I thought I'd buried that pain when I fled the city, but it ached, a dull, nagging throb somewhere deep inside. Still, I couldn't focus on the past. If this kid was uninfected and sane, maybe there were other humans who had escaped the chaos, too.
"Are there more of you?" Jackal broke in, thinking the same thing, apparently. The kid hesitated, and he added in a perfectly civil tone, "You realize your potential to be useful is the only thing keeping you alive right now, yes?"
"Yeah." The human spat the word, glaring at us with a mix of fear and hatred. "Yeah, there are more of us. Down in the tunnels beneath the city. We moved there when all the craziness started. The bleeders stay topside, for the most part."
"So that was what the mole man was talking about," I mused. "Topsiders coming down into their turf." I looked at the kid again. "Don't you have trouble with them? They're not happy about you pushing into their territory."
He shrugged. "We can take our chances with the crazies or the cannibals. The mole men clans leave us alone if we're in a group. And the boss knows the tunnels pretty well, at least, the ones that are clan territory."
The tunnels. I suddenly remembered that, when I had been here with Kanin, some of the underground passages had led into the Inner City. I'd never seen them of course, never went looking for them, back when I was human. But rumors existed of places where you could creep into the vampires' territory, as dangerous and suicidal as that was. Back when I became a vampire, Kanin had shown me a way beneath the Inner Wall, through a network of old sewers and subway tunnels, right into the heart of the Inner City. But the underground was a maze, stretching for miles beneath the city streets, thousands of tunnels that all looked the same. Even if we could reach the old hospital, I didn't think I could retrace the steps Kanin had used to get past the wall. But, that path did exist, somewhere.
We couldn't get into the Inner City through the gates. And traveling the underground seemed a hell of a lot safer than staying topside with the "bleeders."
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Jackal muttered behind me.
I nodded. "You said there is someone who knows the way through the tunnels," I told the kid, who winced, as if he knew what I was going to say next. "Take us to him."
"Show up with two bloodsuckers?" He went even paler, shaking his head frantically. "No, I can't! Everyone will freak out. And then they'll kill me for bringing you there."
I could feel Jackal's fanged smile without even seeing it. "Die then, or now, bloodbag. Your choice."
"Shit." The kid dragged a hand across his face. "All right, fine. I'll take you there...if you promise not to kill me after. There are plenty of other humans down there if you get Hungry-suck on one of them, okay? I'll even point out the stupid, gullible ones. Just don't eat me."
Though I didn't let it show, I felt a flicker of disgust, hypocritical as it was. His answer shouldn't have surprised me. I'd grown up on the streets with the same attitude, the same survival instincts. In the Fringe, it was everyone for himself. No matter what, you did whatever it took to survive. I knew that. I'd lived that.
But then I'd met Zeke and his small group, and everything changed. They'd accepted me, a virtual stranger, as one of their own, no strings, no expectations. With the exception of their hardened leader, they'd looked out for each other, taken care of one another. And the boy whom I'd first thought naive and blind and idealistic must've rubbed off on me, because when faced with the choice to leave or risk my life for the group, my survival instincts had gone out the window. And I'd found I actually gave a damn about them all.
It had been a shock to learn there were other ways of living. It had been even more of a shock to know that I could still care, that I was willing to jeopardize my own existence for others. Now we were back in the Fringe, and the philosophy everyone for himself still held true. But, at least in my old gang, we hadn't sold other humans out to the vampires. Until Stick, anyway. It seemed Kyle's group had no such convictions.
Jackal grinned at me. "Ah, human loyalty. It's such an inspiring thing, isn't it, sister? Makes you wonder how we ever came out on top." He glanced at the Unregistered, who blinked, unaware that he'd just been insulted, and his smile grew wider. "Better hurry, little bloodbag, and lead us to your friends. I'm feeling kinda Hungry now."
The parking lot had a couple bleeders shambling about, muttering to themselves, but we were able to sneak around them without too much trouble. The scent of fresh blood, streaming from their faces and arms, hung on the breeze like invisible ribbons, rousing the demon within. I didn't realize I was staring at the back of our guide's neck until I felt my fangs poking my bottom lip and forced the Hunger down.
"When did this start?" I asked the kid once we were clear of the school. Partly because I was curious and partly to keep myself occupied, to focus on something other than my bloodlust. "The sickness, the craziness. How long has this been going on?"
"Not long." He glanced over his shoulder, as if surprised I was talking to him like a normal person. "Maybe two weeks, give or take a couple days? I dunno exactly-it's hard to tell underground."
"Why hasn't the Prince done anything?"
"He has." The kid snorted. "He's pulled all his pets and guards back into the Inner City and shut the doors on the rest of us. You try to get past the gates, they shoot you on sight. Food trucks have stopped coming, too." He shrugged, a hopeless, angry gesture. "Guess he's just waiting for everyone to die out here."
A human stumbled down the road, dragging a blanket behind him and reeking of blood, and my Hunger stirred restlessly. We waited in the shadows until the human shambled by. "You could get sick up here, too," I said to our guide after the bleeder lurched around a corner. "You're not worried about that?" He shrugged again and continued leading us through the streets.
"Not much choice. Like I said, we can take our chances up here with the bleeders, or starve in the tunnels. What would you do, if there was no food anywhere?" He spared me another glance and shook his head. "Guess you don't understand anymore. Vampires don't have that problem, do they?"
Oh, I understand more than you think.
We slipped through an overgrown street, where weeds, brush and large trees had cracked pavement and grown up through the ancient husks of cars. The vegetation covering the sidewalk and surrounding buildings was so thick it was like hacking through a forest. The Unregistered kid wove through the tangled undergrowth with an innate familiarity; he'd done this before, and often.
Ducking around the skeletal remains of a van, he stopped and cast a wary look around the shadows before dropping to a crouch in the bushes. Shoving a tire away, he brushed back a clump of weeds, revealing a small, perfectly round hole in the middle of the road. Another entrance to the maze of tunnels that ran beneath New Covington. I wondered how I-or rather, how Allie the Fringer street rat-had missed this one.
The Unregistered kid dug in his grimy pockets and pulled out a tiny flashlight, the beam barely visible as he poked it down the hole and peered around. "Looks like it's clear," he muttered, pulling it back out and inching close to the hole, preparing to drop inside. "Wait here a second, I'll make sure it's safe, then give you the heads-up when it's clear."
"Not so fast." I reached out and snagged the kid by the shirt, dragging him back. "Don't think I'm stupid. I was one of you once, remember?" He started to protest, but I shoved him toward Jackal, who grabbed him by the collar. "I'll head down first, and the two of you can follow."
The kid looked back at Jackal and paled. "You're leaving me alone with him?"
"He won't try anything." I narrowed my eyes at the other vampire. "Right?"
"Me?" Jackal smiled, showing fangs. "I am the epitome of self-control and restraint, sister. Your bleeding heart must be rubbing off on me."
I rolled my eyes, drew my weapon and dropped into the hole.
My vampire sight adjusted almost instantly to the pitch blackness, showing me an endless concrete tunnel, dripping walls and crumbling bricks. Something small and furry skittered up a pipe and vanished into a crack, but other than that, the sewers were empty and still.
"Clear," I called back, sheathing my katana.
The kid dropped quite suddenly from the opening, as if he'd been shoved, and sprawled out on the concrete with a yelp of pain. I scowled and glared at Jackal as he dropped through a moment later, landing lightly and brushing off his sleeves.
"All righty," he announced, ignoring my glare. "Here we are in the sewers again, my favorite New Covington vacation spot. So thrilled to be here." He fixed the Unregistered with a dangerous smile. "Well, don't just stand there, tunnel rat. Give us the tour."
"Uh. Yeah," the kid said, rising warily to his feet. His eyes darted about, constantly alert in a way that was far too familiar. "Follow me."
We walked in silence for a bit. I stayed close to the human, watching him carefully, ready to grab him if he got the idea to bolt. Though he'd promised to lead us to the other Unregistereds, I had no doubt he would dart into the nearest drain or crack or dark hole if he got the chance. Unregistereds were opportunists, and the ones who survived did so any way they could. Stealing, lying, making promises they never intended to keep, just to stay alive. I would've done the same thing, if I was still human, still a street rat like this kid.
Kid? Street rat? I realized I didn't even know his name. Not that I particularly cared; I doubted he would've asked my name if the roles were reversed. But thinking of him as just a human, just a nameless street rat-that was something that the vampires did.
"You never told me your name," I said, surprising the kid, who looked back cautiously. "You know me-it seems all the Unregistereds know my name and what happened to me. What do they call you?"
"Roach," muttered the kid after a moment. "They call me Roach."
Jackal laughed. "Well, isn't that fitting."
"Are Kyle and Travis still around?" I asked, ignoring Jackal. They'd known me before I'd become a vampire-not well, but they would still recognize me when they saw me.
But Roach shook his head. "Nah, they're both dead."
I wasn't shocked at his bluntness, or his casual shrug, but it was sobering to hear yet two more people I knew were gone. "What happened?"
"Sickness took them. This way." Roach ducked down a narrow, half-circular tunnel, low and claustrophobic, sludgy water oozing across the floor. His voice echoed in the small space around us. "Travis died first, but Kyle turned into a bleeder and went crazy on us. That's when we knew we had to get off the streets. The new guy moved us all into the tunnels to avoid the crazies. He's probably gonna be pissed I went off alone again. Hang on a second. We're here."
A rusty grate covered the other end of the tunnel, and flickering yellow light filtered through the slats. I could see a form silhouetted against the grate, ragged and thin, probably on guard duty. He spun as our footsteps echoed down the tunnel, shining a flashlight through the grate. Roach flinched, throwing up an arm as the beam hit him in the face.