"Oh, give the human a prize," Jackal said as Zeke swept by us, walking toward the exit where we'd come in with Roach. The vampire looked back at me and grinned. "Next thing you know, he'll be informing us that vampires might drink blood."
I stifled a groan, already dreading this trip, knowing I'd probably have to step between these two again to keep them from killing each other.
"How long have you been here, Zeke?"
He glanced at me warily. We'd been walking several minutes in tense, weighty silence, the only sounds the shuffle of our footsteps on the concrete and the occasional scuttle of a rat in the darkness. Around us, the Undercity-the labyrinth of tunnels, corridors and mazelike passageways-spread out in a tangled mess, hiding any number of secrets. Zeke held a flashlight, its thin white beam cutting through the shadows, illuminating the decay around us. He'd kept several paces ahead of me and Jackal, not looking back, and his cold silence had begun to eat at me.
So after several minutes of struggling with myself, wondering if I should try to reach out to him, I'd finally quickened my pace and caught up. He was going to have to talk to me sometime, and I had too many questions that I wanted answered.
I thought he was going to ignore me, and if that was the case, I would just keep pushing until he said something. But after that first suspicious glare, he sighed and looked down the tunnel again.
"About a month." His low voice echoed faintly as we stepped into a huge cement pipe, ducking slightly as we walked through. "Give or take a few days. I got here a couple weeks before the plague hit and the vampires sealed everything off. It was pretty crazy."
"How did you end up down here?"
"I got in through the tunnels, probably like you and Jackal did." He gave me a split-second glance. "Came up in Sector Four of the Fringe and met Kyle's gang, and they were pretty suspicious of me at first-I just sort of showed up out of nowhere one night, armed and definitely not from around here. They thought I was a pet or a guard or something. No one believed I came from outside the Wall.
"But then," Zeke went on, "people started getting sick, going crazy, and attacking each other. Just a few at first, isolated incidents here and there. But in a few days, it was an epidemic, spreading through all the sectors. I was there when Kyle went nuts and tried to kill Roach." His expression turned grim. "I ended up shooting him. There was nothing else I could do."
I winced in sympathy. Zeke hated killing, taking human life, even when it was necessary.
"After that," Zeke went on, "everyone started rallying around me, wanting me to take over, to tell them what to do. Maybe because Kyle was dead, and they were all freaking out. Or maybe it was just because I was armed. I couldn't say no-they needed help." He sighed. "I remembered this place from when I came through the tunnels, and it seemed safer than anywhere up top. That was before I knew it was right on the edge of mole man territory." His brow furrowed, and he shook his head. "But anyway, we came down here, and more people followed. It's sort of become a refugee camp now, for anyone trying to escape the craziness up top. But things are getting pretty bad. There's no food, and the mole men are getting bolder. Something has to be done, or everyone here is going to die."
And you can't let that happen, I thought. Even if these aren't your people, even if they would turn on you the second something better comes along, you've never been able to walk away from those in need. You really haven't changed at all.
But that still didn't answer the most important question. "Zeke," I began, and he tensed as if he knew what was coming. "Why are you here? Why aren't you back in Eden with everyone else? Why did you come to New Covington?"
He gave a short, bitter laugh. "It's obvious, isn't it?" he snapped, sounding angry again. I blinked, hearing the veiled hurt in his voice, not knowing where it was coming from. He stopped and turned, blue eyes glittering, facing me down. "Because of you, Allie," he said, almost an accusation. "I came here looking for you."
Zeke spun and started walking again. Jackal snickered behind me. "Ahhh, young love," he mocked, making me want to turn and kick him. "Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside."
"Shut up, Jackal," I muttered, trailing after Zeke. I felt even worse now. Zeke was here...for me? Why? Not because...of what Jackal said, surely. That was crazy. He wouldn't trail me all the way across the country for that.
And anyway, it didn't matter. I'd said my goodbyes to Zeke when I was turned away from Eden. I hadn't thought I'd ever see him again, and I had almost come to terms with that. He'd worked so hard to get his people to Eden safely- why leave that all behind to go searching for a vampire who could be anywhere? Zeke had to know that anything between a vampire and a human wouldn't work. Even now, following him through the tunnels, watching his shoulders and the back of his neck, I couldn't help but want to bite him. To sink my fangs into his throat and draw his essence into myself. Worse, I knew what he tasted of-he'd given his blood to save my life once, and it was hot and powerful and intoxicating. I wanted more.
With a start, I realized my fangs had slid out, poking my bottom lip, and I retracted them with a shiver.
"You know..." Jackal mused as we walked down a narrow metal bridge over a crumbling levy. Water must've run through it at one point, but now it was mostly dry, covered in rubble, broken bottles and other hazardous things. "This reminds me of a certain puppy I saw one day. Cutest little thing-one of my raider's pets, I believe. This puppy was friendly with everyone, it didn't know a stranger. Until one day, it tried approaching a dog-a bitch-that was guarding another raider's bike, wagging its little tail, wanting to play. And that other dog ripped it to pieces."
"Thank you for that disturbing and completely pointless story," I said, ignoring the obvious reference. "Maybe you should stick to death threats and intimidation. Or better yet, don't talk at all."
We reached the end of the tunnel, where Zeke waited for us, clicking off his flashlight. If he'd heard Jackal's story, he didn't comment on it. "We have to be careful through here," he murmured, nodding into the shadows. "Up ahead is a big chamber where the mole men sleep. There's no way around, we have to go straight through."
"Oh, good." Jackal smiled. "I was getting awfully bored. Nothing like a good massacre to get the blood pumping."
"We're not here to fight them," Zeke reminded him, narrowing his eyes. "We need them to show us the way through the Inner City tunnels. Unless you would rather wander aimlessly around until the sun comes up?"
Jackal snorted. "Oh, right, because the murderous, flesheating cannibals are just going to give us what we want because we ask them nicely."
"They usually don't attack larger groups," Zeke insisted. "And they're terrified of vampires. This doesn't have to be a bloodbath."
"I know, little meatsack." Jackal bared his fangs in a savage grin. "I just hope it is."
We continued down the tunnel, a bit slower this time, as Zeke had turned the flashlight off and everything was pitchblack now. For Jackal and I, that wasn't a problem-our vampire senses allowed us to see in absolute darkness, but Zeke's human vision wasn't nearly as good. But we didn't want to alert the mole men to our presence and have them scurry off into the maze of tunnels before we could talk to them.
As we came out of the passage, the ceiling rose up into a large domed room, surrounded by tunnels on every side. The chamber was strewn with rubble and trash, piled unceremoniously into corners. Filthy, stained mattresses and piles of rags were scattered around a fire pit, the ashes cold and gray. There was no one else in the room.
"That's weird," Zeke muttered, sweeping his flashlight around the chamber again. The beam flickered over mounds of junk and glinted off stripped white bones, scattered throughout the rubble. Some were definitely animal bones, rats and dogs mostly, but a few were...questionable. "They were here a few days ago. I wonder what made them clear out?"
"Maybe they heard rumors of vampires in the sewers," Jackal suggested, and shrugged. "Pity. I was looking forward to a nice bloodbath. So..." He picked a yellow cat skull out of an alcove, turned it toward me, and moved the jaws up and down as he asked, "What do we do now?"
Ignoring him, I turned slowly, taking a deep, careful breath. I smelled the grime and filth of this place, the stench of human waste in the tunnels nearby, and caught a hint of rotten meat from the mole men's last feeding. But through all that, I discovered a trace of something else, something instantly familiar.
I followed the smell around a large, rusty pipe until I found the source. Crouching down, I studied one of the mattresses, where a dark stain blotted one corner, soaking the fabric. The scent of fresh blood was suddenly very strong in my nose and mouth, and the Hunger responded eagerly. I pushed it down, gazing at a line of drops spattering the floor, leading away from the mattress until they vanished into a pipe on the far wall.
Jackal peered over my shoulder. "Well now. Looks like someone left behind a trail. How very careless, not taking care of that properly, especially with vampires in the tunnels." He took a deep breath and chuckled. "It's fairly recent, too. We should probably try to catch up, before he bleeds out and dies. That would just be a waste, wouldn't it?"
I rose, moving away from Jackal, toward the pipe. "Where do you think they went, Zeke?"
"I don't know." Zeke stepped over a pile of rocks and scattered bones to join us. "From what I understand, and this is mostly hearsay, they're fairly nomadic, moving around the Undercity at will. But individual families do have permanent nests like this one, and they stay away from other clans. They don't trespass into other territories. I don't have any idea where they could've gone."
"Well..." I stepped to the entrance of the pipe. I could still catch the faint hint of blood, even through the mold and rust and other smells. "I guess we're going to find out."
I noticed Zeke's cold stare, directed at Jackal as he sauntered past, and I motioned the other vampire forward. "After you," I told Jackal. "Unless, of course, you're afraid the mole men are waiting for you."
Jackal gave me an evil, knowing smile, chuckling as he stepped into the pipe. He knew what I was doing: keeping a body between him and Zeke, separating them. I knew Zeke wouldn't stab his enemy in the back or shoot him from behind-he wasn't like that-but Jackal was sadistic enough to say something unforgivable just to set Zeke off. And then he would have "no choice" but to defend himself when Zeke attacked him.
I hoped they both would keep it together, at least until we found Kanin. I couldn't watch the two of them every second of every day.
The pipe was narrow and claustrophobic, and all three of us had to duck so our heads wouldn't scrape against the top as we went through. Jackal was in front, moving as lightly and as smoothly as a cat, the edge of his duster trailing behind him. I could feel Zeke at my back, hear his steady breathing. And, even though I knew he wouldn't, I kept imagining how easy it would be for him to take one of those stakes at his belt and drive it through my back, maybe clear into my heart. Then, with me out of the way, he would have a clear shot at the vampire who'd killed his father....