. Such a glorious song."
I bared my fangs. "You'd better hope that he's all right," I growled. "I swear, I'll take you apart if he's not." But Sarren seemed to be in a trance now. His eyes were closed, and he swayed slightly on his feet, his thin mouth still twisted in a smile.
"You can't save him, little bird," he whispered. "You can't save anyone now. The requiem has started, and when the last melody plays, the only applause will be sweet, eternal silence." He raised his arms, as if he could hear the applause, accepting it. "It draws ever closer now. I cannot wait until the final note."
The Prince shook his head. "I am still unsure what is going on," he admitted slowly, "or who I should believe, but in light of these events, I'm afraid I must ask all of you to remain in the tower. You will be guests here, but please do not try to leave the floor. I will get to the bottom of this, soon."
Damn. Not ideal, but better than being tossed in the dungeon.
"Guards." The Prince nodded to the vampires, still waiting at attention. "Please escort our guests to their rooms. Make sure they do not try to leave. If they do try to escape, you have permission to shoot them."
The Prince turned away then, facing the window and his city below it, dismissing us.
Two of the guards stepped forward, weapons drawn, to escort us from the room. The others approached Sarren, still in a daze in the middle of the floor, swaying to some tune only he could hear. The crazy vampire ignored the guard's repeated attempts to get his attention, seemingly lost in his own head. Finally, the guard gave an exasperated huff and took his arm.
Sarren spun with blinding speed, his free hand whipping up faster than thought, slashing across the guard's neck. The vampire let out a startled gurgle, and then his head tumbled backward in a spray of blood, held in place by a single flap of skin. Still clutching his thin, bright dagger, Sarren grabbed the guard's crossbow arm and turned, pointing the weapon across the room. There was the snap of the bolt releasing, and the shaft buried itself in Salazar's chest just as the Prince was spinning around.
This all happened in the space of a blink. Salazar gave a strangled cry and collapsed, clutching his chest, clawing at the desk to keep himself upright. The other guards roared with fury and lunged to attack, drawing their blades as they rushed forward. The guard closest to Sarren pulled his sword and slashed at him in the same motion, but Sarren ducked the blow, stepped in close, and shoved his dagger under the guard's chin, into his brain. Yanking it out, he spun to face the remaining two guards, a maniacal grin on his face as they rushed forward.
With a howl, Jackal leaped into the fray, grabbing a dead guard's sword as he charged Sarren. I spun on Zeke. "Stay down!" I hissed at him, and lunged forward, too. But my goal wasn't Sarren, not yet. Dodging a blade that buzzed overhead, I threw myself at the first dead guard, my fingers closing around the handle of my katana.
A familiar cry made my blood run cold. I whirled just in time to see Jackal fall, clutching the hilt of the blade in his chest as Sarren shoved him back. The other two guards lay nearby, one with a crossbow shaft protruding from his eye socket, the other missing a head.
So fast. It had happened so quickly. Drawing my sword, I rose to face Sarren alone.
The vampire smiled at me from the center of the massacre, blood painted across his face, seeping into his many scars. It covered his arms, his chest, running down his white skin and dripping to the carpet. "Hello, little bird," he whispered, stepping over a dead vampire, backing me toward the wall. I raised my sword and tried to calm the terror sweeping through me. "I believe we have unfinished business, you and I."
"Stay away from her."
Sarren turned. Zeke stood beside a dead vampire, a crossbow in hand, pointed unerringly at Sarren's heart.
"What's this?" Sarren watched Zeke in obvious amusement. "A human? Ready to die for a vampire? What a loyal little pet you are. But your master has no control over you now." He gestured to the carnage around him and smiled. "Run, little human," he crooned. "Run. The end draws nigh, and the sun will soon set for all your kind. How long can you evade the dark, I wonder?"
"Zeke!" I hissed, still keeping my gaze on Sarren, knowing how fast he could move, how he could suddenly be right there with no warning at all. "Listen to him! Get out of here!" Didn't he see what just happened, Sarren slaughtering four vampires and the Prince in the blink of an eye? He couldn't take on Sarren. Hell, I was pretty sure I couldn't take on Sarren. "Run!" I urged him. "Find Stick. Tell him what happened. Tell him to send help. Go!"
"Allie," Zeke said calmly, not moving an inch. "I'm not leaving you."
Sarren blinked, looking back and forth between us, and suddenly laughed. The raspy, dead voice sent chills up my spine as Sarren shook his head. "Ohhhh," he said, as if just figuring something out, "this is interesting. A little bird, making a nest with a rat. Are you a Prince then, little rat?" he asked Zeke, who frowned in wary confusion. But Sarren ignored him, turning back to me. "Well, this is quite the dilemma. Who shall I kill first? Shall I kill the prince's little bird in front of him?" His grin stretched wider as he stared at me, his voice dropping to a whisper. "Or shall I take apart the human, slowly? Peel the skin from his body, snap every bone, savor every scream, before I tear out his heart?" He chuckled and ran a tongue along his pale lips. "Would you like that, little bird? Or...perhaps you would like to watch?"
My fear vanished. The thought of Zeke at the mercy of this madman awoke a savage, almost desperate fury, and I acted without thinking. Baring my fangs, I lunged at Sarren with a roar, slashing at his neck. Sarren blocked the strike, reached in and grabbed my throat, spinning me around. Twisting my sword arm behind my back, he turned us toward Zeke, who had raised the crossbow and had it trained on us.