"Kid's got a point," Jackal said begrudgingly. "You go waving something like that around the Inner City, you'll get your head torn off before you know what's happening. Still, I'm not too keen on a bunch of vampire-hating cannibals having it, either."
One human edged forward, eyeing us warily. Like the others, he was frightfully thin, his hands and face spotted with open sores, but he seemed even more wasted than the rest. One side of his face was nothing but a furrow of scars, part of his lip had been torn off, and his eye was a milky-white orb, unseeing and useless.
"I'll take you," he rasped, his fevered gaze on Zeke's crossbow. "For that weapon, I'll take you there."
"Amos," the old woman hissed, turning her filmy gaze on him. "Don't be a fool. They're vampires. They'll kill you and leave your body for the rats."
The mole man shrugged his bony shoulders and stepped forward, away from the crowd. "Why should I care about that?" he asked in a dull, flat voice. "I have nothing left. And I'm tired of living in fear." He stepped up to Zeke, bringing his scarred face very close to the other human. Zeke stood his ground. "Give me that weapon," the mole man said, "and you have a deal. I'll take you to the Inner City right now."
Zeke nodded. "All right," he said, swinging the crossbow to his back again. "But you get us there, first. I'll give you the weapon once we're past the walls, not before."
The mole man bared rotten teeth in a grim smile. "Follow me."
We left the lair of the mole men through a tunnel on the far wall, feeling the cold, suspicious, angry glares of the mob on either side of us. I could smell their fear, see the tension lining their wasted bodies, the tight grip on their weapons, and hoped we could get out of there before things exploded into violence. They didn't move, however, just watched us as we trailed our guide through the chamber, into the tunnel, and melted into the darkness.
The mole man, Amos, moved quickly through the passages, never looking back, never checking to see if we were still there. He carried no light and maneuvered the pitch blackness and shadow with no trouble at all, sliding into tunnels and crawling through pipes as easily as walking. This was his world, this maze of concrete and rust and mold and damp, like the streets and broken buildings up top had been mine. I had the strange realization that the mole men and Unregistereds were very similar. Despite their aversion to light and their disturbing tendency to eat human flesh, they were just scavengers, fighting for food, avoiding the vampires, struggling to survive.
We walked for a few hours, following our silent guide through endless tunnels and dark passageways. Rats fled from us, and once a huge snake slithered into the water out of sight, but we met no one else as we ventured farther into the belly of the city.
Dawn was less than an hour away, and I was beginning to get a little nervous, when Amos finally stopped. A rusty ladder led up to a dark hole in the ceiling, covered by a metal grate. Weeds, grass and bramble smothered the top and poked in through the spaces, dripping water on our heads.
"The Inner City is through here," Amos rasped, peering at the exit with a half fearful, half disgusted look on his face. "The grate is loose, but no one has used it for years, and the vampires don't know about it. We don't go topside, especially not up there. Now..." He turned on Zeke, his eyes narrowed hungrily. "You promised me that weapon if I led you to the Inner City. Hand it over, and let me go."
Zeke immediately swung the crossbow off his back. "Thank you," he told the mole man, holding it out. "Tell your people we won't let the vampires know that you're down here."
Amos snatched the weapon from his hands and backed away, glaring at us. "It's a little late now, topsider," he growled, looking at me and Jackal. "The vampires already know."
Before we could reply, he turned and fled into the tunnels clutching his prize, and the darkness swallowed him instantly.
Jackal made a face at the retreating mole man then glanced thoughtfully up at the grate. "Well," he mused, squinting through the metal slats as if he could see the city through the weeds and vegetation, "here we are. I don't think we'll be knocking on the Prince's door tonight, though."
"Yeah," I muttered. Dawn was close. It would be risky and dangerous to continue through unknown territory with the light threatening the horizon. "The sun's almost up. Looks like we're sleeping down here one more day." I gazed down the tunnel Amos had vanished into and frowned. "And there's a mole man running around with a crossbow now. Let's hope nothing comes creeping back while we're all asleep."
Jackal's voice was a soft growl. "It's not the mole men I'm worried about."
I blinked at him, confused for a moment. Until Zeke did something I'd never seen him do before.
He smiled. A cold, dangerous smile, his eyes glittering with dark promise. It sent a chill through me as I realized I didn't know him anymore. Before, I would've trusted Zeke with my life, and had, on more than one occasion, slept through the day with him nearby, guarding me. I'd been wary, especially at first, but I'd come to realize that Zeke wasn't the type to stab someone in cold blood, even if it was a vampire.
Now, I wasn't sure. This vengeful, hard-eyed Zeke worried me; I didn't know if he still considered me a friend, or if I was just another vampire who had turned on him. I was even less sure about Jackal.
"Does it worry you?" Zeke's voice was soft, menacing. "That the human you've been pushing all night will be guarding your dead body while the sun's up? Maybe you should've thought of that before you started talking about my father."
Jackal stared at Zeke, appraising. Zeke put a hand on one of his stakes and stared back. I tensed, ready to jump in if either of them went for the other.
After a moment, Jackal bared his fangs in a savage grin. "Well, color me shocked-the human actually has a pair. He might survive the Inner City, after all." Stepping back, he nodded at me. "Getting a little crowded in here for my taste. You two have fun, I'll be back when the sun goes down. Oh, and human..." His amber gaze flicked to Zeke. "Contrary to what you might think, I actually can wake up in the middle of the day. So if you have the notion to track me down and take my head for a trophy, I suggest you be ready for the fight of your life, because I won't hold back until one of us is smeared over the walls. Just a friendly warning."
He gave a too-bright smile that was anything but friendly, turned and sauntered off. His tall, lean form melted into the darkness of a nearby tunnel, and he was gone.
Silence fell, stretched awkwardly between me and Zeke, who watched me under the faint light coming through the metal grate. We were finally alone, and dawn was close but not imminent. I could finally ask him all the questions burning inside my head, but I found that I didn't know where to start. He wasn't the same person as before.
And neither was I.
Finally, Zeke sighed and leaned against the wall, pulling his gun as he did. His fingers deftly released the cartridge, checked the rounds inside and snapped it back again. "You should go," he said without looking at me. "Find a place to hole up for the day. I'll stay here, keep the tunnels clear of mole men or anything else that might come creeping back."
"Haven't you been up all night? Don't you need to sleep, too?"
"Don't worry about me." He slid the chamber back, making sure it was loaded, then released the slide with a click. "I've been taught to survive on zero hours' sleep if I have to. I'll be fine."
"Allison." He finally looked up at me. "I know you have a lot of questions," he said, sounding uncomfortable, "but I can't answer them, not now, anyway. Just know that the others are safe. They're still in Eden, and they have a good life now. I made sure everyone was taken care of before I left." A shadow of a smile finally crossed his face, and he shook his head. "Caleb ordered me to tell you 'hi,' and that he and Bethany named a goat after you."
I laughed, feeling a strange tightness in my throat. "I'm glad they're okay," I told him, and he nodded, a wistful look passing through his eyes. For just a moment, he looked like the boy I'd left in Eden, hopeful and determined, only wanting a home and a safe place for his family.
"All right," I muttered, drawing away. "If you've got this, then I'm going to find a place to sleep. If Jackal comes back before I do, try to ignore him, okay? I don't want to come back to a massacre."
"Wait." Zeke pushed himself off the wall, as if he couldn't hold back anymore. I turned back to find him watching me with hooded eyes, the gun held loosely in one hand. "Why, Allison?" he asked in a hard voice. "You never told me why Jackal is here. You know what he is, what he's done. Why are you here with him?"
My insides cringed. I'd known the question was coming, and I still didn't have a good answer for him. Not one that he could accept. Why should I tell you? I thought rebelliously. You don't trust me with your secrets anymore; you can't even tell me the reason you're here. I don't have to explain anything to you, Zeke Crosse.
But...if I told him that, it would only make him more suspicious. He would think I was hiding something. And I wasn't going to play that game. I knew what I was; I had nothing to hide, not anymore.
"I ran into Jackal while I was looking for someone else," I told him. "I thought I was following a lead, but I was wrong. I found Jackal instead-he was waiting for me."
"And he didn't try to kill you?"
"No." I shook my head, watched his brow arch in disbelief. "Jackal had been following the same lead when I met him. We came to New Covington together because we're looking for the same person. His name is Kanin, and he's being kept in the Inner City now. I want to get him out, and I need Jackal's help to do it."
Zeke pondered this, no expression on his face. "That's who you were talking about before," he mused. "You said you had to find someone, that you owed him." I nodded, though it wasn't really a question. "Who is he?" Zeke asked in a low, serious voice.
I paused. How could I explain Kanin's importance to someone who hated vampires and-with the possible exception of one-thought they were all evil, soulless demons? Revealing who Kanin was, our relationship within vampire society, probably wasn't going to go over well with Zeke. I was once again choosing to help a vampire, and maybe I was turning my back on my once-fellow humans, but I would not abandon Kanin. Not for Zeke, not for Sarren, not for anyone. I owed the vampire far too much.
"He's my sire," I finally admitted, and Zeke's brow furrowed, not recognizing the vampiric term. "The one who Turned me," I elaborated. "The one who made me a vampire."
Zeke's face went blank with shock. "That's who we're looking for?" he whispered. "A vampire? The monster that killed you?"
"He gave me a choice," I reminded him firmly. "I chose to become a vampire, it wasn't forced on me. Kanin isn't like that." I'd told Zeke this before, that Kanin had saved me from a rabid attack and given me the choice to become a vampire, but he still stared at me, disbelieving and horrified. Maybe because, to Zeke, all vampires were monsters. At least, that's what he believed before I came into his life and, even now, I wasn't sure what he thought of me. I shook my head in frustration. "He taught me everything I know," I continued earnestly, wanting him to understand, to see that Kanin wasn't just another monster to be hated and feared. "He took me in, and showed me exactly what I needed to learn about being a vampire. He didn't have to, but he chose to stay, to teach me. I'd be dead now if it wasn't for him."