He grinned as Zeke retrieved his shirt and vest from the ground, shrugging into them quickly. "So, now that we're done making out in entrails-strewn sewer tunnels, are we ready to go see the Prince?"
I went up the ladder, shoving the grate aside and easing out of the sewers. As I straightened, a breeze whistled through the long grass, tossing my hair and sliding over my skin, unpleasantly cold, had I been alive to feel it. Flurries drifted on the air, swirling around us, and the ground was dusted in white.
I gazed around warily. Squat, ancient buildings surrounded us on three sides, crumbling to large rubble piles in the weeds. The area where we stood had been a parking lot once, but vegetation had completely taken over and now only a few spots of pavement showed through the grass and the light dusting of snow on the ground.
I turned and saw the gleaming lights of the vampire towers, looming impressively over the tops of other buildings, closer than I'd ever seen before. I half closed my eyes, and the pull was there, drawing me right toward them.
Kanin, I'm coming. Hang on.
"I scouted the area a bit," Zeke announced, coming up behind me. His gun and machete were in place, but he had ditched the stakes in the tunnels before going topside. Probably a smart move-the vamps, pets and guards would not look kindly on such an obvious vampire killer. "After you two went to sleep, before the mole men attacked. There's a patrol that comes by every thirty minutes or so, but not much traffic otherwise. It's different near the center, though. Lots of people, and I think there are several vampires, too. They've set up a security fence around those three buildings-" he pointed to the vampire towers "-where it looks like they're checking everyone who goes through the gates. I couldn't get too close-they have sentries with dogs surrounding the perimeter and I couldn't risk them scenting me."
"So," I mused to no one in particular, gazing at the vampire towers again. Here we were, past the wall and at the edge of the Prince's territory. "How are we going to get through?"
"We could check the perimeter," Zeke suggested. "See if there are any holes or lulls in the patrols. Maybe we can sneak past them."
Jackal snorted, kicking the grate into place again. "You won't be sneaking past anything," he mocked, turning to us. "Even if you get past the checkpoint, the guards and the pets, you're going into the lair of the Prince of the city. You think they just have weakling humans in any of those towers?" He shook his head. "Salazar's coven will be all over the place, the vampire Elite, his handpicked personal guard."
"Then how are we going to find Kanin?" I snapped, feeling his time was slipping further away. "We have to get in there somehow. What do you suggest, walk up and knock on the front door?"
"Actually," Jackal said, "that's exactly what we're going to do."
Zeke and I stared at him, equal parts speechless and horrified. "You're kidding," Zeke said at last. "There's no way they'll let us in. I'm not Registered here, and you both snuck in from outside the Wall. They'll know we're intruders."
"Not to mention, Salazar hates Kanin's entire line," I added. "He tried to kill me and Kanin both the last time I was here, in case you've forgotten. Guards, trucks, people shooting at us every fifty feet?"
Jackal chuckled. "Oh ye of little faith." He sighed, and started across the lot, motioning us to follow. "Thinking just like the humans. It's kind of sad. You forget, I've been at this vampire thing a long time. Just leave this to me, and try to keep your mouths shut."
Apprehensively, we trailed Jackal out of the lot and onto the cracked, broken sidewalks, moving steadily toward the center of the city. Streetlamps flickered, lighting the way, though more than a few were smashed and broken or sputtered erratically. The streets here were cleaner than those of the Fringe-fewer rubble piles, less vegetation growing everywhere, no dead cars clogging the roads. The buildings to either side of us were barren, decayed and empty, but the closer we got to the very center, the more lights we saw. I looked behind us once and, through a gap in the buildings, I caught a glimpse of the Inner Wall, dark and deserted. Beyond that wall was the Fringe. I wondered what madness was happening on the streets of my old home.
Jackal never stopped or slowed down. He walked the center of the road like he owned it, his duster billowing behind him, and didn't hesitate when a patrol of a half-dozen armed guards rounded a corner and came toward us.
I tensed, and Zeke's hand twitched for his gun, but the patrol, when they saw us, veered away and averted their eyes. Stunned, I watched them cross the road to avoid us, and realized how we must look; two vamps and an armed human, walking the streets of the Inner City like we were meant to be here. And I understood Jackal's mind-set, now. Of course the guards wouldn't question us-we were vampires. Skulking or sneaking around the Inner City was highly suspicious and would've drawn immediate attention, but when a fanged bloodsucker walked down the street in plain sight, every human-pet, guard or normal worker-gave them a wide berth.
I expected Jackal to let the humans pass while we continued our trek to the gate. But the vampire abruptly shifted directions and strode right toward them, his walk and everything about him aggressively confident. The patrol stopped, the guards immediately snapping to attention even as they avoided his eyes.
Jackal marched right up, grabbed the lead human by the collar and slammed him back into a wall, baring fangs in his face.
"Your Prince isn't being very friendly," Jackal growled, as the rest of the patrol cringed back, not knowing whether to draw weapons or flee. Zeke and I looked on, as shocked as the rest of them but trying not to show it. "Here we are, trying to be nice and polite and present ourselves to Salazar, but he's locked all the gates and shut down the Wall. We had to crawl up through the sewers to get here- Do you know how disgusting that is, human?" His lips curled back into a fearsome snarl, and the human turned white, looking like he might faint. "And what the hell is going on in the Fringe? The bloodbags have gone insane-they even tried to attack us! Has Salazar lost control of this place completely?"
"S-sir!" The human gave a feeble salute-difficult, as his arms were shaking so hard he could barely lift them. "I'm sorry, sir, we're experiencing a bit of a problem with the Fringe-"
"I can see that, human." Jackal bared his fangs again, making the guard jerk his head away, cracking the back of his skull against the wall. "I want to know why Salazar hasn't gotten it under control yet."
"Sir, I assure you-"
"Your assurances mean nothing to me." Jackal abruptly released the guard and stepped back, letting him slump to the wall. "I want to see Salazar. I demand an audience with your Prince. Take me to him, right now."
"Sir..." The guard looked absolutely miserable and terrified at the same time. "I don't have that kind of authority-"
"Incredible. How does this city even run?" Jackal growled, casting a disdainful look at me and Zeke. Turning back to the guards, he took a breath and made a great show of being patient. "Then, tell me, bloodbag, who has that authority?"
"The...the Prince's aide, sir. His pet. He's the one who admits visitors to the Prince's chamber."
"Well, then," Jackal said, taking a step forward, "I'd say you'd better get a hold of him soon, don't you think?"
"Yes, sir!" The guard leaped off the wall, looking relieved to pass this little problem on to someone else. "I'll contact him right now. Please, follow me."
Jackal grinned over his shoulder as we started down the road again, following the patrol toward the vampire towers. "See?" he said in a quiet voice, looking at me now. "When you act like a vampire, humans will treat you like one. None of this sneaking or skulking-around crap. They're the sheep, and we're the wolves, and they know it."
"So, this is what it's like in a vampire city," Zeke said in a cold voice.
Jackal snorted. "Did that upset you, bloodbag? Did I treat the human too rough for you?" He sneered. "Get used to it. This is our city, and we do what we want here. Every single human existing behind these walls belongs to us."
"Not all of them," Zeke said firmly.
Another time, I would've taken Zeke's side and argued with Jackal that there were humans in a vampire city who defied the bloodsuckers and lived free-I had been one of them- but I didn't want to start a fight in the middle of enemy territory. Not when we were rapidly approaching the fence that surrounded the Prince's towers. As we drew closer, my apprehension grew. If I'd still had a heartbeat, it would've been pounding against my ribs. This territory was the Prince's, the Master vampire that ruled the city with an iron fist. Not only that, the strongest vampires in the city, the Prince's coven, prowled the halls and corridors of those towers. So many bloodsuckers. If Jackal didn't know what he was doing, we were walking into a deathtrap.
"What do you expect to do in there?" I growled at Jackal, suddenly wanting to know the plan, if we had a plan, or if we were just flying in blind. "You know that if Salazar finds out who we are, he'll try to put our heads on his wall."
"Relax, sister." Jackal quirked an eyebrow. "Unless he's seen you personally, Salazar doesn't know you from Eve- you're just another wandering mongrel vampire to him. And he doesn't know me at all. Don't worry, I know how Princes think. We'll go in, feed him some story about passing through, make a little scene because we can't leave the city now, and he'll get annoyed but probably not enough to throw us out. There are rules for visiting vampires, after all, and these Princes are all such proud stick-up-the-asses. More likely, he'll apologize for the state of the city, offer to let us stay in the tower until the crisis is over, and we'll be free to look for Kanin as we please. Easy."
"Way too easy," Zeke muttered, and I agreed. Jackal rolled his eyes.
"Well, if you two have a better plan, I'd love to hear it."
We were very close to the fence now, passing more guards and humans waiting in line to get through the checkpoint. At the front of the line, a guard would ask the human to show his tattoo, usually located on the inner arm. A scanner was passed over the mark and scrutinized before the guard waved him through. I bit my lip to avoid curling it in disgust. Before I was Turned, this was what I had fought against my entire life-becoming a slave to the bloodsuckers. Taking the brand that would mark me as a bloodcow, an owned thing, the property of the Prince. Back then, I hadn't regretted it, even though it would've been easier to take the mark, to accept the promise of food and protection and an easier life. Now, looking back, I couldn't help but wonder. I was never truly "free" in New Covington. Sure, I hadn't given blood, but I'd still been trapped, at the mercy of the vampires, constantly living in fear. If I'd been Registered, the vampires would've won, but I wouldn't have been scavenging in the ruins the night the rabids attacked me. The night I died.
So, what was worse? Submitting to the bloodsuckers, letting them treat you as a slave and a bloodcow, or becoming that very same monster yourself?
Stop thinking about that, Allison. It doesn't matter now; you already made your choice.