Jackal shook his head in disgust and took a step back. "You know what? You're right," he said softly, eyeing each of us. "This isn't worth it. I thought the old bloodsucker would have information on the Rabidism cure, maybe lead us right to it. But if he's going to throw away his life for a bunch of worthless mortals, I'm better off finding it myself."
"Where do you think you'll go?" I demanded, wondering why I should care if Jackal left. Let him go, you always knew he would leave or turn on you if he got the chance. I didn't know why I felt so angry. A part of me said we needed Jackal's help against Sarren, that he was a good fighter and another body between me and Sarren: that was why I didn't want him to go.
But that was a lie. Jackal was my brother, and, as selfish and monstrous as he was, I was hoping he would prove me wrong. "You can't take on Sarren alone," I argued. "He's too strong for just one person, you said so yourself."
"Who said anything about fighting him?" Jackal crossed his arms, smirking. "I'm not that stupid, sister. Way I see it, Sarren is the closest one to discovering a cure now. If I ever cross paths with our disturbed friend, it'll be to ask a few friendly questions, and then I'll be on my way. I'm not crazy enough to try to stop him. But I'm certainly not going to hang around here with the lot of you, wasting time. You have fun with the sickies and the psychos. I'll be leaving now."
A metallic shiver echoed through the pipe as Zeke drew his machete, the raspy sound making my stomach clench.
"What makes you think I'm going to just let you go?" Zeke said in cold voice. His eyes glittered with anger and hate as he stared Jackal down. "You have crimes to answer for," he went on, the light glimmering down the length of his blade as he raised it toward Jackal. "People you murdered. I haven't forgotten any of them, and you're still going to pay for what you did."
Oh no. Zeke was serious-he was ready for this fight. The confrontation he'd hinted at since arriving in New Covington had finally come. "For my family," he'd said in the tunnels. "For everyone back in Eden, I'm going to kill that vampire, Allison. The only question is...will I have to fight you, as well?"
I had to make a decision. I couldn't fight them both. As if sensing my thoughts, Zeke flicked a glance at me, his blue eyes suddenly remorseful. "I'm sorry, Allison," he said quietly. "You don't have to help me. Walk away if you have to. But I can't just let him go."
Jackal turned a purely sadistic smile on Zeke, and I tensed, ready to leap in if either attacked. "You don't have time for this, bloodbag," he crooned. "Shouldn't you be saving your pathetic little human tribe? You think you can take me on alone? How are you going to help them if you're dead?"
It was probably the hardest thing I'd done in a long time, but I made my choice. Drawing my sword, I stepped up beside Zeke, facing Jackal down. "He won't be alone," I said.
I could feel Zeke's relief and gratitude even without looking at him. Jackal, however, stared at me, eyes narrowing to yellow slits. "Well," he muttered, and all his arrogance disappeared, leaving cold rage in its place. "So that's how it is, huh, sister? You would choose a human over your own blood kin. You really are like Kanin, a traitor to your whole race."
I bared my fangs. "From where I'm standing, you're walking out on us. So don't expect any tears from me, brother."
"Allison. Ezekiel." Kanin's voice cut through the tension, the rising fury. I paused and glanced at the other vampire, who hadn't moved from his spot beneath the drain. "Let him go," he ordered softly.
Zeke didn't move, but his jaw tightened stubbornly.
"We don't have time for this."
I slumped. Kanin was right. We didn't have time to fight Jackal now. The seconds were rapidly ticking away, for all of us. For the refugees and Kanin, and now...now Zeke. What would happen, I thought numbly, if that time ran out? There'd be no one left. Everyone would die.
Except me. I would be alone again.
Sheathing my blade, I turned to the human beside me. "Zeke," I said, and put a hand on his arm. It was tight beneath my fingers, muscles coiled into steel bands. "Let's go. Come on, we need to find the refugees." His arm shook, tightening his grip on the weapon, and I lowered my voice. "Please."
He resisted me a moment, then finally lowered his blade, the tension leaving his back and shoulders. "This isn't over," Zeke warned in a low voice, still glaring at Jackal. "I'll find you. The next time we meet, vampire, I'll kill you."
Jackal chuckled. "The next time I see you, bloodbag, you'll be a stinking, eyeless corpse. So forgive me if I'm not too terribly concerned."
Zeke didn't reply. My blood brother stepped away, the evil grin back on his face. "Well, I can't say it hasn't been fun," he said, giving us a mocking salute as he turned to leave. "But I have other things to do now-vampires to find, armies to raise, that sort of thing." He glanced at me, and his smirk faded a bit. "Sister, if you ever get tired of these walking bloodbags, come find me. We could still do great things, you and I."
And, with a final sneer, he turned his back on us and walked away, disappearing into the shadows of the pipe.
I stared after him, still half thinking he would come stalking back, laughing at us for falling for such an obvious trick. It didn't happen. The darkness behind us remained silent, still and empty. I closed my eyes once, searching for him, and felt his presence through our blood tie. Though it was very faint, pulling farther and farther away. Jackal was gone.
"Come on," Kanin said, when it was clear he wasn't coming back. "Let's keep moving. We're almost there."
"Did you know?" I asked Kanin a few minutes later when the pipe ended and we came to the main stretch of sewer again. We hurried down the tunnel, knowing we were racing the clock, but questions still hounded me, refusing to leave me alone.
The vampire glanced me, puzzled, and I elaborated. "Jackal," I said. "Did you know he would leave if he found out you were...sick? Is that why you didn't tell him?"
"One of the reasons." Kanin's brow furrowed slightly. "Jackal has always been...pragmatic. If he suspects he is on the losing end of a bargain, he'll get out of it somehow and come at it from a different angle. In his eyes, I could no longer give him what he wanted, so he decided to find another way. He's always been like that."
"I screwed up," I muttered, angrily kicking a rock into the water. "I'm sorry, Kanin."
He shook his head. "Don't apologize for Jackal's shortcomings, Allison. We all made our choices."
That didn't make me feel much better. Jackal was still gone, and Kanin was still sick. And Zeke, walking quietly behind us, was starting to cough more and more. He tried to hide it, and he never complained, but I could hear the raspy, painful breaths, caught the faint scent of the blood he would cough up sometimes, and worry gnawed at my insides.
"Kanin?" I asked again, and heard him sigh, as if steeling himself for more questions. For a second, I almost didn't ask, but then hardened myself. I wanted to know. "Why did you Turn Jackal?"
He didn't answer for a long time, and I thought he was going to ignore me. "Why do you want to know?" he finally asked in a quiet, almost sorrowful voice.
I shrugged. "Because I'm curious? Because I want to know, how do you choose? If there's a criteria for Turning someone into a vampire? Because..." Because I want to know if he was ever like me, once. And if I...could ever become like him.
Kanin, in that knowing, inscrutable way of his, seemed to guess what I was thinking. "I found James a few decades ago," he began slowly, as if resigning himself to the tale. "When I returned to this country again. I'd been gone for many years."
"What do you mean, why?"
"Why were you gone?"
He closed his eyes. "You're not going to make this easy for me, are you?" he murmured, and I felt a tiny stab of guilt. But it was overshadowed by determination and a burning desire to finally know all his secrets. Kanin had kept almost everything from me for so long, but I was no longer his student. I wanted to know who my sire really was.
I paused then said, very carefully, "I think I have a right to know, Kanin."
"Yes," he murmured, running a hand over his eyes. "Yes, I suppose you do." Dropping his arm, he continued walking down the tunnel, his face dark. "To answer your question," he began, his tone flat, deliberately emotionless, "I was forced to go on the run. After the other Masters discovered what I had done, what I created, they all wanted my head. For the first time in countless centuries, they were united under one goal-destroying one of their own. It became almost a competition, to see who could kill me first. And, of course, there was Sarren...." His expression darkened. "So, I fled the country, spent many years on the run, never staying in one place for long. Eventually, the other Masters stopped sending people to kill me, and things finally calmed down. Except for one."
I shivered, knowing who he meant. Kanin shook his head. "Sarren never stopped. Wherever I went, he wasn't far behind. I knew that, one day, he would catch up with me. And I knew that, when he did, his revenge would be terrible. But I hoped to atone for my mistakes before that happened. So, I returned to this country after many years, to find the research the scientists left behind. I knew there was at least one scientist who had survived the carnage the night the rabids escaped, but I knew nothing of where he was, if his ancestors still lived. After years of searching and getting nowhere, I finally decided to investigate the very place the rabids were created. Though it was a vampire city now, and its Prince still wanted me dead, I had to try." He gave me a sideways look, a faint, rueful smile crossing his lips. "You know the rest."
I listened in rapt amazement. This was the most I'd ever heard Kanin speak of his past, as shameful and horror filled as it was. "Where does Jackal fit in?" I asked, remembering my original question.
"Jackal." Kanin's eyes narrowed. "When I returned, the world was not the same. The vampire cities were in full power, and everything outside the cities was chaos. That first year, I stumbled upon the burning remains of a small homestead in the middle of the wilderness. It seemed that bandits or raiders had killed everyone, or so I first thought. But, later that night, I found James lying in the road several miles away. He'd been shot in the leg, but had dragged himself as far as he could before his strength gave out."
"He was dying," I guessed. "Like me."
"Yes. Though his death was not quite as imminent as yours." Kanin's brow furrowed. "Rather, I had no food, no water or medicine or bandages, and we were many miles from civilization. He would have died of blood loss and exposure, and he knew it. We had a rather interesting conversation." Kanin almost smiled again, though his voice was grave. "Him lying there, and me standing over him, trying to determine what kind of person he was. I thought I knew what I was creating when I offered him the choice. I thought..." Kanin laughed softly, a sound completely without humor. "I thought I'd found someone who would help me bring an end to what I had caused. I didn't see what he truly wanted until much later."