And a scream, a horrible, gut-wrenching scream rose from the computer, making me clench my fist so hard Zeke's cross pierced the skin of my palm. I almost reached out and slammed the lid shut, but I forced myself not to move, to listen to Zeke's agony, until the scream finally died away and the sound of tortured breathing took its place.
"You should be very proud, little bird." Sarren's voice slithered out of the computer, cruel and soulless. "He's held out remarkably well. Better than I ever thought a human capable of. But I suspect he's reaching his limit. I wanted you to be here for his final moments, to realize just how much you've lost. It's only fair-you did take my arm, after all. A man can get very attached to his arm. Well, shall we get on with it, then?" There was a faint metallic clink, as if Sarren picked up something small and shiny. "Ezek iel," he crooned, his voice farther away now, moving around the table, "I have asked you this before, but perhaps now you are more inclined to talk to me, yes? How did you survive the virus? Where did you find a cure?"
"I...don't k now."
I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood. Zeke's voice was a choked whisper through gritted teeth. The smell of him surrounded me, seeping into my mind, and I saw him strapped to the table, eyes bright with pain, as Sarren loomed over him with something that glittered in the spotlight.
"You don't know?" Sarren repeated, his voice mockingly surprised. "Jackal gave me the impression that you were at death's door. Are you certain you don't remember?"
Behind me, Jackal swore. But before I could register what that meant, it was drowned out in the scream of anguish that came through the machine in front of me. I froze, my blood turning to ice, as I waited for it to stop. It didn't stop. For several long minutes, it ebbed and flowed, sometimes fading to breathless, gasping sobs, sometimes rising to piercing heights of agony. For a second, I was vaguely aware of Kanin standing rigid beside me, eyes closed as if he was remembering his own misery. But after a while, everything shrank down to the soul-destroying noise coming from the computer, the sounds of someone wanting to die.
Oh, God, Zeke. Tears streamed down my face; my hands were clenched so hard I could feel blood dripping from my palm. Please, just tell him. Just give him what he wants.
Finally, finally, it stopped. And Zeke's shuddering, gasping breaths were all that could be heard for a few moments.
"Now, Ezekiel," Sarren whispered, his voice dangerously calm. "One last time. Where did you find that cure? And if you lie to me, we can continue this all night. And the next. And the next. I have all the time in the world."
Zeke took several more ragged, panting breaths, and then, in a voice of utter pain and defeat, whispered, "Eden. The cure...is in Eden."
"Ahhhh," Sarren rasped. "Now we are getting somewhere. So, little prince, we are nearing the finish point at last. One more question, and then I will end your misery, and send you on to your reward. Would you like that? Would you like the hurting to stop?"
Zeke coughed, the sound bloody and painful. "Just...kill me," he whispered in a strangled voice. "Get it over with already."
"Soon, little prince. Soon. One question more." Sarren put down the tool with a clink. I could see him bending over Zeke, bringing his face very close as he whispered in a slow, deliberate voice, "Where is Eden?"
Zeke sucked in a breath, and didn't make any noise. Sarren waited several heartbeats, then chuckled.
"Oh, Ezekiel. You were doing so well. Don't stop now." Zeke still didn't say anything, and Sarren's voice turned ugly and terrifying. "Three seconds, little human. Before I make you wish you were never born. Before the pain you experienced up until this point will seem like a pleasant, halfremembered dream compared to what I am about to do. Be very certain this is what you want. One."
"Allison." Kanin's voice was low, tight. "Close the laptop. You don't want to hear this."
I started to reach for it, then stopped, shaking my head. "No," I whispered, drawing back, clutching Zeke's cross tightly. "I owe it to him, to remember."
I braced myself for the worst.
It was worse. Far, far worse.
This one seemed to last forever, and Zeke's screams began to falter simply because his throat was too raw to continue. I wanted to close my eyes and cover my ears. I was tempted to slam the lid shut and stop the shrieks and sobs and cries that tore into my mind, imprinting themselves in my consciousness. I didn't. I stood there, hot bloody tears streaming down my face as the storm of anguish whipped around me like a hurricane, relentless and unending. My throat began to ache, and I couldn't stop shaking as the boy I cared for more than anything screamed and bled and begged for death, far beyond my reach.
When it stopped, I was exhausted, numb. I wasn't aware of anything but the words coming out of the computer, Sarren's voice, flat and merciless. And Zeke, gasping for breath, choking on blood. "This is not the end, little human. Oh, no. This is just a reminder that you can stop this at any time. But it makes no difference to me. We have many more hours to go, and I am just getting started."
"Stop!" Zeke gasped. "For the love of God, enough!" He sobbed, panting, his voice broken and empty. "I'll tell you. God forgive me...I'll tell you. Just...no more."
I nearly collapsed, so grateful that it was over. Sarren's voice came again, full of quiet triumph. "Where?"
"An island," Zeke whispered. "Eden...is on an island, in the middle of Lake Eerie."
"You're lying, little human." Sarren's voice hissed from the computer, and Zeke made a choked sound of fear and dread. "Tell me where it really is, or we will go through this whole thing again from the top."
"No!" Zeke's voice cracked. "Please. I can't give you another answer, that's where it really is. Oh, God..." I heard the self-loathing in his voice, the absolute despair. "I've betrayed everyone. Just kill me already. Let me die."
I heard Sarren's smile. "Yes, little human. Soon, you will feel nothing. Sweet oblivion. But, before I send you into the eternal night, would you like to say goodbye? Your friends will be arriving soon, I expect. The little bird, especially, might want to hear your voice, one last time. Is there anything you would like to tell her, before we say good-night?"
"Allie ," Zeke breathed, sounding horrified. I wanted to reach for him, to grab his hand and never let go, but of course, he wasn't here. This was just an echo, his final words. "I'm sorr y," he whispered, and I heard the tears in his voice. "I'm so sorry. I wasn't strong enough. I couldn't..." He took a ragged breath, and spoke with grim desperation. "You have to stop him. Stop him from getting to Eden. He's planning to- Aaaagh!" His voice dissolved into another scream, as if Sarren had interrupted him by jamming something sharp into his flesh. I wasn't expecting it, and cringed, squeezing his cross in a death grip.
"Now, now," Sarren said mildly as the cry died away. "Let's not spoil the surprise. Is there anything else you'd like to add before I kill you, little prince?"
"Allison ," Zeke panted, his voice growing faint. "I don't regret...anything...between us. I just wish...we had more time...that you could've seen Eden with me. I should've told you earlier..." He paused, gasping for breath, but continued in a soft, steady voice. "Allie, I...I love you."
No, Zeke. I dropped my head into my hands, feeling Zeke's cross press against my skin, and sobbed. For myself, for Zeke, for this stupid, screwed-up world we were born into. For lost chances and unsaid words, and for the hope that seemed so bright and certain one moment, but so easily snuffed out the next.
"Take care of everyone in Eden," Zeke whispered as I stood there, shaking, trying to stop the flood of tears. "Tell them...I'm sorry I couldn't come back. But I...I'll be with my father soon. Tell Caleb and Bethany not to cry. We'll... see each other again someday. And then...it'll be forever."
"Magnificent," Sarren said. "Truly touching. A fine requiem. But it is time to say goodbye, little prince. Are you ready?"
Zeke's voice was calm, now. Unafraid. "I'm ready."
"Then, let me release you from this mortal coil, and send you gently into the eternal night."
I didn't hear the exact moment Sarren ended Zeke's life. I was just aware of his breathing, ragged at first, then seizing up, as if he could no longer gasp for air. And then, a long, agonizingly slow exhale, the last gulp departing his lungs, as Ezekiel's tortured breaths finally, irreversibly, stopped altogether.
"Good night, sweet prince," Sarren crooned, a velvet whisper.
The recording clicked off.
I stood at the edge of a deserted road, gazing back at the Outer Wall of New Covington, the snow whipping at my hair and clothes. From this vantage, you could barely see the distant vampire towers through the snow and darkness. They glimmered weakly in the storm, looking small and insignificant against the vast wilderness beyond. At my feet, the road snaked off into the old suburbs, where rabids lurked, waiting to pounce on the unwary. It vanished around a corner, nearly invisible in the snow, but it didn't matter. I knew where we were going.
The wind picked up, yanking at my coat, spitting ice shards into my face. It didn't affect me. I was numb, inside and out. As if something had reached in and smothered that small bit of hope and warmth I was desperately clinging to, snuffing it completely. I hadn't cried since we left the lab that evening, following the deserted tunnels until we came out past the kill zone, free of New Covington at last. My tears, along with my emotions, my memories and my hope, had been swallowed by the darkness, until I couldn't feel anything at all.
Footsteps crunched over the snow, and Kanin came to stand beside me, a silent, unmoving shadow. We hadn't spoken since the lab. Immediately following Zeke's death, I had fallen to my knees, clutching the cross, and had screamed and beaten my fists against the floor until I felt the bones in my fingers snap, and the two vampires had silently drawn back and left me alone. A craziness had overcome me, and I'd taken my katana and destroyed the room, smashing glass, ripping things apart, slicing and tearing and shrieking my rage.
When it was over, I'd stood in the middle of the destruction, shaking with hatred, needing to kill. And the monster rose up, embracing my pain, turning it to vengeance. This is what we are, it whispered, easing the despair threatening to crush me. We are vampires. We are not human, we do not need human emotion, we do not get attached to human beings. You knew that from the beginning.
I did. Allie the Fringer knew that, even before she was Turned. She'd tried to warn me to keep my distance, to guard my heart.
Lesson learned. I was a monster. I would never forget that again.
"You were right, you know," I told Kanin as we both gazed at New Covington, the place where I'd been born, and died and left the last of my humanity behind. My voice came out flat and cold, unfamiliar to me. "We're monsters. Humans are nothing but food. I was stupid to fight it for so long."
Kanin was silent for a moment. Then he said very softly, "Do you think you will honor his memory by reverting to that?"