"We can't give up, Zeke," I said, turning the bike around.
"They're here somewhere. We just have to keep-" I stopped then, because something else had turned that corner and was coming toward us. A pair of raiders on long, sleek bikes, their handlebars sweeping up like horns, roared out of the shadows, catching us in their headlights. I stiffened, and Zeke tensed as the men pulled to a stop a few yards away, regarding us curiously. One of them had a woman sitting behind him, her frizzy hair tangled by the wind.
One biker jerked his head at us. "Heading to the Floating Pit, huh? Guess you heard the news."
The what? "Um...yeah," I replied, shrugging. "We did. Is that where you're going?"
"Yep." He turned and spit on the pavement. "Should be a good show tonight." He eyed us then, forehead creasing.
"Haven't seen you two around before," he said. "You new to the Pit, little girl?"
Zeke's arms around me tightened. I hoped he wouldn't lose it. I was about to make up something about being new to Old Chicago, when the woman on the other bike slapped her driver's shoulder. "We're going to be late," she whined, and the man rolled his eyes. "Jackal promised us a show, and I don't wanna miss it. Let's go, already."
"Shut up, Irene." Her raider scowled but jerked his head at the man who'd spoken to us. "Come on, Mike. Talk to the rookies later. Let's go." He gunned his engine, drove the bike up a ramp that went through the skeletal skyscraper, and was gone. The other raider rolled his eyes and started to follow.
"Mind if we follow you into the Pit?" I asked pleasantly.
He glanced at me, surprised, but shrugged.
"Shit, I don't care, rookie. Just try to keep up." The Floating Pit, I quickly learned, lived up to its name.
We followed the raiders through the streets of Old Chicago, zooming around dead cars, rubble and more fallen skyscrapers, going faster than we probably needed to. The roar of the engines echoed off the buildings, and sometimes we barely cleared a wall, a tunnel or an overturned vehicle, passing so close I could've reached out and touched it. I loved this, though Zeke wasn't quite as thrilled. His cheek pressed into my back and his arms were locked tightly around my waist, making me glad I didn't have to take a breath.
Finally, we rolled to a stop on the back of another fallen giant, looking over what I guessed had been downtown Chicago, once upon a time. The skyscrapers here defied belief, even skeletal and crumbling as they were. One tower had lurched to the side and was now leaning precariously against another, shortening the lifespan of both. There were several gaps in the skyline where it looked as if buildings had already fallen, but it was impressive nonetheless.
From where we stood, I could make out a long stretch of elevated tracks, looping around the buildings like a huge snake. I remembered, from my mother's stories, a certain type of vehicle had run on those tracks in the days before, shut-tling people back and forth at high speed. Below the tracks, a series of platforms, bridges and catwalks had been cobbled together, stretching between buildings and crisscrossing the streets like a giant web. Which was necessary, because everything at ground level was underwater.
Humans crowded the narrow platforms and walkways like ants, making their way over the dark, turbulent waters. There were swarms of them, more than I'd expected. This wasn't just a raider hideout; this was a city, a real city like New Covington or any other vampire territory. It didn't have a wall-I assumed the deep water kept out the rabids-and the humans here were free to come and go as they pleased, but there was no question that we were stepping into the lair of a vampire king. On the bright side, from the number of humans wandering about, getting through unnoticed would be much easier than I'd feared.
The raiders we'd followed didn't pause to look at the city; I watched their headlights cruise down a ramp, over a ram-shackle bridge and onto an enormous barge sitting at the water's edge. Dozens of bikes were parked there in messy rows, along with a couple of the armored vans I'd seen earlier. I guessed the raiders couldn't take their bikes onto the narrow walkways of the f looded city.
I felt Zeke peering over my shoulder, felt him take a deep breath, and glanced back at him. "Ready for this?" He nodded, eyes grim. "Let's go."
We followed the same path as the others, down the ramp, over the bridge and onto the barge. Finding a free corner, I killed the engine and stepped away, a little sad that I'd have to leave the bike behind. I wondered if I would get the chance to come back for it.
I turned slowly, gazing at the vast expanse of water on either side. It felt odd, being on top of the water. The ground felt unstable, as if it could suddenly sink into the black depths.
A cold wind hissed through the rows of bikes, and the boat bobbed gently on the waves, making Zeke stumble as he stepped up beside me.
Worried, I grabbed his elbow. "How's the leg?" I asked, noticing he kept his weight off it. "Can you do this? Will you be all right?"
"I'm fine." He pulled his arm out of my grip, standing on his own. But his face was pale and clammy with sweat, even in the chill. "Don't worry about me. I can keep up." The growl of bike engines distracted us. More raiders were arriving, several of them this time, laughing and shouting over the noise of their bikes. Zeke and I ducked behind a stack of crates, watching as they killed their engines and swaggered toward another bridge on the other side, pointing into the city.
Zeke and I exchanged a glance. "Sure you don't want to wait?" I asked, and he scowled at me. I frowned back. "You're still hurt, Zeke. I can find the others on my own if I have to."
"No." His voice was rough, final. "It's my family. I have to do this. Don't ask me again."
"Fine." I glared at him and shook my head. Stubborn idiot.
"But at least try to look a little more raider-ish, okay? We don't want to attract attention."
Zeke's snort sounded suspiciously like laughter. "Allie, you're a beautiful, exotic-looking vampire girl with a katana. Trust me, if anyone is going to attract attention, it's not going be me."
I didn't answer as we crossed the f limsy, creaking bridge into the lair of the vampire king. We didn't talk to each other for several minutes. If Zeke had asked, I would've said that I was thinking of how to find everyone, but that wasn't entirely true. I was thinking of the others and how I was going to get them out alive...but I kept being distracted by the thought that Zeke had called me beautiful.
The city was like a maze, a labyrinth of walkways, bridges and catwalks, all strung together in the most confusing way possible. A catwalk would lead to a platform, which led to a bridge, which led to the roof of a sunken building, which led right back to the same catwalk we'd already been on.
After wandering in circles a couple times, I was ready to jump into the dark water and swim my way out. Torches and steel drums burned along ramps and walkways, the f lickering lights ref lecting in the dark water and only adding to the sense of disorder.
People hurried by on the narrow walkways, bumping us, jostling us out of the way, sometimes on purpose. Sometimes they would snicker or bark curses as they shoved me aside.
I kept my head down and clenched my teeth every time someone hit me, fighting the urge to snap at them. There was no law here, no pets to keep order, no guards to contain an outbreak of violence. A fight erupted once, with two raiders throwing punches atop a narrow platform, until one pulled out a knife and stabbed the other in the neck. Choking, the man toppled off the platform, hit the water and sank from view. After a cursory glance, everyone went about their business.
"This is crazy," Zeke muttered, pressing close. His blue eyes swept nervously over the crowd. "Jeb told me about places like this. We have to find the others and get them out now, before someone shoots us in the back for no reason." I nodded. "The raiders said something about Jackal 'putting on a show' at the Floating Pit," I mused. "He's the one we want. If we find him, we'll probably find the others."
"Right. So, we have to find the Floating Pit." Zeke looked around, noticed a dark, wild-haired woman walking toward us, and sighed.
"Excuse me," he said, reaching out to stop her. "Would you help us, please?" She jerked back, eyes narrowing as she raked Zeke up and down, then her thin lips curved into a smile.
"Excuse me?" she mocked, her voice high and nasal.
"Excuse me, the boy says. Oh, well, how polite and proper.
Makes me feel like a lady again." The grin grew wider, showing missing teeth. "How can I help you, polite boy?"
"We're looking for the Floating Pit," Zeke said calmly, ignoring the way she leered at him, her tongue f licking through the spaces in her teeth. "Can you tell us where it is?"
"I could." The woman stepped closer. "Or I could show you where it is. How 'bout it, boy? I wasn't going myself-
Jackal's little shows are a bit much for me-but for you, I'd make an exception, hey?"
I stepped up beside Zeke, resisting the urge to growl. "Just directions, if you don't mind," I said pleasantly, with an un-dertone that warned get away from him or I'll tear your throat out.
The woman snickered and drew back.
"Ah, well, that's too bad. I would've made it worth your while." She sniffed and pointed down a catwalk, where a group of people were already headed. "Just follow that path till you reach the Pit. It'll be all lit up this time of night. You really can't miss it."
"Thank you," Zeke said, and the woman cackled, holding her hand to her heart.
"Such manners," she said, pretending to wipe away a tear.
"If only my slug of a man spouted that poetry, I might actually want to stay with him. Well, have fun, you two. This is your first show, eh?" She snickered again and brushed past us, shaking her head, calling back over her shoulder. "You might want to bring something to throw up in." Zeke and I exchanged a worried glance.
"That sounds ominous," I muttered.
The woman was right, the Floating Pit was impossible to miss. Standing on a street corner, the square stone building wasn't as tall as the skyscrapers around it, but the towering, neon red CHI AGO sign next to the entrance glowed brilliantly against the darkness. Besides missing its letter C, the sign was full of holes and cracks. But despite the damage, it still functioned. For what purpose, I had no idea.
"I guess that's the Floating Pit?" Zeke muttered, watching raiders crowd through the door. Since the first f loor was underwater, the walkway connected to a wooden platform that led inside the building. "Doesn't look like a pit to me. And the sign says Chicago. You'd think they'd call it something different."
"I'm guessing literacy isn't high on a raider's priority list," I murmured as we approached the building, craning my neck to gaze up at the sign. Looking down, I saw an overhang shimmering beneath the water, probably where the original doors would be. The entrance into the building was an arched stone frame with no hinges or doors, making me think it must've been a window at one point.
More walkways and bridges covered the f looded front hall of the building. I couldn't see the first level, but stairwells rose out of the water and ran up to second story balconies, where the crowd was headed. We followed them up the stairs and through the doors into a dimly lit arena, where anticipation hung thick on the air and in the crowds milling about the room.