"Go on, little human," Sarren said over my shoulder. His bared fangs were inches from my neck, and the hand on my wrist was threatening to break my arm. I struggled, but he wrenched my arm up, and pain lanced through my shoulder. "You can probably hit me, if you shoot through us both."
"Let her go." Zeke's hand didn't waver, but his voice shook, just a little.
I felt something cold and wet touch my cheek-Sarren's tongue-and cringed in revulsion. "How do you taste?" Sarren whispered in my ear. "Shall we peel you open and see? Is your blood as dark and thick as Kanin's, little bird?"
"Get off me, you f**king psychopath!" I spat, nearly hysterical. He chuckled, and his fangs lightly scraped my skin.
A new voice, familiar and tight with pain, echoed behind us. Sarren glanced over, to find Jackal on his knees, one hand pressed to his bleeding chest, the other pointing a crossbow at us. "You missed," he rasped, and fired the weapon.
Sarren jerked back, throwing me to the floor. I hit the ground and rolled as a painful screech rang out behind me. Coming to my feet, I saw Sarren stagger backward, a wooden dart through his shoulder, his fangs bared in agony.
I grabbed my katana, but Sarren hissed like a furious snake, turned and flung himself toward the far wall. There was a deafening crash and glass exploded in all directions as the vampire hurled himself through the window and dropped from sight.
I shivered, gripping my katana so it didn't drop from my nerveless fingers. It didn't seem possible that we'd won, or at least, that we'd survived. The room reeked of blood, the carpet beneath my boots felt like a swamp, and the oncepristine office looked like a war zone.
"Allie." I turned as Zeke dropped the crossbow with a muffled thump, stepped forward and pulled me close, holding me tightly against him. He was shaking, his heart pounding against his ribs, loud and frantic. My eyes slipped shut, and my free arm reached around his waist to hug him back. The Hunger stirred, and my rational side prickled a warning that this was dangerous. I was getting too close, was already too close. I ignored it. Zeke felt warm and safe, and I had missed him, more than I thought I would ever miss anyone. I could allow myself this one moment.
"God, I thought I'd lost you," he whispered in a husky voice. "When Sarren grabbed you, my heart nearly stopped." Pulling back, he ran his thumb over my cheek, brushing the hair from my face. My senses buzzed from his touch. "Are you all right? I'm sorry...I couldn't get the shot off fast enough. Did he hurt you?"
"No." I reached up and wrapped my fingers around his wrist, feeling the pulse beneath my hand, assuring us both that we were okay. Hard to believe. I'd faced Sarren twice now when he was intent on killing me, and come out alive. How long would that luck last, I wondered. Especially since Psycho Vamp was still out there and hated us even more. "I'm fine, Zeke," I told him, squeezing his arm. "We're both still here."
He drew in a slow breath. "Allie..."
"Oh, don't mind me," came an extremely sarcastic voice near the wall. "You two go ahead and make out-I'll just sit here and bleed quietly."
Guiltily, we broke apart. Jackal sat against an overturned chair, surrounded by bodies, managing a smirk even through the horror around him. "That's okay," he said, gritting his teeth. "No need to thank the guy who just put a stake into Sarren and made him run away like a little girl. Though, I do feel that I'm missing something... What was it? Oh yeah, I just saved your lives, didn't I?"
Zeke started forward, but I grabbed his arm. "No," I told him urgently. "Don't go near him, he's lost a lot of blood. He might not be able to stop himself from biting you."
"I'm run through, not deaf," Jackal remarked from the floor. Honestly, he was the loudest mortally wounded vampire I'd ever heard. I figured that if he could make this much noise, he was in no danger of dying. "Although..." He grimaced, and his voice became lower, more like a growl. "You might want to get the meatsack out of here if you want his blood to stay on the inside. His inside, not mine."
"Go find Stick," I told Zeke. "Let him know what happened. Tell him Sarren is on the loose and that there's a wounded vampire who needs blood immediately." I glanced toward the wall where Salazar's body lay, motionless, behind the desk. "And that they're probably going to have to find a new Prince."
I winced, thinking how Stick would take that. Hell, how the entire vampire city would take that. "Actually," I continued, "it's probably best not to mention that quite yet."
Zeke nodded, though he looked reluctant to leave. "I'll be right back." He glanced at the dismembered corpses, the blood-spattered walls, the severed heads scattered around the room, and grimaced. "Will you be okay?"
"Yeah." I gave him a tired smile. "I'll be fine."
He brushed his fingers across my cheek, leaving a lingering trail of warmth, and turned away. Stepping around bodies, he wove his way through the blood-soaked room until he reached the doors and slipped through. They opened with a creak and groaned shut behind him, and the room seemed colder when he was gone.
Jackal grunted and shifted to a more comfortable position, leaning back against the chair. "You know you're playing a dangerous game," he said, watching me with glowing yellow eyes.
I started to snap that it was none of his business, then let my shoulders slump. "I know."
"When are you going to tell that kid that he doesn't have a chance? You'll have to let him know soon-looks like the poor sap has it bad." Jackal watched my reaction then raised his eyebrows. "You're not going to say anything, are you? You're going to let him tromp merrily down this road until the day the Hunger gets to be too much, and then the little bloodsack won't know what hit him." He chuckled, wincing, and shook his head. "And I thought I was a heartless bastard."
"It's not like that," I argued. Jackal snorted.
"What, then? Don't tell me you feel something for the little... Oh." The vampire blinked, then curled his lip back, disgust and pity crossing his sharp features. "Oh, sister. Really? That's just sad."
"Shut. Up. Jackal."
Jackal snickered again but fell silent. A few minutes later, the doors burst open and an armed regiment of vampires swept into the room. Most immediately surrounded me and Jackal, heavy crossbows pointed at us, while the rest searched the room, nudging the dead vampires and poking into dark corners.
"Little too late, chums," Jackal said from the floor. "If you're looking for the psychotic murdering vampire, he already went out the window."
Stick swept through the doors, followed by two more guards, of the human variety this time. One of them carried a white cooler, the lid coiling with frost; the other held a gun to the back of an unresisting Zeke. I bristled, but Zeke met my worried gaze and gave a short nod, indicating he was all right.
"Oh, God." Stick gazed around the room in shock, his face draining of color. Looking at me, his eyes widened. "Allie!" he snarled, stabbing a thin finger at me. "Where is the Prince? What have you done to him?"
"We didn't do anything!" I protested. "Sarren did this. We were just trying to stay alive."
"Sarren?" Stick paled even more, one hand going to his mouth. "No. No, you're lying. Sarren wouldn't do this. That's..."
He trailed off, his gaze falling on the desk and the crumpled form behind it. "Master Salazar!" Stick cried, rushing over and kneeling beside the motionless body. I watched, bemused and, absurdly enough, a little hurt. Stick had never shown me that kind of concern.
"He's still alive," Stick whispered. "Master, can you hear me?"
A strained, choked whisper came from the body behind the desk, and I stared in shock. Salazar had taken a wooden quarrel right to the chest. A shot like that would've put me into hibernation. If I'd had any doubts before that the Master vampire was strong, they had vanished completely.
"You!" Stick stood and pointed at one of the human guards, who straightened. Walking around the desk, Stick pointed back to the floor. "The stake needs to be removed. Take it out!"
"Sir!" Putting down the cooler, the guard rushed forward. Quickly, he hurried around the desk and dropped to his knees beside the Prince. Bending down, he vanished momentarily, and then stood a moment later, the bloody stick gripped triumphantly in one hand.
"I have it, sir," the guard said, looking at Stick. But Stick didn't move, didn't say anything. Just watched him with hooded, patient eyes. The guard frowned, confused, and opened his mouth to speak-when Salazar rose up from behind and plunged his fangs into the side of the man's neck.
I jumped. The guard let out a strangled gasp and went rigid, the stake dropping from nerveless fingers. Salazar tore at his throat, shredding flesh and muscle, blind in his Hunger, and the guard started to spasm. Stick and the vampire guards looked on impassively, their faces blank. But I glanced at Zeke, standing forgotten behind Stick and the other human, and his expression was grim, his fists clenched at his sides.
The Prince dropped the still-twitching guard to the floor with a hollow thud and turned blazing dark eyes on me. Blood smeared his lips, was spattered in vivid flecks across his face, and soaked his once-white collar. There was a crimson stain on the front of his shirt where the stake had been. I tensed, gripping the handle of my sword as the Prince stepped forward, over the corpse, his fury a terrifying storm that filled the whole room.
I winced as his booming voice shook the walls, making the air tremble. Even the guards looked nervous, and a few backed away from me.
"You," the Prince snarled, baring his fangs in my direction. "A curse on you and all your line! If my city was not in such dire straits, I would hang you outside my window to meet the sun. As it is, Kanin's daughter, you will find Sarren, and you will bring him to me alive. I don't care what it takes or where you must go, if you have to scour the streets of the Fringe and fight your way through infected madmen until you reach him, that is what you are going to do. If Sarren knows how to stop this plague, he will tell me. If he knows of a cure, I will peel the truth from him, bit by bit. One way or another, I will get answers, and if you wish to leave my city alive, you will deliver him to me."
It's never a good idea to argue with a pissed-off Master vampire, but I still raised my chin, met his furious gaze, and said, "I'm not going anywhere without Kanin."
His glare grew even colder. "I am in no mood to play games, Kanin's daughter," Salazar said in a low, controlled voice. "You tread on dangerous ground right now, so think very carefully on your demands."
"Why do you need us to find Sarren?" I asked in a calm, reasonable voice. "You have a whole tower of minions-"
He cut me off. "Sending humans after Sarren is useless. I might as well tear their heads off myself. And with the chaos out in the Fringe, I find myself rather short staffed at the moment." He seemed to grow even more irritable, admitting that. "I do not have the resources needed for a full-scale manhunt, so I will have to be content with what is available. You claim to have dealt with Sarren before-bring him to me and I will let you live. Fail me and you will die, either at Sarren's hands or my own. Make your decision."