He sighed, and some of the tension left his body. "Then...I'm glad I came back."
I rose, scrambling away from him, and Zeke rolled upright and faced me, pale from cold and pain and blood loss. I turned away, staring at the shattered windows, watching embers from the fires dance on the wind. I felt his gaze on my back, and shame burned through me like the hottest fire.
"Why did you come back?" I whispered. "I told you to keep going. You shouldn't have..."
"I couldn't leave you," Zeke said. "Not after everything you did for us. For me. I had to come back." I heard his footsteps, felt him step up beside me. From the corner of my eye, I watched him gaze at the city, watching the f lames. "The others are safe," he announced. "They're at the edge of the city, waiting for us. We should go. I guess..." And his voice faltered, suspiciously close to breaking, and he swallowed hard. "I guess Jeb won't be coming back with us." Jeb. I felt a blinding stab of guilt. And a hollow emptiness, knowing I had failed them both. "Zeke," I said, finally turning to face him. "Jeb is..."
"I saw," he whispered, gesturing to the broken glass, his face tight. "I saw...what he did, when you were beneath the window. I was coming up to the building when the bodies...fell."
My stomach felt cold. "Did...did Jeb..."
"No." He shook his head and closed his eyes, as if trying to squeeze out the memory. "There was nothing I could do for him."
"I'm so sorry." Words were inadequate. I looked at his trembling shoulders, the fists clenched at his sides, and wished I dared to pull him close for just a moment. "I tried."
"Not your fault." His voice broke at the end, and he took a deep breath. "It was his decision. He chose to end it that way, even if it meant saving a..." He paused, raked a hand through his hair. "You must've done something to make an impression," he finished softly. "I knew him for fourteen years, and he never once changed his mind."
You're wrong, I thought. It wasn't me he was thinking of tonight, it was you. Reaching into my pocket, I drew out the small plastic strip Jebbadiah had given me. "He wanted you to have this," I said, and Zeke turned. "He said you would know what to do with it."
He took it gently, almost reverently, staring as he held it up. "Do you know what it is?" I asked after a moment.
"Yes." Looking around the room, he hurried over to the desk in the opposite corner and shoved the plastic strip into a slot on the side of the computer. I was amazed that he knew how to use it, even more so when he fiddled around with the keyboard and pulled up several files on the screen.
"Yes," Zeke muttered, blue eyes f lickering across the screen.
"This is all their research. All the information they had on the plague and the rabids and the virus. It lists everything-their methods, the tests they ran on the vampires, everything. If we can get this to Eden, there might be a real chance of finding a cure." He sighed and yanked the strip out of the computer, raking a hand through his hair again. "If we can ever find it.
We still have no idea where it is."
I looked at the green board, the one with the dusty white letters scrawled across its surface, and the map on the other side. Frowning, I walked up and ripped the map from the board, narrowing my eyes. Cities had been circled and crossed out, notes scrawled along the edges in what was probably Jackal's handwriting. But one place stood out, one area had been circled several times, a question mark hovering beside it.
"I think we do."
The Floating Pit was in full blazing glory when Zeke and I left Jackal's tower, a huge fireball burning against the night.
Several smaller fires burned around it as the wind carried live embers to empty rooftops and through shattered windows, setting them af lame. We met no resistance on our way down; the f looded streets and walkways were remarkably clear as we hurried through the city, all attention being diverted to the huge inferno that lit up the sky.
Zeke was silent as we f led Jackal's tower, brooding and drawn into himself. In a single day, he'd lost a best friend and a father and was now expected to lead in Jeb's place. I wished I could talk to him, but there'd be time for that later. Right now, we had to escape the city and get everyone to safety. If such a thing existed.
The Hunger still raged within, gnawing at my insides, urging me to pounce on the human in front of me and tear him open. Zeke's blood had helped with the worst of the damage, but I was still starving. Worse, the sky over the buildings was growing lighter. The sun would be up soon, and we had to be clear of Jackal's city before then or I'd be toast.
However, as we hurried along the bridges and catwalks, I realized we had another problem. The Floating Pit sat between us and our exit, and right now it was surrounded by a horde of Jackal's men, not to mention the firestorm sweeping through the buildings around it.
"Where are the others?" I asked Zeke as we crouched inside a half-crumbled building, watching long streamers of fire snap in the wind. My vampire instincts were screaming at me to go the other direction, but the only way out was through that firestorm.
Next time, try burning your bridges after you've crossed them, Allison.
"They're just over the bridge," Zeke replied, observing the f lames worriedly. "At least, that's where I left them. I hope they're still okay."
"How did you get them out?"
Zeke pointed to the elevated tracks circling the district, passing, I noticed, right next to the theater. "We followed the tracks," he said, sweeping his finger around. "It takes you right out of the city, like you said. Once we got to the barge, we sort of...hijacked one of the vans." A shadow crossed his face, guilt that he'd had to kill yet again. "The others are waiting just outside the city," he continued, "hidden, and safe. If we can get to them, we're home free."
"Well," I muttered, turning back to the fire, feeling the heat from the f lames, even here, "we're going to have to get through that. Ready for another swim?"
Zeke nodded solemnly. "Lead the way." Entering the water, we swam through the f looded streets, passing between the burning buildings. The air was thick with smoke, and f laming rubble toppled into the waters around us, hissing as it struck the surface. I concentrated on moving forward, ignoring the canyons of fire around me, ignoring the Hunger that still cramped my stomach, and the warm body next to mine.
As we passed under a walkway, Zeke hanging a little behind, footsteps echoed above us, and a raider peered over the railing.
"You!" he shouted, pulling the gun from his belt. "I saw you in the Pit! You're the bitch who set it on fire!" A shot rang out, and pain exploded through my chest with a spray of blood. I heard Zeke cry out as the water closed over my head.
Anger and Hunger roared to life. I was sick of being shot, stabbed, burned, gutted, staked and thrown out windows.
Snarling, I exploded back to the surface, grabbed the raider by the belt and dragged him over the edge. We hit the water with a splash and sank like a rock, the human thrashing frantically in my grip. He stiffened as I plunged my fangs into his throat and stopped moving by the time we hit the bottom.
I finished feeding and hesitated, tempted to leave him for the fishes and the worms. But Zeke would be waiting up top, and he had seen me pull the raider into the water. With a growl, I grabbed the limp body and struck back for the surface. He might still succumb to hypothermia and blood loss, but at least I wouldn't leave him to drown.
Zeke gaped as I broke the surface, shaking water from my ears. "You're alive," he gasped, teeth chattering with cold.
"But...you took a shot right to the chest. I was right there and I saw..."
"It takes a lot to kill me," I muttered. "Well, scratch that.
It takes a lot to kill me again. I'm already dead, remember?" Swimming beneath the walkway, I heaved the raider's limp body out of the water onto the edge of the platform. His head lolled to the side, revealing two oozing bite marks that I hadn't sealed. Zeke's gaze followed mine, and his face tightened, but he didn't say anything.
I could feel him thinking, however, as we swam through the streets and finally reached the elevated tracks leading out of Jackal's territory. Dripping, shivering, he followed me up the framework to the top, grabbing my hand as I pulled him onto the planks. An icy wind rushed along the surface, and I was struck by how miserable he looked, wounded, wet and freezing, with his hair and clothes plastered to his body. Yet his eyes still gleamed with iron determination as he gazed across the bridge, only looking forward. Unlike me, who turned and glanced back toward the city and the fires that raged through it.
So many gone. So many lives lost. People I had known, talked to. Dorothy, Darren, Jeb...I hadn't been able to save them. I swallowed hard and rubbed my eyes. When had I started caring so much? Before Kanin Turned me, death was something I faced every day. People died, often; it was just how the world worked. I thought that, after the deaths of my old gang and Stick's betrayal, I wouldn't worry about anyone else. And yet, here I was, a vampire, wishing I could have saved the very person who hated me most.
"Allison." Zeke's voice made me turn around. He shivered in the cold wind but stood tall and unbowed at the edge of the tracks. "The sun is coming up," he said, nodding to the tops of the buildings. "We have to get you and everyone else to shelter soon. Come on."
I nodded and wordlessly followed him, sprinting down the tracks, over the bridge leading out of the city and into the ruins of Old Chicago, leaving Jackal's territory behind to burn.
"HELLO, OLD FRIEND," Sarren crooned, bringing his scarred face very close, so that I could see the madness raging in his black eyes. "You can't go to sleep yet, I'm afraid. What fun would that be? I have the whole night planned out." He chuckled and stepped back, watching me hang limply from the chains. At least I was no longer upside down, though I suspected one of my arms was still broken. It was difficult to tell; my body had been broken, healed and systematically broken again; the only thing I was aware of now was the Hunger.
Sarren smiled. "Hungry, are you? I can't imagine how that feels-
it's been four days. Oh, wait. Yes, I can. They used to starve us before an experiment, so we would attack whatever beast they put in our rooms. Did you know that?"
I did not answer. I had not spoken for the entire length of my captivity, and I would not begin now. Nothing I said would sway this madman; he was only looking for ways to torment me further, to break me. And I would not give him that, not as long as my mind was my own.
Tonight, however, he might torture me all he wanted; it would not come close to the pain that I had endured earlier, the visions of my two offspring killing each other far from my reach. Two children that I had failed.
Allison. Forgive me, I wish I could have prepared you better. What were the odds that you would meet your blood brother so far from your origins?
"You seem distracted tonight, old friend." Sarren smiled and picked up a scalpel, holding it up to his face. His tongue flicked out, sliding along the surface. "Let us see if we can't bring your mind back to where it's supposed to be. I've heard blood tastes the best straight off the blade. Why don't we see if that is true?" I closed my eyes, preparing myself. I would not survive much longer; already I could feel my sanity slipping, succumbing to pain and madness. My only comfort was that at least Sarren had found me first, that I was taking the brunt of his hate, and that my offspring were safe from his demented clutches.