Surprisingly, it was Jackal who finally smiled and stepped back, raising his hands. "Okay, bloodbag," he said, looking past me to Zeke. "Fine. I can be civil. For now. Observe." He made a great show of looking around the chamber. "Nice place you got here. Love what you've done with it. If I'd known, I would've brought a housewarming gift. A shag rug to go with the lovely piles of garbage."
I felt some of the tension diffuse and relaxed a bit, turning to Zeke. He yanked his wrist back, and I let him this time, dropping my hand. "Zeke-"
The look he gave me was withering. Anger, betrayal and a cold, appraising stare, as if he was seeing me again for the first time, and I wasn't the person he'd known before.
Zeke shoved the stake through his vest, where a number of wooden spikes hung, I noticed, and grabbed the crossbow off the floor. "What are you doing here, Allison?"
His voice was clipped, hard, and he wasn't looking at me. My heart sank, hurt and anger and frustration spreading through my insides. I watched him swing the weapon to his back and took stock of the rest of them. It was an impressive armory, different than the one he'd carried when we first met. Crossbow, stakes, heavy pistol, armored vest-he was ready for vampires this time. The only thing that was familiar was the machete, still strapped across his back beneath the vest and crossbow, and the small silver cross around his neck. He didn't look like a lost wanderer anymore. He looked like a soldier, more than he ever had with Jeb. He looked like someone who killed vampires for a living.
But why was he here at all? Why wasn't he back in Eden, where I'd left him?
"We're looking for someone," I said, searching his face for any hint of the boy I knew. His expression remained cold, closed-off, but I kept going. "He's in the Inner City, and the gates up top are sealed. We need to find a way inside through the tunnels."
Zeke shot a glare full of loathing at Jackal, as if wishing he could pull a stake from one of the many on his vest and bury it in the vampire's heart. Jackal watched him calmly, the hint of a smirk on his face. I pushed back my despair. Keeping these two from killing each other was going to be difficult. But I had to try. I knew Zeke was angry; maybe he despised me now. But we still needed his help, and I couldn't let this stop me. Kanin's life depended on it.
"Well, that's going to be difficult." Zeke finally turned to face me, though his face and voice remained cold, businesslike. "I don't know a way to the Inner City through the tunnels. If I did, do you think we'd still be here, in the Fringe? I'd take everyone into the Inner City if I could. But even if I knew the way, we'd have to get past the mole men."
"Are they threatening you?"
He nodded, once. "We've had several issues with them, and things are getting...nasty. One of my scouts told me they're amassing in huge numbers, something they haven't done in the past. They want us gone."
Great. Bleeders up top, testy mole men below...and Zeke. Who, though he seemed completely at home here, in his element as the one in charge, did not know the way into the Inner City, as I'd hoped. Finding Kanin was proving harder than I'd thought possible. And we still had Sarren to deal with.
Zeke continued to watch us, his gaze blank and mirrorlike. "Zeke." I gave him a pleading look, hoping that our past friendship, the times we'd saved each other, fought side by side against rabids and raiders and vampires, still meant something to him. "We have to get into the Inner City. Please, is there something you can do? Anything you can think of? It's important."
He stared at me with hooded eyes. I could see the wheels turning in his brain, thinking things through, putting the pieces together. "Are you going to see the Prince?" he asked finally.
I blinked. That wasn't what I'd expected from him. "Yes," I replied. "Or, we're going to get as close to him as we can. We discovered something about the plague-we think we know who started it, and we're hoping Salazar can help us. It's his city. He has to be concerned that his food source is dying out."
Zeke's expression hardened, and I wanted to kick myself for bringing up that last little fact. Damn, I think Jackal is rubbing off on me. "If we can get to the Prince, then he can help us find the one responsible, who might know how to stop it." And hopefully rescue Kanin, too.
Zeke was quiet a moment longer, struggling with himself, before he sighed. "I don't know the way into the Inner City," he repeated. "I can't help you there. But there is a group that knows these tunnels better than anyone."
Who? I wanted to ask, but behind me, Jackal made a noise of disgust.
"Oh, piss. You're talking about the filthy cannibals, aren't you?"
"The mole men have a lair not far from here," Zeke continued, ignoring Jackal. "I can take you there, but you'll have to convince them to lead you past the Inner Wall. They won't listen to me. A couple vampires, though..." He shrugged. "But, if you do convince them to lead you to the Inner City, I'm coming with you."
That threw me. Zeke hated vampires, and the Inner City was crawling with them. "Why?"
He gestured back at the group. "Because nothing is happening to make this better. The food trucks have stopped coming, there are no resources down here, and no one can go topside without running into bleeders. If this continues, people will starve. I want to see what the vampires are doing to stop this, if they are doing something to stop this, or if they're just planning to let everyone die out here."
Zeke. I shook my head sadly. You haven't changed. Still looking out for everyone, regardless of who they are. Even if they're a group of Unregistereds who would sell you out as soon as your back is turned.
Behind me, Jackal chuckled. "You sure you want to do this, bloodbag?" he asked, smirking. "Go up past the wall, where all the scary vampires live? Maybe you want to pour some honey or barbeque sauce over yourself before we leave, too."
I turned on Jackal before Zeke had a chance to retaliate. "Will you, for once, stop being such an ass?" I snarled at him. "Stop antagonizing our only guide. Do you want to get to Salazar or not?"
"It's all right," Zeke said in a surprisingly calm voice. "He doesn't scare me. None of them do. Not anymore." He gave us both a hard look, then backed away. "Wait here. I have to tell everyone what's going on, make sure they know not to venture topside unless it's an emergency." His eyes lingered on Jackal, narrowing. "Can I trust you not to eat anyone while I'm gone?"
"Hey." Jackal raised both hands in a placating gesture. "Don't worry about me, meatsack. I'm being a good vampire tonight. I get the feeling the other murdering bloodsucker in the room wouldn't be too happy if I went and tore your pretty head off."
Zeke's dark expression didn't change. Without another word, he spun on a heel and left, calling to the rest of the group, gathering them along the far wall. I watched him go, my stomach in knots, wishing I could talk to him alone. I had so many questions. Why was he here? Why did he leave Eden? Where was the rest of our original group; were they still alive, were they safe? How did he even get here?
And why did he have to show up now, when I had brought Jackal with me, the vampire who'd killed his family?
My blood brother stepped up beside me, also watching Zeke talk to the group of humans, his low, calm voice rising above the confusion and fear. "Well, this has gotten a lot more interesting," he mused, crossing his arms. "So that's the stubborn old man's little whelp. Ezekiel. Tell me, sister, how much does he know about the cure?"
I eyed Jackal warily. "What makes you think he knows anything?"
"Oh, please. Don't play dumb, not with me." Jackal continued to watch Zeke, his gaze hungry now, intense. I didn't like it. "After you and that little bloodbag set my city on fire-destroying everything I worked so hard for, I might add-you led him and his little friends to Eden. You said as much yourself. And I'm betting the old man left him all his research, everything he knew about the cure and the experiments they ran on the vampires sixty years ago. So don't tell me the kid is innocent to all of this. He knows just as much as the old man."
"There is no cure, Jackal," I said, remembering what Zeke told me once, when I'd discovered the real reason they were looking for Eden. "He might be aware of the research, but there's nothing he can do about it, even if he wanted to."
"But he has come from Eden," Jackal went on in that same appraising, eerie voice, making me very nervous. "Look at him, sister. Armor, stakes, crossbow..." He snorted, shaking his head. "The kid left Eden with a purpose, and he knew he would run into vampires. He's not here by chance, that's for certain. What is he looking for, I wonder?"
I didn't know, but that wasn't important. What was important, and far more worrisome, was Jackal's sudden interest in Zeke and the cure. "Leave him alone," I warned, my voice low and threatening. "You already killed his family. He'll be looking for any chance to return the favor."
Wait, why was I warning Jackal about Zeke? Why was I even defending him at all? Before all this, I'd wanted the vampire to pay for what he'd done, and yet here I was, traveling with him. Stepping in front of a crossbow for him. Worse, the person on the other end of the crossbow had been Zeke, who had every reason in the world to want Jackal dead and who probably thought I'd turned on him now. But I couldn't let either of them die. For different reasons, I needed them both. Even if I had to keep them from killing each other.
Dammit, when had this all become so complicated?
Jackal only chuckled. "I know vengeance, sister," he said in an equally low voice, giving me an evil smile. "I know the boy will try to kill me someday. It's not like this is the first human I've pissed off." His smirk grew wider as I glared at him. "Don't worry, I'm not about to eat your little human pet, unless he tries to kill me, of course. This is more of a warning for you, my dear sister-if you want that kid to live, you'd better make sure he doesn't come after me. The second he does, I'll tear him in half."
"All right." Zeke walked back, unaware of the tension between me and Jackal. "I'm ready."
"Zeke, wait!" Roach crept out of the shadows, eyeing me and Jackal fearfully, but turning a desperate gaze on Zeke. "You can't go," the Unregistered kid pleaded. "You're the only reason the mole men are staying away. What if something happens? You said you'd take care of everyone."
"I know." Zeke raked a hand through his hair, clearly frustrated. "I'm sorry. I have to do this, but I'll come back as soon as I can." Roach's eyes hardened, flashing betrayal, and Zeke sighed. "Here," he said and pulled something from his belt, a small rectangular device with a short antenna poking up from the side. "Take this." He handed it to Roach. "It's a walkie-talkie. If there's any trouble, hold this button down and talk into the speaker. I'll be able to hear you if I'm not too far away." Roach took the device gingerly, brow furrowing as he turned it over in his hands. Zeke put a hand on his shoulder. "Only use it if there's an emergency, all right? The battery life is limited."
Without another word, Roach scurried off with his prize, vanishing into the shadows. Zeke shook his head and turned back to us, his eyes gone hard and cold again. "Let's go," he said briskly. "The mole man lair isn't far, but I'm assuming you'll want to reach it before sunrise."