"Kanin is already dead," Jackal snapped. "Or as near to it as he can be. Sarren forced him into hibernation, and it's rare for us to come out of that. He isn't going to wake up anytime soon. And if Sarren wanted him truly destroyed, he would've done it by now."
"Why are you so eager to find this place?"
Jackal gave me a look of incredulous contempt. "You really have to ask me that?" He sighed and shook his head. "What have I been after this whole time? What was so important that I searched the country for three years to find that old preacher and his little congregation? What would bring me here, to ask for your help, when I had a whole army of raiders and minions ready to do my bidding? Think hard, sister. It's not that difficult."
I didn't have to think about it. "The cure," I whispered. Jackal smirked and nodded.
"Yeah. The cure. The end of Rabidism. That's a little more important than finding Kanin right now." He held up a hand as I glared. "I still want to find the old man," he told me. "Like I said, we need to have a talk. And I'm going to need your help to get him away from Sarren. So...you help me, and I'll do the same." He bared his fangs in a savage grin. "And then, after all that is out of the way, you can try to kill me, and I'll stick another stake in your gut and leave you for the rabids, what d'ya say?"
"Jackal," Azura said, sounding faintly exasperated, "if you wish this girl's cooperation, I suggest you stop taunting her. She is not one of your simple human thugs whom you can cower with a threat. If I am forced to kill her because of your uncharitable attitude, I will be very annoyed with you. Now..." She turned that dark, intense stare on me. "The sun is up, and I am very tired. If you two wish to continue your verbal sparring, I ask that you wait until evening. For now, I offer my home for as long as you have need of it."
"Um..." I hesitated, not sure what to make of this generosity, if I should trust it. Or her. But she was right. The sun was up, and unless I wanted to venture outside, I would have to take my chances. "Thank you."
Azura blinked slowly. "I would offer you the guest suite across from Jackal's, but I fear I might return to a war zone. So I will have William show you to one of the lower suites. We will continue this conversation tonight. And, girl..." Her dark gaze narrowed, turning ominous and threatening. "I can smell the blood on you. Do not eat my staff, or I will forget my hospitality long enough to remove the head from your neck, is that understood?"
I bit down a smirk. Diplomacy was necessary when dealing with Master vampires, and Princes especially; they did not deal well with sarcasm, I'd discovered. "Yes," I replied simply. "I understand."
Apparently satisfied, Azura turned to the door and raised a hand. One second later, a human in a black-and-white uniform stepped through the frame and bowed to me. "I will show you to your room," he said in a formal voice. "Please, follow me."
I shot Jackal one last glare and followed the human, trailing him down several long hallways and flights of stairs, my mind reeling. I had fully expected to find Sarren or my sire tonight; that it was Jackal threw a wrench in all my plans. I wasn't sure what to do next.
The human made his way unerringly through the massive house, until we came to a long hallway of doors. After pointing out the one to my room, the man bowed hurriedly and left, leaving me alone in the corridor. Still wary, I opened the door, revealing a small but lavishly furnished room. The bed, dresser, nightstand and table were old but meticulously cared for, polished to a dark shine and smelling faintly of chemicals. A pitcher and glass sat on the nightstand beside the bed, and the scent of warm blood roused my Hunger with a vengeance. I didn't trust Jackal at all, but it wouldn't hurt to take advantage of the Prince's hospitality, especially since it came in a cup and not the veins of a human.
I drained the pitcher, feeling the blood settle in my empty stomach and the sharp ache vanish for now. As my Hunger subsided, sleep took its place, dragging at my mind, weighing me down. After locking my door, I dragged the bulky dresser from its place against the wall and shoved it up against the frame. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I was not going to sleep in a strange house with two vampires, one of whom was Jackal, without some kind of precaution.
Satisfied that I'd at least have warning if someone came bursting through my door, I crawled atop the cool red sheets, not bothering to take off my coat or boots, and pondered what Jackal had said for as long as I could before succumbing to the darkness.
I woke the next evening with my sword in hand, having unsheathed and readied it as sleep finally dragged me under. Unfamiliar walls and furniture stared back at me as I rose, pausing a moment to remember where I was. A glance at the door revealed that it was still locked and barricaded, untouched. The pitcher sat empty on the end table, so no one had disturbed me while I slept-no servant, anyway.
As I sheathed my weapon, the previous night's conversation came back to me, making me frown. Jackal was here. My ruthless, murdering blood brother. I should leave. Better yet, I should kill him. We had a clear night sky and an empty lawn perfect for it. He'd kicked my ass the last time we'd fought, nearly killed me, but I was stronger now. If it came down to blows, this time I'd give him a hell of a fight.
But, if he was telling the truth, if the cure to Rabidism lay somewhere beneath our feet, no cost would be too high to find it. Much as I hated to admit it, Jackal was right. Charging in blind after Kanin wouldn't help him; I needed a plan if I was going to face Sarren. The help of another strong vampire was too great an opportunity to pass up.
Still, the thought of working with Jackal made my blood boil. I hadn't forgotten what he'd done to our group. He was cruel and vicious, and saw humans only as food or the means to an end. He killed without a second thought. He'd killed people I knew, people I considered friends.
Zeke would never consider letting him live.
I was still trying to decide what to do when a servant knocked timidly on the door, informing me that Master Azura and Master Jackal were waiting for me in the living room and to follow him please. After returning the dresser to its proper place, I followed the well-dressed human down the many hallways and up a flight of stairs before he paused outside a doorway and motioned me inside.
Azura and Jackal were there, of course, Azura sitting on a sofa with her long legs crossed, a wineglass of blood dangling between her fingers. Jackal slouched against the fireplace mantel, despite the flames flickering in the hearth, and the light cast his features in an eerie red glow. How he could stand being so close to the flames was baffling; I would never consider tempting fate like that. But then Jackal shot me a grin, smug and challenging, and I realized he was playing me. He knew the effect it would have on a vampire and was making sure I knew that he was not afraid.
"Oh, hey, the queen finally makes her appearance." Jackal raised his glass in a mocking salute before tossing the whole thing back in one swig. Azura gave him a disdainful look and sipped her drink. "So, little sister, are you ready to get this project underway?"
"I still haven't agreed to help you," I said, making Jackal sigh with impatience. "Why is that so surprising? As if I would agree to work with the guy who slaughtered my friends, who will probably stick a knife in my back as soon as I turn around."
"Don't think of it as helping me," Jackal said in a reasonable voice. He didn't, I noticed, deny either accusation. "Think of it as helping Kanin. I, at least, will take any advantage I can get if I'm going to be facing Sarren."
I turned to Azura. "What do you think of all this?"
"Me?" Azura raised a thin eyebrow. "I don't care one way or the other. I'm just here to make sure you two don't turn my house inside out."
"Come on, sister," Jackal implored. "Let's not have a repeat of last night. You know this is the best way to help Kanin. And, admit it, you're just as curious as I am."
I glared at him. "Let's say I do agree to this, for now." His smirk grew wider, and I ignored it. "You said Sarren was searching for the lab, as well. Where do you think it could be?"
Azura uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, setting her glass on the low table in front of the couch. "I had my people track down some old maps of the city and its subway systems," she said, smoothing a large sheet of paper over the wood. "They don't tell us exactly where to find a supersecret government lab, but I have a few good guesses."
Jackal remained where he was, but I crossed the room to the other side of the table, looking down at the paper on the surface. I'd never seen a map before and had no idea how to read one; it was a tangle of lines and scribbles that merged together into a chaotic mess. But Azura placed one dark red fingernail on a random line, tracing it across the page.
"The rabids," she began in her throaty voice, "keep to the subway tunnels in the daytime. At night, they emerge to hunt and stalk for prey, but usually return to the underground stations at dawn. Except for those few that cannot seem to leave my fence alone, at least. No one in this city ventures down into the tunnels, for any reason, at any time. It is not known exactly how many rabids are down there, but there are likely thousands of them. And this," she added, circling a place on the map with her finger, "is where we think the main nest is located." Withdrawing her hand, she glanced up at me. "That's where you're going to want to look for the lab."
"Why is that?"
"If this laboratory unleashed the rabid virus, it would have spread quickly. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people would have been infected around that area. There would be a very high rabid population starting from that point and spreading outward."
"Wait a second." I frowned, thinking back to what Kanin had told me. "I thought the laboratory in New Covington was responsible for creating the rabids-they escaped, and that's how the rabid plague started."
"Is that what Kanin said?" Jackal snorted. "That's part of the story, but not the whole of it." He pushed himself off the wall and sauntered to an end table, grabbing a pitcher halffull of red and refilling his glass. Sitting comfortably in one of the armchairs, he took a large swallow from the glass and smiled at me.
"Have a seat, sister. Let me tell you exactly what happened, so you can fully appreciate the role our sire had in this whole fubar'ed situation." Jackal took another long, leisurely sip, waiting for me to sit down. I perched cautiously on the opposite chair.
"You know that Kanin captured vampires and handed them over to the scientists to experiment on," Jackal began, pleased now that he had an audience. It reminded me of his speech in the arena, standing in front of his army, the raiders cheering his name...right before he'd thrown Darren into the arena with a rabid for their entertainment. I could still hear Darren's screams as the rabid tore him apart. Rage flared, and I swallowed the growl rising to my throat, trying to concentrate on what the raider king was saying now.
"It was all in the interest of curing Red Lung," Jackal continued, oblivious to my sudden anger, "or that's what Kanin probably told himself while he was selling out his own kind. He would track down a likely target, stake them to send them into hibernation, then deliver them to the laboratories, where the scientists would do all the happy things scientists do to their hapless subjects."