Guessing he wanted a moment alone, I drew back and left him at the back of the hall, letting him mourn the death of his friend. Truthfully, I needed a few minutes by myself, as well.
My eyes stung, and I let a bloody tear slide down my cheek before swiping it away. First Dorothy and now Darren.
Darren, who had joked around with me, who had stood up for me, even to Zeke. Who had been a good hunter, a companion, maybe even a friend. I would miss his company, I realized. He hadn't deserved that death, to come so far only to be torn apart by a rabid in the end. I clenched my fists, feeling the nails bite into my palms. Jackal would pay for this.
He would pay for everything.
I turned and walked back to Zeke, trying to formulate some kind of plan, hoping he was clearheaded enough to help me out. He was still sitting in the corner, staring at the wall, but his face and eyes were clear.
I crouched beside him. "You okay?" Not the most brilliant or comforting question ever, but there was nothing else I could think of.
He shook his head. "We have to find the rest of them," he whispered, struggling to his feet. Leaning against the wall again, he took a deep breath and looked at me, his voice growing stronger. "Where do you think Jackal is keeping everyone?"
"I have no idea," I muttered. "But I'm guessing it's nearby.
With everything underwater, it's probably not easy to trans-port prisoners back and forth. He'll want to keep them close."
"We should search the building," Zeke said, nodding, "once everyone has cleared out-"
A cheer from the open doors to the main hall drew our attention. Either Jackal was on a roll, or someone else was being torn apart. I shuddered and hoped it wasn't the latter.
Zeke and I glanced at each other, thinking the same thing.
There was no time. For every minute we waited, another person could die, shoved into a cage and ripped apart for the crowd's entertainment. Jackal was ruthless, and I had no doubt he would sacrifice Caleb or even Bethany to get what he wanted. We had to find our people now.
"Backstage," Zeke whispered, his eyes hard. "They brought Jeb and Darren out through the curtain. Maybe they're keeping the others back there, as well."
I nodded. "Makes sense. It's a good place to start looking anyway."
But there were two hundred raiders and thirty feet of water between us and the stage, not to mention Jackal himself. I had no clue how powerful the raider king was and no desire to find out. "There has to be a back door," I muttered. "A way to get in from behind."
"There are plenty of windows," Zeke pointed out.
"Yeah," I said, turning away. "I hope you're up for a swim." In the shadows of the outside wall, we made our way through the black, grimy water, easing around the side of the building. I wasn't the best swimmer, not like Zeke, but there were plenty of handholds as we clung to the side of the wall. And of course, I didn't have to worry about drowning. Every so often, my leg would brush something beneath the surface of the water, a branch or a pole or the roof of a car, making me wonder what else was down there. Hopefully nothing alive. Or, if it was alive, hopefully nothing that wanted to eat us. I imagined huge rabid fish, gliding silently through the black waters, circling our legs, and decided not to voice that worry to Zeke.
"There," I said, pointing to a rusty metal staircase against the wall. Twisted and bent, it zigzagged up the outside wall to a platform on the top f loor. Maneuvering around rubble, pipes and rusty beams, I made my way through the murky black water until I could grab the lowest rung. Heaving myself up, I turned to help Zeke, grabbing his arm as he pulled himself onto the first step. He was shivering, teeth clacking together, and I was reminded that he was only human. The water here was colder than the river had been, far colder. It didn't bother me, but Zeke was in danger of freezing to death if we weren't careful.
"You all right?" I asked as he crossed his arms, shivering in the wind. His pale hair lay plastered to his forehead, and his shirt clung to his chest, emphasizing his leanness. His face was tight. "Do you need to wait here? I can go on alone, if you want."
"I'm fine," he gritted out, clenching his jaw. "Let's keep moving."
The metal staircase creaked horribly as we made our way up the steps, and I could feel it swaying under our weight.
But it held until we reached the top platform and crawled in through the broken window.
"I can't see a thing," muttered Zeke, pressing close to my back.
I could. The room here had the same crumbling, gutted feel of most other city buildings; cracked ceiling, peeling walls, f loor strewn with rubble and trash. Looking closer, I had to fight the urge to hiss. Blank-eyed humans stared at me from the shadows of the room, some draped in rotted costumes, arms and legs missing or lying scattered on the f loor. It took me a moment to realize they weren't real. Just plastic figures made to resemble humans.
Zeke gave a start, one hand dropping to his gun. He'd seen the creepy plastic figures, too, and in the dark, with normal human vision, it might freak anyone out.
"Relax," I told him. "They're not real. They're statues or something."
Zeke shuddered and took his hand away. "I've seen a lot of weird things," he muttered, shaking his head, "but I think this takes the prize. Let's get out of here before I start seeing them in my dreams...or before they start moving." I glimpsed a dismembered arm on the f loor, and a remark about needing a hand sprang to mind, but this wasn't the time for jokes. We carefully picked our way across the room and opened the door into another dark, narrow hallway.
The door creaked shut behind us, plunging the corridor into darkness thicker than ink. In complete blackness, the world looked shadowy gray to my vampire sight. But at least I could still see. Zeke was edging forward with one hand outstretched, the other on the wall beside him.
"Here," I said quietly, and took his hand. He stiffened, muscles coiled to pull back, but then relaxed with a tight nod. "Just follow my lead," I told him, ignoring the pulse at his wrist, the beat of life through his veins. "I won't let you fall."
We crept through the lightless hallway, passing rooms filled with dusty boxes, racks of rotting clothes and furniture covered in plastic sheets. It was obvious the raiders didn't use this part of the building; the dirt and plaster dust lining these hallways hadn't been disturbed in years-except for the countless rats and mice that went scurrying away, vanishing into the walls and f loor. At one point, I stepped in something soft, like mud, and looked up to see the ceiling crawling with what looked like hundreds of winged mice. I didn't mention this to Zeke as we hurried forward, though for some bizarre reason I felt a strange kinship with the tiny grotesque creatures.
The back of the building was like a maze, with endless rooms, hallways and scattered rubble. Some of the walls had fallen in, and sometimes we had to pick our way over a section of ceiling or edge around a f loor that had collapsed. Zeke kept a tight grip on my hand as we maneuvered the labyrinth, occasionally stumbling as his wounded leg gave out but for the most part keeping up with me.
As we stepped over a fallen girder, a splintering crack rang out like a gunshot, and a section of f loor gave way beneath us. I grabbed wildly for the beam with one hand, keeping a tight grip on Zeke with the other, as we plummeted straight down. My fingers hit the rusty edge of the girder, latching on desperately, as the weight of Zeke's body nearly tore my arm out of the socket.
For a moment, we dangled over empty blackness. I could hear Zeke's panting, feel his pulse racing under my fingers.
Overhead, the f loorboards groaned threateningly, showering me with dust, but the girder itself didn't move.
The weight on the end of my arm gave a strangled gasp, hand tightening around my wrist. My fingers digging into the girder slipped a fraction of an inch. "Zeke," I gritted out, "there's a beam right above us. If I pull you up, can you grab it?"
"I...can't see anything," Zeke replied, his voice tight with suppressed fear, "so you'll have to be my eyes. Just tell me when I'm getting close."
I half swung, half lifted him to the edge of the hole, feeling my shoulders scream in protest. "Now," I muttered, and Zeke lashed out with his free arm, hitting the girder on his first try. The weight dragging me down vanished as Zeke grabbed the beam like a lifeline and hauled himself up.
I followed, crawling out of the hole and rolling onto my back next to Zeke, who had done the same. He was breathing hard, shaking with adrenaline, his heart crashing in his chest.
I felt nothing. No pounding heartbeat, no gasping breaths, nothing. A near-death experience, and I didn't feel a thing.
Wait, scratch that. I did feel something. Relief. I was relieved that Zeke was alive and still with me. And now that the excitement was fading somewhat, I felt a stirring of real fear in my stomach, not for me, but for what could've happened. I'd almost lost him. If I had let him fall, he would be dead.
Zeke stirred, shifting to his elbow, squinting into the darkness. "Allie?" His voice was hesitant, probing the black. "You still there?"
"Yeah," I muttered and felt him relax. "Still here."
He shifted to his knees, one hand reaching out tentatively.
"Where are you?" he murmured, frowning. In the dark, I watched his face, seeing his gaze pass over me without seeing. "You're so quiet-it's like you're not even here. You're not even breathing hard."
I sighed, deliberately, just to make some kind of noise.
"That's what happens when you're dead," I murmured and rolled to my knees to face him. "That whole breathing thing isn't so important anymore."
I reached for his hand, but he suddenly leaned in, and his fingers brushed my cheek. Warmth f looded my skin, and I froze, waiting for him to pull back.
He didn't. The tips of his fingers lingered on my cheek for a moment. Then, very slowly, his hand slipped forward, the palm brushing my skin. Frozen, I stared at him, watching his face as his fingers moved from my cheek to my forehead to my chin, like a blind man tracing someone's features to see them in his mind.
"What are you doing to me?" he whispered, as his hand moved down to my neck, tracing my collarbone. I couldn't answer even if I wanted to. "You make me question everything I've learned, everything I know. Truths I've believed since I was a kid, gone." He sighed, and I felt a shiver go through him, but he didn't pull his hand back. "What's wrong with me?" he groaned, low and anguished. "I shouldn't be feeling any of this. Not for a..."
He trailed off, but the word hung between us, raw and painful. I could sense Zeke's struggle with himself, perhaps trying to find the will to pull away, perhaps to do something that went against everything he'd been taught. I wanted, desperately, to lean forward, to respond to his touch, but I was afraid that if I moved, he would pull back and the moment would shatter. So I remained still, passive and unthreatening, letting him decide what he wanted. Silence stretched between us, but his hand, his gentle fingers, never left my skin.
"Say something," he murmured at last, cupping my cheek like he couldn't bear to pull back. "I can't see you, so...I don't know what you're thinking. Talk to me."