One last time, I wrenched at the iron door and finally felt it give way. Pulling it open, I grabbed Ruth and Bethany, shoving them through the door, then went after Caleb and Teresa. Caleb was so frantic he refused to let go of the bars at first, and I had to pry him off and shove him out of the cage.
Grabbing Teresa's limp form, I swam for the surface, hoping I wasn't too late.
I broke the surface of the water to chaos. The kids were screaming, f lailing in the water. Ruth was trying desperately to lead them to the stage, but it was obvious Bethany couldn't swim and Caleb was hysterical. A few feet away, Zeke was at the other cage, trying to work it open. I saw the f lash of keys in his hand-taken from the dead raider, probably-a second before he pried the door open, letting the captives swim out.
As I hauled Teresa's unconscious body onto the stage, the curtain behind me parted, and a raider came through, probably drawn by the racket of the kids and gunfire and falling cages. For just a moment, he stared at us in shock, then turned to shout a warning. But that second was all the time I needed to lunge in and drive a sword between his ribs. His shout turned into a startled gurgle, and he dropped to the stage with a thud.
But other raiders would soon be arriving. I could see them through the holes in the curtain, clambering over the seats toward the stage. I glanced back, seeing Zeke emerge from the water with a shaking, hiccuping Bethany, Caleb clinging to his neck from behind. Near my feet, Teresa began to cough up water.
Ruth pulled herself up to the platform and, as Zeke set Caleb and Bethany on solid ground, f lung herself into his arms. "You're alive!" she sobbed into his chest, as he held her close and the kids plastered themselves to his waist. "We were sure you were dead! Oh, God, it's been horrible, what they did to us. Darren-"
"I know," Zeke said, his face tightening. "And I'm so sorry I couldn't..." He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"That won't happen again, I swear."
"Zeke," I warned, and his eyes f lickered to me. "No time for this. The men are coming. We have to get them out of here."
He nodded, composed and businesslike again, but Ruth turned on me, eyes blazing with suspicion and fear.
she doing here?" Ruth hissed, still clinging to Zeke, one delicate hand on his chest. "She's a vampire! Jeb told us to kill her if she came poking around again."
"Stop it, Ruth." Zeke's voice was hard, and we both blinked at him in shock. "She saved my life," he continued in a calmer voice. "And yours, too, in case you didn't notice. I wouldn't have gotten this far if she hadn't come back."
"Save it," I barked at her, and she cringed back, eyes wide.
"We're not out of here, yet. And, now that you mention it, where is Jeb? He's not here, that's for sure. Where did they take him?"
"I'm not telling you, vampire!" Ruth shrieked, on the verge of hysterics. "I'm not telling you anything!" I snarled, ready to smack some sense into her, but Zeke held up a hand, stopping me. "Ruth." He shook her gently, bringing her attention back to him. "Where is Jeb? Did they say where they took him, where he's being held?" The girl nodded, clinging to his shirt. "Jackal's tower," she whispered. "They said he's being taken to Jackal's tower." The words were barely out of her mouth when Bethany screamed and another raider came through the curtain, followed by a friend. I spun, blade f lashing, and quickly beheaded one, making Bethany and Ruth scream again, but the other got off a yell before I could silence him. As their bodies hit the stage, I spun toward Zeke.
"Move! Get them out of here!" I swept a hand toward the catwalks, to the door the guards had used. "Don't wait for me-I'll catch up when I can. Just get them out of the city and don't look back."
"Catch up?" Zeke had started ushering the group up the ladder to the catwalks but now turned back with a frown.
"You're not coming with us?"
"No." I shot a quick glance at the curtain, hearing the crowd rushing the stage, the splashes as the raiders plunged into the water. "I'm going back for Jeb." He stared at me. "You? But...no, I should be the one. He's family. It should be me."
"You're still hurt, Zeke. Besides-" I nodded to the group as the last of them scrambled up the ladder, peering down at us "-you have to lead them out of here. I'll have the best chance to find Jeb if I'm alone."
"But..." Zeke hesitated, torn. "Even if you find him, he might not go with you. Allie, he might...try to kill you."
"I know." I stepped away from him, toward the curtain.
The raiders were climbing the stage now, hauling themselves out of the water. "But if I don't do this, I'll be the monster he thinks I am." Spinning, I slashed at a raider who charged through the curtain, splitting him open to the shrieks of the kids. As he staggered and fell into the water, I whirled back on Zeke. "If Jeb is alive, I swear I'll find him! But you need to get them out of here, Zeke! Go, now! If I'm not back by dawn, don't wait for us, because we'll be dead. Go!" With one last tortured look, Zeke turned and f led up the ladder. I spun toward the stage, slashing at another raider, and grabbed the oil lamp from the post. As the mob outside drew close, I raised the lamp over my head and smashed it to the f loor, shattering glass and sending f laming oil over the red fabric.
The old curtain caught fire instantly, and tongues of orange f lame sprang up with a roar, engulfing the cloth and spreading to the wood beside it. As a pair of raiders came through, I snatched the second lantern and did the same to the other side, f linching away as the oil splattered everywhere, catching the two men in the spray. They howled, f lailing their arms as their clothes caught fire, and f led back the way they had come.
The inferno roared, eating rapidly at the old curtain, licking at the wooden frame around it. I stumbled back, clutching the last lantern, fighting the instinct to run as the f lames snapped and reached for me, blistering and lethal. For the first time, I felt an almost primal terror, facing down one of a vampire's greatest fears. Fire could destroy me. The wind, rushing in from the roof and shattered windows, blew clouds of embers and burning cloth into the air; one landed on my coat sleeve, and I hissed as I slapped it away.
I smashed the final lantern at the base of the stage, turned and f led up the ladder, feeling the heat sizzle against my back.
Cries of alarm echoed over the roar of the fire as the raiders scattered back and forth, not knowing what to do. Some jumped into the water to f lee and some tried dousing the f lames with whatever they could find, but the inferno was licking at the walls and ceiling now, spreading to the oiled wood without any sign of slowing down.
At the top of the ladder, I looked over to see Zeke usher the last of the group through a door at the end of the catwalk.
He glanced back, and our gazes met. For just a moment, we stared at each other, as the wind and f lames shrieked around us, snapping at hair and clothes. I saw regret that he wasn't able to come with me, a fierce determination to get the rest of them out alive...and a trust that hadn't been there before.
I gave him a brief nod, and he returned it solemnly before vanishing through the doorway.
I turned. The f lames were spreading faster than I thought possible, tearing at the walls, the wind carrying burning embers to the plush seats to catch fire. I faced part of the outer wall that had collapsed, seeing crumbled buildings through the gaping hole, the dark outline of the city through the smoke.
I sprinted for the end of the catwalk and leaped, hurling myself over the water, grabbing rough wood and plaster as I hit the wall. A section gave way beneath my hand, plummeting down with a splash as I pulled myself up. Finding handholds along the outer wall, I easily climbed up to the roof and gazed out on the city.
Skeletal buildings loomed above me, dark and crumbling, brushing the sky. I turned, scanning the towers, looking for anything that might indicate Jackal's lair. They all looked the same, broken and empty, and I spat out a curse. How was I going to find that old man in such an enormous...
I stopped, blinking. A light suddenly glimmered against the darkness like a stray star, a glow at the very top of a massive black tower.
The tower of a vampire king. If I was lucky, I would find Jebbadiah waiting there, alive and unharmed. If my luck held, I would not find a certain raider king waiting for me, as well.
And if I was really lucky, I could rescue the old man and bring him back without being killed, by Jackal or Jebbadiah Crosse.
I didn't encounter any resistance as I made my way to Jackal's tower, probably because everyone was preoccupied with the burning building. I hoped that it would be enough of a distraction to cover Zeke's escape, and that he'd be able to get everyone out safely.
I could still see the glow of the inferno as I approached the tower. Clouds of burning embers billowed over the wind, and several smaller fires had already sprung up in adjoining buildings. It surprised me how far a fire could spread, even through a city that was so completely waterlogged.
The steps and first f loor of Jackal's tower were underwater, but a series of bridges led from the elevated tracks into the lobby. The water here was only waist deep, and it lapped against the platforms and rotting front desk as I snuck into the dark, open room. Pausing on a swaying walkway over the desk, I looked around. How did one get to the top f loor of this place? Did they take the stairs all the way up? Did the vampire king know how to f ly?
A loud clanking, grinding noise drew my attention to one wall, where a pair of elevator doors sat half open in their frames, f laking with rust. I slipped from the walkway into the water, ducking behind the huge desk as a hand appeared between the doors and shoved one of them aside. Two armed raiders emerged from the elevator, hurried over the walkways and out into the f looded street. I watched them head toward the glow of the burning building and quickly waded over to the elevator.
Shouldering the doors back, I observed the tube cautiously.
The whole thing had obviously been jerry-built by Jackal's men, and if I hadn't just seen it in action I'd have doubted it could get off the ground. A simple steel frame encircled with wooden railings and wrapped with chain-link dangled from the thick cable. The f loor was nothing but a few rotting planks, and I could see water sloshing underneath the wood. Some kind of lever had been welded to the corner, eaten with rust and sitting in a tangled nest of exposed wires.
A few sparks jumped out to sizzle into nothingness, doing nothing for my skepticism.
Easing into the box, which creaked and swayed in protest, I stepped over the gaping holes in the f loor and wrenched the lever up.
The lift shuddered, sparking furiously, and then began a slow but steady climb up into the blackness. I gripped the metal frame hard enough to leave impressions in the rust, gritted my teeth with every jolt or clang against the wall, and wondered how the people from before could stand being in a tiny box dangling hundreds of feet in the air.
Finally, the thing came to a screeching, lurching stop at another pair of doors, these in slightly better condition. They still had to be pried open, and I shouldered my way through, relieved to be on solid ground again.