Outside the windows, the mob shambled about aimlessly. Sometimes they yelled at each other or no one, waving crude weapons at things that weren't there. Sometimes they shrieked and laughed and clawed at themselves, leaving deep bloody furrows across their skin. Once, a man fell to his knees and beat his head against the pavement until he collapsed, moaning, to the curb.
"Well," Jackal said with a brief flash of fangs, "this whole city has gone right to hell, hasn't it?" He shot me a dangerous look as we pressed farther into the building, speaking in harsh whispers. "I don't suppose the population was like this when you were here last, were they?"
I shivered and shook my head. "No."
"Nice. Well, if we're going to pay a visit to old Salazar, we need to hurry," Jackal said, glancing at the sky through the windows. "Sun's coming up, and I don't particularly want to be stuck here with a mob of bat-shit-crazy bloodbags."
For once, I agreed wholeheartedly.
Silently, we made our way through the Fringe, ducking into shadows and behind walls, leaping onto roofs or through windows, trying to avoid the crowds of moaning, laughing, crazy humans wandering the streets.
"This way," I hissed, and darted through a hole into an apartment building. The narrow corridors of the apartments were filled with rock and broken beams but were still fairly easy to navigate. Being inside brought back memories; when I'd lived here, I'd often taken this shortcut to the district square.
A moan drifted out of a hallway, stopping us. Sliding up against the wall, Jackal peered around a corner then quickly drew back, motioning for me to do the same. We both melted into the shadows, becoming vampire still, and waited.
A human staggered by, clutching a length of wood in one hand. He passed uncomfortably close, and I saw that he had clawed at his face until his eye had come out. Pausing, he glanced our way, but either it was too dark or his face was too ravaged for him to see clearly, for he turned his head and continued walking.
Suddenly, the one-eyed human staggered, dropping his club. Gagging, he fell to his hands and knees, heaving and gasping as if he couldn't catch his breath. Red foam bubbled from his mouth and nose, dripping to the ground beneath him. Finally, with a desperate choking sound, the human collapsed, twitched weakly for a moment and then stopped moving.
Jackal straightened, muttering a low, savage curse. "Oh, damn," he growled, more serious then I'd ever heard him sound. "That's why the city is locked down."
"What?" I asked, tearing my gaze away from the dead human. "What's going on? What is this?" Jackal stared at the human, then turned to face me.
"Red Lung," he said, making my blood freeze. "What you saw right there, those are the final symptoms of the Red Lung virus. Without the crazy muttering and tearing the eyes out, anyway." He shook his head violently, as if remembering. "I've never seen it, but Kanin told me how it worked. The infected humans would bleed internally, and eventually they would drown in their own blood, trying to throw up their organs. Nasty way to go, even for the bloodbags."
Dread gripped me. I glanced back at the body lying motionless in the hall, in the weeds poking through the floor, and felt cold. I remembered what Kanin had told me once, in the hidden lab when I first became a vampire. I'd asked him about the virus, why there was no Red Lung in the world anymore, if the scientists had found a cure. He'd given a bitter smile.
"No," Kanin said. "Red Lung was never cured. The Red Lung virus mutated when the rabids were born. That's how Rabidism spread so quickly. It was an airborne pathogen, just like Red Lung, only instead of getting sick and dying, people turned into rabids." He shook his head, looking grave. "Some people survived, obviously, and passed on their immunities, which is why the world isn't full of rabids and nothing else. But there was no cure for Red Lung. The rabids destroyed that hope when they were created and escaped."
And now, Red Lung had emerged again, in New Covington. Or a version of it had, anyway. Jackal and I exchanged a grave look, no doubt both thinking the same thing. This was what Sarren wanted, why he'd taken the virus samples. Somehow, he'd created another strain of the plague that had destroyed most of the world, and he'd unleashed it on New Covington.
The thought was terrifying.
Voices drifted out from the shadows, and we went still. The corpse in the hall had attracted another pair of humans from a nearby room. They poked it halfheartedly, asking crazy, nonsensical questions. When it didn't move, they quickly lost interest and shuffled back to the room, leaving it to rot at the mouth of the corridor.
We made our way through the apartments, slipping past the room with the crazy humans, and out to the street. I looked back and shuddered. "Why would he do this?" I whispered.
"Sarren doesn't need a reason for what he does." Jackal curled a lip in disgust. "He and his sanity parted ways a while back, and he's only gotten more deranged since. But this..." He gazed around the city and shook his head. "You bloody insane bastard," he muttered. "Why are you screwing with the food supply? We might not survive another epidemic."
Overhead, the sky was an uncomfortable navy blue, and most of the stars had faded. We didn't have a lot of time to reach the Inner City. "This way," I hissed at Jackal, slipping through the gap in the wooden fence surrounding the apartment. "It's still a good distance to the Sector Four gate."
We didn't quite make it.
I got us there as quickly as I could, of course. This was still my old neighborhood, my district. I had spent seventeen years of my life in this filthy, dilapidated ruin of a town, scavenging for food, dodging patrols, doing whatever it took to survive. This was my territory; I knew its quirks, its shortcuts, and where to go if I wanted to get somewhere quickly.
That wasn't the problem.
The problem was, back when I was human, everyone else had been human, too. The sane, rational, not-trying-to-killyou kind of human. Now, the streets, the buildings, the side alleys and parking lots, were filled with infected madmen. Madmen who didn't fear vampires or pain or anything, and who would come at us, screaming, if they so much as saw our shadows move. Jackal and I cut several of these humans down as they flung themselves at us with a wild abandon almost like the rabids' single-minded viciousness. Other times, we would escape into the shadows, over walls, or onto the roofs where the infected couldn't follow. I'd never seen so many humans wandering the streets at night, and wondered where all the sane, noninfected people were. If there were any left at all.
A pink glow was threatening the eastern horizon when we finally reached the wall of the Inner City, fighting our way through another group of shrieking madmen to the big iron gates that led to the Prince's territory. Normally, the thick metal doors were heavily guarded, with soldiers stationed up top and two well-armed humans standing in front. Now, the gates were sealed tight, and no guards patrolled the Inner Wall. Nor did anyone respond to our shouts and banging on the doors. It seemed the Prince had drawn all his people farther into the city, leaving the Fringe to fend for itself.
Jackal swore and gave the gate a resounding kick. The blow made a hollow, booming sound that echoed down the wall, but the doors were thick, sturdy and designed to hold up to vampire attacks. They didn't even shake.
"What now?" he snarled, looking at the top of the Inner Wall, a good twenty feet straight up. Like the gates, the wall protecting the Inner City was built with vampires in mind. There were no handholds, no ledges to cling to, no buildings close enough to launch off. We wouldn't be getting into the city this way.
And dawn was dangerously close.
"Come on," I told Jackal, who glared at the wall as if he might take an ax to it when he came back. "We can't stay out here, and we're not getting in this way. I know a place where we can sleep-it's secure enough, we won't have to worry about crazy humans."
A woman staggered around a corner, her entire face an open, bleeding wound, and lunged at us with a howl. I dodged, letting her smack into the wall, then bolted into the Fringe again, Jackal following and snarling curses at my back.
Several streets and close calls later, with the sun moments away from breaking over the jagged horizon, I squeezed through a familiar chain-link fence at the edge of a cracked, overgrown parking lot. A squat, three-story building sat at the end of the lot, making a lump rise to my throat. Home. This had been home, once.
Then a searing light spilled over the buildings, turning the tops a blinding orange, and we ran.
Miraculously, no crazy humans waited in the parking lot to ambush us. After ducking through the doors into the shade of the hallway, I collapsed against the wall in relief.
"Nice place," Jackal remarked, slouched against the opposite wall, where a row of lockers rusted against the plaster. He gazed down the dark corridor, where rooms lined each wall, and curled a lip. "Let me guess-hospital? Or asylum."
"It's a school," I said, rolling my eyes. "Or it was, back before the plague." I pushed myself off the wall, feeling sluggish and tired now that the sun was out. "This way. There's a basement we used to hole up in when the vamps were out."
"We?" Jackal raised an eyebrow as we picked our way down the hall. I winced, realizing my slip, and didn't reply. "So," Jackal continued, gazing around with more interest, "this was where you lived as a bloodbag."
"You really like that term, don't you?"
"What?" Jackal looked confused.
"Bloodbag. That's all humans are to you." I turned down another hallway, one even more cluttered with rubble and fallen plaster. "You keep forgetting that you were one, once."
Now it was his turn to roll his eyes. "Look, sister. I've been a vampire for a long time now. Maybe not as long as Kanin, but definitely longer than you. Live a few decades, and yes, they all start to look the same. Like cows. Intelligent, talking pieces of meat." He ducked under a beam lying across the corridor, barely clearing it. "Granted, I didn't always see them that way, but time has a way of breaking down your convictions."
Surprised, I stopped and turned to blink up at him. "Really? You?"
"Does that shock you?" Jackal grinned, enjoying himself. "Yeah, sister. I was like you once. So worried about not hurting the poor defenseless humans, only taking what I needed, so scared about losing control." He shook his head. "And then, one night Kanin and I met a group of men who wanted to kill us. And we slaughtered them all. As easily as killing spiders." He grinned then, showing fangs. "Right then, I realized we were always meant to rule over humans. We could do whatever we wanted, and they couldn't stop us. Why deny your base nature? It's what we are.
"So, yes," he finished, still smirking at me. "I call humans 'bloodbags.' I don't need to know their names, or if they have a family, or what their favorite color is. Because I'm either going to outlive them, or I'm going to tear their throats open and suck them dry. And life got a lot simpler once I realized that."
"You gave up," I accused. "It just got too hard to fight it anymore."
"Did you ever think there was a reason for that? Because we're not supposed to! Why would I want to keep fighting my instincts?"