I shook myself. No, Zeke wouldn't do that. I knew him. He hated vampires with a passion, and he was a fierce, determined fighter when he had to be, but he was also one of the few truly good people left in the world. He wouldn't stab me in the back in cold blood.
Or...would he? I realized I was being naive. Just because Zeke had known me before, that was no reason to drop my guard around him. It had been months; he could have decided I was a murderous, soulless monster after all and what we'd shared, what we'd done, was evil and wrong. If he hadn't reached that conclusion before, my showing up with Jackal- the embodiment of everything humans feared in a vampire- certainly hadn't helped.
And Zeke didn't even know about our...family tie yet. What would he say once he discovered Jackal was my brother? He might stake me on principle.
Enough, Allison. I pushed those thoughts from my head. What's done is done. Either Zeke will accept it, or he won't, but you can't worry about him anymore. Finding Kanin is the important thing now.
The tunnels went on, and so did the blood trail. Just when I'd think we'd lost it, Jackal would nod to a dark smear on the wall, or a single drop of blood on the stones. Whoever this was, he was obviously badly hurt, and I hoped we wouldn't stumble across a corpse in the center of this endless maze.
Jackal was never quiet, continuously spouting some cruel remark or observation as we followed him through the labyrinth of corridors and pipes. He spoke in whispers, and many of his comments were intended to needle the human in our party. Much to his credit, Zeke ignored the vampire, remaining calm and businesslike even when Jackal asked him an obvious, goading question. I finally kicked Jackal in the calf and growled at him to stop.
"Hey, I'm just making conversation." Jackal's grin made me want to slug him in his pointed teeth. "I'm curious what the little meatsack has been up to since he burned down my city and disappeared with my cure. Is it in Eden, bloodbag?" His voice was no longer mocking or curious; it now bordered on menacing. "Is a new team of scientists studying that research? The failed vampire experiments? How close are they to discovering a cure?"
"Why would I tell you any of that?" Zeke asked softly.
Jackal bared his fangs, but a noise up ahead caught my attention. For a second, I thought I heard the shuffle of feet over the stones, and the low murmur of voices. "Quiet," I whispered. "Someone is out there."
They fell silent, and we eased through the tunnels, being careful not to make a noise. The footsteps scuttled away, and the snatches of conversation vanished with them, but I knew we were getting close to something.
"This way," Zeke whispered, and turned down another pipe that cut through a brick wall, into the darkness. Low voices echoed down the tube, a lot of voices, growing stronger the farther we went. I took a breath and smelled blood and smoke and the scent of many, many humans, all mingled together.
The pipe abruptly ended, coming out of the wall nearly fifteen feet off the ground. A thin line of water flowed past our feet and trickled into the large open room beyond. The air here was damp and smelled of metal, smoke and stagnant water. Rusty pipes snaked over the walls and ceiling, and several steel drums smoldered with a thick, greasy smoke in the corners of the room.
The pale, hunched figures of several dozen mole men milled about the chamber, their low, raspy voices drifting into the pipe. Some huddled around smaller fires throughout the room, gnawing on unidentifiable chunks of meat. Some lay curled up in rags, tattered blankets or each other, sleeping or trying to stay warm. One woman, her hair falling out in patches, pulled a skewer of rats out of the fire and handed one to a skinny, wild-eyed boy, who took the charred rodent and darted off to an isolated corner. Crunching noises drifted up soon after.
Beside me, Zeke blew out a slow, quiet breath. "So many of them," he whispered as we drew back into the shadows of the pipe. "I've never seen so many in one place. Why are they gathering now...." He trailed off, his voice turning grim. "The base. They've been threatening to drive us off, back to the streets. If they all decide to attack the base, we won't be able to stop them, not with those numbers. They'll kill everyone there."
"Take it easy," I soothed, putting a hand on his knee. He glanced at it in surprise, and I pretended not to notice. "We'll talk to them. There has to be a way to make them listen without bloodshed."
Behind us, Jackal gave a disgusted snort. "Hope springs eternal," he muttered, but didn't say anything else as we backed out of the pipe and searched for the entrance to the lair.
We found it a few hundred feet from the pipe, a crumbled section of wall with firelight spilling out of the cracks, flickering over the stones and rubble. No one guarded the entrance; I guessed the mole men didn't have many intruders in their twisty, mazelike world, especially not vampires.
I glared at Jackal as the entrance loomed closer. "We're not here to kill anyone," I reminded him, and he rolled his eyes. "Try to remember that, okay? I don't want to have to fight the entire mole man population of New Covington, and if we kill them all, we won't have anyone to show us the way to the Inner City."
"You don't give me much credit, do you?" Jackal replied, shaking his head. "I ruled an entire raider city before you two ever came along. I know how to deal with large groups of killers. So don't worry, I won't threaten the bloodthirsty cannibals." He smirked. "But if you think we're going to get out of here without some kind of bloodshed, you're more naive than I thought."
I didn't answer, because we had crossed the rubble pile that led up to the crumbling wall and entered the lair of the mole men.
We caught their attention immediately. As soon as we ducked through the entrance and stepped into the room, three mole men glanced up from one of the fire pits. For a second, they stared at us, blinking in shock. Jackal grinned back at them and nodded.
"Evening," he said cordially, and the mole men leaped upright with shrieks and hisses of outrage, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. Weapons flashed, and howls rose into the air, as the entire sea of mole men surged toward us with murderous intent.
"Now, now!" Jackal bellowed, his clear, confident voice ringing through the chamber. "Let's not be hasty! We're not here for a massacre! And you people don't want a fight with us, trust me!"
Whether it was the certainty in his voice, or the sudden flash of fangs, the entire group of mole men skidded to a halt a few yards away, glaring at us with wide, hate-filled eyes. I shot an amazed glance at my blood brother, who faced the hostile mob with a smile on his face, completely in his element.
"That's better," Jackal said, still with that easy grin. "Let's all calm down a little. You know what we are, and we'd rather not have to paint the walls in blood to get what we want. We can all be civilized here, right?"
Whispers were beginning to spread through the mob, growing louder and more restless. I tensed again, but suddenly the crowd parted and an old woman with stringy white hair stepped forward. Most of her teeth had rotted out of her skull, and her eyes were filmy blue, but she curled her lips back and pointed with a bony claw. Not at me or Jackal, but at Zeke.
"You!" she hissed as Zeke blinked at her. "Topsider! I know you! You're the outsider that brought the rest of them down here, filling our tunnels with light, attracting what doesn't belong. You are the cause of this. You scare the rats away with your endless noise, and now, you bring them down from the streets, just as we feared! Curse you!" She spat at Zeke. "Curse you, and your whole thieving race! You're like the plague, crowding places you don't belong, bringing death with you! The Undercity will never be safe now!"
"It isn't safe up top, either," Zeke answered in a steady voice. "We couldn't stay aboveground, not with the sickness spreading so fast. I'm sorry we invaded your territory, but it was the only place we could go." She spat at him again, unappeased, and he raised his hands. "We'll be out of here as soon as we can, I promise."
"Which brings us to our next order of business," Jackal broke in, sounding slightly annoyed that the attention had shifted away from him. He took a step forward, and the woman flinched back, making him smile. "We have to get into the Inner City. And since all the gates up top are sealed off, the only way through is to go beneath. That's where you come in."
The old woman glared at Jackal fearfully. "Vampire, you want us to show you the tunnels to the Inner City so you can return and tell your people of the humans living right below their feet?" She shook her withered head. "Never! Kill me if you want to, we would all rather die than bring the monsters down here."
"We aren't going to tell anyone about you," I said, before Jackal could say something like, That can be arranged. "We're not from the Inner City-we're not even from New Covington." Well, Allie the Vampire can't call the city home, anyway. "The vampires up top aren't our friends. Why do you think we're down here with a human?" I didn't look at Zeke when I said this, but I felt his eyes on me. "I know you have no reason to trust us, but we have to get to the Inner City, and we're not leaving the tunnels until we do."
More muttering and whispers. I could sense that a few of the mole men were considering our words, though most of them still looked terrified. This was their worst nightmare, vampires making their way below ground, into their territory. Fear of the monsters had driven them underground in the first place, and now we had invaded their safe haven. I could suddenly understand their reluctance.
"Your words mean nothing to us, vampire," the old woman said at last. "We have only the promise of your silence, and that is not enough. We cannot take the chance that you will stay topside. If more monsters follow you into the tunnels, we have nothing with which to defend ourselves."
"Then let me offer something." Zeke stepped forward and all eyes snapped to him. He faced them calmly, hands at his sides, raising his voice to speak to them all. "Do you know the easiest way to kill a vampire?" he asked the crowd.
The mole men shuffled and hissed, muttering among themselves. They were reluctant to speak, but at the same time, they were intrigued. Killing vampires appealed to them, it seemed. Finally, a voice in the crowd spoke up, and more followed.
"Cut off its head."
"Drive a wooden spike through its heart."
I shifted uncomfortably. No need to sound so eager. Zeke nodded. "But you'd have to get awfully close to do that, wouldn't you?" he asked in that same cool voice. "And no one wants to be that close to a vampire and risk having it see you, right? Better to take it out from a distance."
"What is your point, topsider?" the old woman hissed.
Zeke narrowed his eyes. In one smooth motion, he swung the crossbow from his shoulders, drew back the string, and fired a dart at the far wall. The spike hit a rusty steel drum with a ringing clang, embedded halfway through the metal, and the mole men gasped then burst into a storm of muttering.
"I'll give this to anyone who can guide us through the tunnels to the Inner City," Zeke said when the noise died down. When I glanced at him in surprise, he shrugged. "I can't take it with me, anyway," he whispered. "Not up there. The vamps would take one look at this and freak out."