"Are you sure about that?" I asked, forcing my voice not to shake. Against the wall, Kanin watched us, unmoving, but I barely noticed him. "Jeb knew how important the research was, that's why he gave everything he had to get it to Eden. He knew how desperately we need that cure. He would've done anything to find it. What's one vampire to save the entire world?"
"I'm not my father," Zeke said evenly. "And I was going to come looking for you, anyway. Even if there was no cure, I would've still come. If you believe anything at all, believe that. But, Allie, the scientists heard about you from the guards at the gate-they heard the stories about a vampire who didn't immediately slaughter everyone at the clinic. And they asked me a lot of questions about you, and Jeb, and our travels together. When they found out I was planning to leave the island, they asked if I was willing to bring you back to Eden. Not as an experiment or a lab rat-I would never agree to that. But they need vampire blood to continue working on the cure." He sighed, raking a hand down his face. "I know how it sounds," he admitted. "Even I was suspicious at first. But the Eden scientists know what happened at the other lab, how the rabids were created. They're not going to make the same mistakes twice."
"How do you know?" I demanded. "They could be using you, Zeke. They could be lying, just to get you to bring them a vampire. And if that's the case, you won't be able to stop them from turning me into an experiment. I'm not going to Eden just so they can do to me what they did to the vampires sixty years ago."
"I'll go," Kanin said softly.
We turned to stare at him. He shrugged, looking mostly at Zeke. "If I survive this, if we somehow manage to stop Sarren and end the plague, I'll go with you to Eden. And your scientists can use me however they want."
"Kanin," I whispered, appalled. "You can't be serious. You, of all people, should know what could happen. What they created last time. They're doing the same thing!"
Kanin just smiled. "What could they possibly do to make it worse?" he asked. I started to protest, and he cut me off. "I was wrong before," he said, his voice hard. "I allowed the blood of others to be shed, when the sacrifice should have been mine. I've spent a lifetime atoning for that mistake." Pain lit his eyes, the guilt of countless decades weighing him down. "But Ezekiel is right. I cannot let the fear of the past color the future. If a cure is to be found, if the humans still require vampires to create one, at least, this time, the blood on their hands will be mine. It is only fitting. But we must find Sarren first."
"We should get going then," Zeke muttered, and took a staggering step forward. "Because honestly, I don't know how much longer I can keep walking." He pressed the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. "God, it feels like my eyes are going to burst out of my skull."
My anger with him vanished. Stepping forward, I reached up and gently pulled the hands from his burning face, keeping his wrists trapped in my fingers. His eyes, glazed and bloodshot, met mine, and I squeezed his hands.
"We're almost there," I whispered, willing him to keep going, to not give up. "Stay with us, Zeke. You promised me you wouldn't stop."
He gazed at me, not making any move to free himself. "I'll remember my promise, vampire girl," he whispered back, forcing the words out through the agony. "If you remember yours."
Two hours later, Zeke was no longer with us.
He hadn't said anything since our short break in the tunnels, marching on with a set jaw and glassy, pain-filled eyes. The heat pouring from his skin intensified, instantly melting the snow that settled on him when we finally went aboveground, as we hurried from shadow to shadow to avoid the bleeders.
And then, as we crossed a snow-covered parking lot, weaving between rusty hulks of cars, there was a thump behind me, the sound of something hitting the pavement. I whirled and saw Zeke lying in the snow beside a van, as if his body had finally given up.
No . I hurried over to him and knelt, turning him to his back. He groaned, half-opening his eyes, peering at me through glazed blue orbs.
"Zeke," I said, taking his arm. It was so hot. "Come on, get up. We have to keep going."
He tried. Gritting his teeth, he leaned against me as I pulled him upright, but as soon as we tried taking a step, he collapsed again. Panting, he sank back into the snow, ignoring my attempts to keep him on his feet.
"Zeke, don't do this," I said, watching helplessly as he slumped to the ground again. "Get up. We're almost there." I knelt and reached for his arm, but his hand clamped over mine, stopping it.
"Leave me." The words were so soft I scarcely caught them. But my stomach, heart, mind, everything, recoiled in absolute horror, and I stared at him in anguish. "I can't go any farther," Zeke whispered, his voice strained. "Go on without me."
I snarled, furious and defiant. "Dammit, Ezekiel! Don't you dare pull this self-sacrificing crap now. If you think I'm leaving you..." My throat unexpectedly closed up, and I swallowed my despair. "Forget it. There's no way I'm going on without you-"
"Allie." Zeke squeezed my arm, and the words faltered to a stop. "I can't," he murmured, making my throat clench. His hand rose, weakly, to his face. "I can feel the sickness... burning, and it's making me crazy. You have to go on without me. I can't even see straight, much less fight."
"No," I whispered, frantically shaking my head. "I'm not doing this. We can carry you, if it comes to that."
He closed his eyes, the snow falling around him, melting on his forehead and cheeks. "You can't stop Sarren...if you're constantly worried about me," he said, breathing hard between phrases. "He'll use me against you...that's what he does. When you face him again, you can't have...any distractions."
"You are not a distraction," I choked out. He didn't answer or open his eyes, and I clenched my fist against the snow. "Dammit, Zeke! Don't ask me to do this."
Kanin's footsteps crunched behind me, coming to a stop at my back. The Master vampire loomed over us, his gaze solemn as he stared down at the human. Say something, I begged silently. Don't let him do this, Kanin.
"This is your choice," Kanin said, even as I wanted to scream at him. "Are you certain?"
Zeke nodded painfully, opening his eyes. "I know what I have to do," he whispered. "Having me along, when we're so close to Sarren, is dangerous now. I can't go any farther. Allie," he said, looking up at me. "Leave me here. Go on without me."
"Leave you here in the snow?" I demanded. "With the bleeders? You'll be dead before we get back, Zeke. They'll tear you apart."
A scraping of metal, as Kanin turned and wrenched open the side door of the van, revealing a darkened interior and an empty space. "In here," he told me, unconcerned with the glare I turned on him. "Get him out of the open. Hurry. We don't have much time."
"Kanin, you can't expect..."
His hard stare made me trail off. "What happens if we take him with us and Sarren sees him?" he demanded. "What do you think he will do? Or if we are ambushed by the infected again and have to run?" His gaze softened, his forehead wrinkling with sudden pain. "I...am not at my best, Allison. I'm not sure that I will be much help against Sarren when we find him. If we must fight, and Sarren will almost certainly push it that way, then it will be up to you to stop him."
Fear spread through my insides, turning them cold. I didn't want to face Sarren alone. I had thought Kanin would be the one to deal with crazy Psycho Vamp, but it was obvious now that he was barely functioning. It would be me. I would have to fight Sarren. I remembered his tongue on my skin, his face close to mine, taunting Zeke over my shoulder. If Sarren turned on me, if he saw Zeke, sick and unable to defend himself...
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I put Zeke's arm around my neck, lifted him upright, and half pulled, half dragged him into the van. He clenched his jaw, his breath hissing painfully through his teeth as I settled him against the wall opposite the door, kneeling beside him. He panted, squeezing his eyes shut, sweat beading on his forehead and running down his skin. That blazing, sickly heat filled the small interior of the van, driving away the cold.
"Allie," Zeke whispered, dropping his arm, "can you... reach my gun?"
Silently, I reached around his side holster and pulled out the pistol. Zeke eyed it wearily.
"How many bullets?"
With shaking fingers, I checked the clip. "One," I said quietly. "Just one left." Zeke nodded.
"Good. If it comes to that, one shot...is all I'll need."
Dread gripped me. I watched, numb, as Zeke took the gun from my limp grasp and set it down, close to his leg. I had the sudden image of myself walking away from the van, and a shot ringing out behind me. Or returning with Sarren's cure, sliding the door back, and finding a frozen corpse sitting here, the van cold and lifeless. It made me want to scream.
Zeke finally looked at me, warmth breaking through the glassy pain in his eyes. "I'll be all right," he assured me, his voice faint. "I'm not going to do anything stupid, Allison, I just...need to rest. If you find Sarren and get a cure in time, I'll be here. If not...then it won't matter, anyway."
Leaning forward, I touched my forehead to his, closing my eyes. "I'll find him," I promised softly. "Try to hang on. I'm coming back, Zeke, I swear."
Zeke cupped the side of my face, his palm searing hot, as he raised his head and kissed me. Just a slight brush of his lips over mine. "I'll wait, vampire girl," he whispered, tracing my skin with his thumb. "For as long as I can. But, if I don't make it..." He hesitated, as if he wanted to say something, but thought better of it. His heart, already pounding, sped up, thumping in his chest. "Allie, I..."
"Allison." Kanin's voice echoed from outside, gentle but firm. "We need to go. Now."
Zeke slumped. "Go on," he whispered, pulling back. "Go stop Sarren. Don't worry about me. I'll be here."
Hot tears stung the corners of my eyes. I wanted to stay, to argue more, but words caught in my throat, and there was nothing left to say. Furiously blinking back tears, I drew away from Zeke and stepped out into the snow.
For maybe the last time, I glanced through the frame, at the human watching me from the interior of the van. He offered a faint smile and nodded before I wrenched the door shut, sliding it along the track until it clicked into place. Hiding him from view.
Kanin didn't give me time to second-guess my decision. "Let's go," he said, and spun, continuing through the aisles of cars. I gave the van one last look and followed, feeling Zeke's presence become smaller and smaller behind me.
We walked in silence for a bit, me trailing behind the other vampire, my thoughts on Zeke and how I had likely killed him by leaving him there. Alone, sick and dying in that van. If I'd only insisted he come...but then, that would likely get him killed, too.
"There are no good choices, Allison," Kanin offered in a quiet voice. "There are only those you can live with, and those you can work to change."