"Don't do it," he whispered, keeping a tight grip on my arm, though he had to know I could shove him off with little effort. "Allie, it's not worth it."

I hissed at him, not really myself. The monster was raging inside, and the Hunger was a bright flame in my stomach. "Why not?" I demanded.

He raised a hand, sliding his fingers into my hair, his gaze imploring. The contact shocked me, how close he was willing to get to a raging, snarling vampire. "Because, I know you," he said gently. "Because, when it's over, you'll regret it for the rest of your life." His fingers found the side of my neck, the palm brushing my skin. "That's forever, Allison."

I closed my eyes. The demon still howled within, wanting blood, eager for violence. But...Zeke was standing there, begging me not to do it, not to give in to the monster. I could feel his eyes on me, pleading for the life of the one who'd tried to kill him.

My anger wavered and I slumped, retracting my fangs. "Get out of here, Stick," I spat without turning around. "I don't want to see you again. I don't want to talk to you again. Go back to your Prince and forget I ever existed."

Jackal gave a disgusted snort. "You're kidding," he muttered, and sighed. "Well, bloodbags, you heard her. Guess it's your lucky night. Better hurry-I'm not as squeamish as my dear sister. You have five seconds to be gone, or the first human I see when I'm done counting won't make it to the end of the street."

I heard the humans walk swiftly away, as fast as they could without fleeing outright. The vampire in me still roared a protest, urging me to run them down and tear them open. To spill their hot blood into the snow, to watch the light dim from their eyes. From his eyes. I kept a tight hold on it, concentrating on the sound of Zeke's heart, his touch, until the footsteps faded into silence and the scent of fear blew away into the night.

Zeke stepped closer, his forehead resting against mine. "You did the right thing," he whispered, and I nodded, still trying to clamp down on my raging emotions. "Are you okay?"

"Give me a second," I said stiffly, and he didn't move, his hands resting lightly on my skin, as my muscles slowly uncoiled and the Hunger settled reluctantly, like a sullen, angry beast.

When I was fully in control, I pulled away, and Zeke released me. Jackal was shaking his head at us, pity and disgust written clearly on his sharp features, but it was Kanin's presence I sought. He stood beside the vehicle, his dark figure hazy through the glare of the headlights, his face impassive. Hollow black eyes regarded me without expression as I walked up, frowning.

"Why didn't you stop us?" I asked, not angry with him, just surprised. "I almost killed those men. If Zeke wasn't here, Jackal and I would've torn them apart. Why didn't you say anything?"

Kanin peered down at me, his impassive gaze softening just a touch. "I am no longer your teacher, Allison," he said quietly. "You have been one of us for a while now. You have hunted, and you have killed. It is not my responsibility to curb your demon." He glanced past me to the place Stick and the men had stood moments before. "And I wanted to see what type of monster you had become."

"Oh," I muttered as the last of the anger flickered and died and the sharp edge of regret sliced in to take its place. I suddenly felt like a new vampire again, back with my mentor, having just failed one of Kanin's tests. Defiance colored my voice. "Well, I hope you liked what you saw, because it's not going to change."

Kanin's words were so soft I might've imagined them. "I hope not."

"Great," Jackal said, sauntering up. He eyed the abandoned car, the smashed one a few yards away, and sighed. "Looks like we're walking to the Fringe."

Part III

ARDENT

Chapter 16

We didn't use the Sector Two gate. The guards escorting us were supposed to open it so that we could go through, but we weren't going to stand around waiting for them to return. Not when they could come back with an angry Prince and a squadron of vampire Elite, having been fed some crazy story by Stick on how we'd tried to kill him.

Instead, Kanin took us into the tunnels, somehow finding a sewer entrance beneath the hulk of a crumbled building, and we dropped into the Undercity once more.

"Well, it's official," Jackal said, his voice echoing down the long corridor. "This is the most I have ever been in the sewers in one place. If someone had said to me a month ago, 'Hey, Jackal, guess where you'll be spending most of your time in New Covington? Ankle-deep in shit!' I would've ripped their lips off."

"This way," Kanin said, ignoring him. "It's a long walk to the old hospital, and we'll probably have to use the streets once or twice. Let's not waste any time."

He started off down the tunnel, and we followed, heading deeper into the sewers. No one spoke, which gave me plenty of time to remember what had just nearly happened. What I'd almost done.

I almost killed Stick tonight. The realization sent a cold shiver through me, as well as a bitter flood of anger and regret. I really had been about to kill him. Stick, the boy I'd looked after nearly half my human life, who had relied on me for everything. Who was weak, frightened, unable to fend for himself. I'd almost killed the boy I'd once considered my only friend. If Zeke hadn't stopped me...

Wonder what he thinks of you now.

Zeke walked behind me, making very little sound even through the puddles and scattered debris, the narrow pipe forcing us to stay single file. He didn't say anything about the incident with Stick, and I wondered what he was thinking. Did he regret being with me now, kissing me, putting such blind trust in a vampire? Did he realize the implications of tonight, that if I could kill Stick, someone I'd known far longer, what would stop me from turning on him, as well?

I warned you that I would always be a demon, I thought, skirting a trickle of water seeping down from above. Zeke followed, his presence close at my back, and I closed my eyes. I should have heeded my own advice. Who am I trying to fool?

Ahead of us, Kanin came to a stop at a rusted ladder that led to a sealed hole above. "The tunnel ahead is collapsed," he stated, turning back to face us. "This leads into the Fringe, very close to the Inner Wall. We can reach the hospital by going through the Undercity most of the way there, but we'll have to travel aboveground for a few blocks, so be ready."

"What if we run into bleeders?" Zeke asked. "They're sick and crazy, but they're still alive. Still human."

"Try to avoid them if possible," Kanin replied. "If the situation is as dire as the Prince says, we don't want to attract a crowd. But if you must, do not hesitate to cut them down, cripple them, whatever you must do to stay alive. That is the first priority. We won't be helping anyone if we get ourselves killed, is that clear?"

Zeke nodded reluctantly. Kanin went up the ladder, shoved back the opening and climbed out of the hole. Jackal followed, then Zeke, and finally me, emerging onto the deserted streets of the Fringe.

Even though it wasn't my old sector, the Fringe still looked familiar, with its cracked streets, crumbling buildings and frost-covered weeds pushing through everything. A layer of snow dusted the rusty hulks of cars scattered about, and the puddles in the road had iced over, making the ground slick and treacherous. Back when I was human, this was the most dangerous time of year, when everything was hard and frozen, and food was virtually nonexistent. Every winter, someone in the Fringe would die, frozen in some lonely back alley or dead of hunger in their beds. I remembered many mornings that I'd woken up shivering under my quilt, dreading the task of venturing outside in the freezing cold to scavenge for food. But if I didn't, I would starve, and so would Stick, curled against me for body warmth, refusing to leave the room.

I didn't have to worry about that anymore. And neither did Stick.

Movement on the street corner caught my attention. A body lurched out of a distant house, shambling and awkward, walking barefoot across the icy ground. I caught the gleam of red covering its face, the wet strips raked down its arms, as it mumbled and chuckled to itself, not watching where it was going.

"Quietly," Kanin told us, and glided into the shadows, becoming part of the night. We hurried after as silently as we could.

As we moved swiftly through the Fringe, we caught sight of several more bleeders, laughing or talking to themselves, sometimes shrieking at nothing, clawing at their faces. As we ventured farther from the Inner Wall, we began stumbling across bodies sprawled in the street, stains of dried blood around their lips or spattered on the ground beneath them. Some were frozen, covered in snow, having lain there a few days. Others were more recent, having died that very night or the day before, their self-inflicted wounds still fresh and seeping. There were more bodies this time, a lot more than when Jackal and I had first come through. The final stage of the virus was emerging full force.

"This city is screwed," Jackal remarked as we ducked through an old grocery store, roof blown off, windows shattered. Narrow aisles lined with rubble and glass now bulged with corpses, pale and bloody in the sickly light coming through the ceiling. We picked our way over sprawled limbs and sightless, staring faces, wary in case one leaped up and came at us, howling. "If I was Salazar, I'd let the virus run its course, wipe everyone out and start over again with the humans he has left. He's got enough bloodbags in the Inner City to feed himself and the rest of them. But noooooo, he has to send us on a wild-goose chase to find a madman and a nonexistent cure."

"He doesn't," Kanin said quietly from up ahead. "Not if he wants to keep the city alive. There aren't enough humans to feed all the vampires in New Covington, not without severely limiting the blood supply. Some of them would go mad and have to be destroyed. The humans in the Fringe are their greatest source of food. If they all die, New Covington will be threatened with extinction."

"Oh, well, my bad," Jackal said, stepping over a body lying facedown in the aisle. "Thanks for clearing that up, old man. I just have one more question for you. Why the hell do we care?"

"Because there are still people who can be saved," Zeke replied in a voice of cool contempt, deliberately not looking at Jackal. "Because there are still people in the Fringe who aren't infected, who are locked out of the Inner City and don't have any way of protecting themselves."

"Right, okay, let me revise that question," Jackal said, giving the human a disgusted look. "Why the hell should the vampires in this party care if the Prince's city goes up in flames? The plague isn't going anywhere. New Covington is as isolated as they come. Look, we can turn around, go back through the sewers, slip under the Wall and be outside the city by midnight."

For a second, I felt a blaze of anger at Jackal's callousness. Not just his complete disregard for the humans in the city, or even his fellow vampires-that was expected. Now he was willing to let Kanin die, knowing he didn't have a lot of time, knowing we had only a few days before our sire was so far gone nothing would save him.

But then, I remembered that Jackal didn't know about Kanin's sickness. Because Kanin hadn't told him. Or Zeke, either. I was the only one who knew about Salazar's betrayal, and the infected blood killing him from the inside. I didn't know why Kanin was keeping it a secret, but I guessed he had his reasons. And knowing Kanin, this was something he would reveal himself, if it came to that. I didn't like it, but if he didn't want them to know, I wasn't going to tell them.


Tags: Julie Kagawa Blood of Eden Book Series
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