I woke the next night starving and momentarily confused.
I didn’t recognize the room I was in, and there was a body curled next to mine, still as death. Carefully, I levered myself to an elbow and looked around, taking in the small, windowless room. Moldy chairs sat on top of each other along the wall, and boxes of rags covered in dust and cobwebs were stacked in the corners. A huge, once-white dresser stood at the front of the room, the large, square mirror above it now fractured into a dozen pieces.
Then my gaze flickered down to see Zeke’s pale, unconscious form beside me, and everything from the night before came flooding back.
He’s real y here. For a moment, I just watched him, letting relief spread through me like a slow flame, driving away the dark. Last night, I’d thought I would have to kill him. Last night, I’d experienced the worst moment of my life when he’d stood atop that roof, waiting for the sun to end his existence.
But it hadn’t. He was here, miraculously back from the dead, technicalities aside. It still didn’t seem real, like this was some sort of dream, though vampires didn’t dream. Zeke was back. Against all odds, against torture and mind compulsions and death and everything that Sarren had done to him, he was still here. Still alive.
The tricky part would be keeping him that way.
I won’t let you become a demon, I swore, gazing down at him. He lay motionless beside me, no slow breaths, no heartbeat, no warmth radiating from his skin. Thankfully, we had both healed from our deadly brush with the sun; no traces of burned flesh remained. Though I remembered looking down at my hand just before I fell asleep, and seeing that the tips of my fingers were black and charred. The memory made me shiver. I’d almost died last night, almost let the sun cook me alive, turn me into a smoldering pile of ashes.
I’ll do it again, if it means saving you.
Zeke slept on. I put a hand against his cheek, feeling the smooth, cold skin beneath my fingers. He was a corpse—a living corpse, like me, but we would deal with this together.
I promise, Zeke. You won’t become a monster. I’ll fight for both of us if I have to, I swear it.
A darkness invaded my thoughts then, the reality of my decision rising up to overshadow everything; I’d gone to face Zeke instead of continuing on toward Eden and the insane vampire hell-bent on destroying the world. Of two impossible decisions, I’d chosen to turn my back on my survival instincts…and follow my heart. A year ago, Allie the Fringer would’ve done anything to keep living. She would’ve mocked the attachments to the small group I now considered family, encouraged me to sever all ties to protect myself. But I couldn’t do that anymore.
I wonder if Kanin ever found Jackal?
Suddenly anxious and feeling a little guilty, I shifted to one knee, closed my eyes, and reached out for my kin.
The instant pulse through our blood tie nearly made me collapse in relief. They were there. Both of them. I felt Kanin’s presence, strong and steady, and another, fainter tug that had to be Jackal. I didn’t know where they were. I didn’t know if they were waiting for me outside Old Chicago, or had gone ahead to Eden. I just knew they were alive. That was enough.
If anything, the two of them could stop Sarren if I failed.
They’re all right. I relaxed, slumping back against the wall.
They’re alive. Even Jackal is alive. We’re all okay for now. I glanced at Zeke, still dead to the world, knowing he could wake at any moment. Now, we just have to get out of Old Chicago without being pumped full of lead.
The floorboards creaked beside me as Zeke stirred, coming out of sleep, and I tensed. I didn’t know what state of mind he’d be in when he woke up. If he was teetering on the edge of Blood Frenzy, I’d have to stop him from losing it. With his wounds, he had to be just as Hungry as me, and he had less practice in controlling himself.
I desperately hoped that he hadn’t woken with a new resolve to meet the sun or to have someone drive a stake through his chest, but the possibility hovered at the edge of my mind, dark and terrifying.
Zeke rose slowly, pushing himself to one elbow, then to his knees. I shifted behind him, not touching, just letting him know I was there, that I was close. But he didn’t make any attempt to get up. He wasn’t shaking, or crying, or hunched forward in misery. He just knelt there with his hands on his knees, staring at the floor, at nothing.
“It wasn’t a nightmare, then.”
I swallowed. His voice was low, flat. The tone used when you’re so numb you can’t feel anything anymore. When you’ve been so cut open from the inside, you’ve completely bled out, and there’s nothing left. Fear twisted my stomach. This was going to be hard. For Zeke, it might be impossible.
“No,” I told him simply. “It wasn’t.”
I waited, dreading his next words, that he might ask me to take my sword and end his life. Or that I leave so he could do it himself.
“Where are Jackal and Kanin?” he finally asked, surprising me. “Did you come here alone?”
I nodded. “Yes, but they’re okay. At least, I think they are.”
Briefly, I searched for them again, feeling two separate pulls, coming from the same direction. “I can feel both of them, through our blood tie. Jackal was pretty badly hurt when…when we fled the tower the first time, and we got separated.
Kanin went back to look for him.”
“So I didn’t manage to kill him after all,” Zeke muttered, and I couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed. I suspected the latter. I also suspected this stoic front Zeke was putting up was a horrible lie, that underneath he was a writhing mess of emotions, and it worried me.
“Are you all right?” I asked. My gaze flicked to the back of his shirt, and the tiny hole in it, right over his heart. Where I had shoved Kanin’s knife through his body. “How are you feeling?”
“Hungry.” Stated so bluntly that I shivered. This wasn’t right. I hadn’t expected Zeke to be perfectly fine when he woke up, far from it, but this utter lack of emotion wasn’t him.
I hoped it was just the shock, and he would eventually start acting more like himself again. Though now that he was a vampire, I didn’t know what “normal” was for him anymore.
I had the sudden, disconcerting thought that, maybe, this was the real Zeke now that he was a vampire. I certainly had changed from the time I’d become undead; maybe the old Zeke, the human Zeke, really was gone forever.
“Starving, actually,” Zeke went on, oblivious to my dark thoughts. “And that’s a problem, now that I don’t control the army anymore. Sarren put me in charge when he left, but I’m not their boss any longer. Once they find out I can’t give them what they want, they’ll try to kill me, too.”