The door creaked open, and several footsteps entered the room, followed by an instantly familiar voice.
"Thank you for waiting. I'm Mr. Stephen, Prince Salazar's aide. I understand you want an audience with the Prince?"
I turned slowly and met Stick's pale gaze across the room.
He had changed.
The Stick I remembered had been tall and skinny, a ragged scarecrow with straw-colored hair and frightened, watery blue eyes. The person in the doorway, surrounded by four armed vampires and two humans, was still tall and thin, but he wore a business suit and carried a suitcase in one spidery hand. He wasn't nearly as skinny now, and his hair had been cut short and combed back, replacing the shaggy nest I remembered.
But the biggest change was in his eyes and the way he carried himself. Back in the Fringe, Stick had cringed and skulked his way through life, relying on me for survival. He was afraid of everyone and everything and often got picked on because he expected me to save him instead of standing up for himself.
Now, he carried himself tall, his tone and expression clear, almost arrogant. But maybe that was because of his entourage, the two humans and four vampires surrounding him with guns and crossbows, smaller versions of the one Zeke had given away. Seeing him, I felt the last piece of something inside me-hope, stubbornness, disbelief-shatter and die. I'd always wondered what had happened to Stick, if he really had sold me out to the Prince once he knew what I was. I'd been hoping, deep down, that it wasn't true.
But here he was. Salazar's personal aide, staring at me as if he'd just seen a ghost.
"A-Allie?" His voice was a choked, horrified whisper, and the guards stared at him, and us, in rising alarm. "No. No, it can't be you. You're supposed to be dead!"
"Stick," I said, taking a step forward. But Stick threw himself backward, into the hall, pointing wildly.
"Stop her!" he screeched to his guards, who immediately pulled their crossbows and aimed them at our hearts. Jackal cursed and shot out of the chair, and Zeke tensed, going for his gun. "Stop them all! She's here to kill me!"
"I'm not here to kill you!" I shouted, holding up my hands. Several wooden darts were leveled at my chest, making me cringe inside. Dammit, if I didn't get a handle on this, we'd all be skewered like rats. "Stick, wait!" I called desperately. "I didn't come for you. We want to see the Prince, that's all! I didn't even know you were here."
He peered into the room again, eyes cold and suspicious. "I don't believe you."
"Believe what you want. I'm telling you the truth." I kept my hands raised as he edged back into the room. "We're not here for you, or anyone. We just want to see the Prince."
He eyed Zeke and Jackal, then glared back at me. "You're not supposed to be here, Allie," he accused, sounding like his old sullen self. "Master Salazar said you were dead, he promised you had been killed. You're not supposed to be here."
Irritation, and something darker, flared. "Sorry to disappoint you. But I'm still alive."
Stick's gaze narrowed and an ugly look crossed his face as he turned to the guards. "Arrest them," he barked, and the guards straightened. "They want to see the Prince? We'll take them to see the Prince. I'm sure the Master will be very interested in meeting them."
I swallowed the growl as two vampires came forward, reaching for me while the others kept their weapons trained on us. Dammit. What now? We couldn't fight our way past the Prince's Elite, not with a whole tower of vampires between us and the exit. Even if Jackal and I got out, Zeke would be torn apart before we reached the front desk. And if we did manage to escape, we'd never be able to get back in. Stick knew I was here, and soon the Prince would, too. I glanced at Zeke and Jackal, wondering if they had any brilliant ideas to get us out of this, but they looked as grim as I felt. No way out. We were caught.
I clenched my fists as one guard grabbed my katana and drew the sheath over my head, barely stopping myself from breaking his nose as he took the blade away. I felt nak*d without it. The other guard pulled a pair of black metal cuffs from his belt and reached for my arms. "This isn't necessary, Stick," I said as the vampire yanked my arms behind my back and snapped the bands around my wrists. The weight of the chains dragged at me, thick and heavy, obviously designed for vampires.
"It's Stephen now," Stick corrected, his voice smug. "Mr. Stephen. And I decide what's necessary around here, Allie." A faint smirk twisted his lips as he raised his chin. "No one tells me what to do, not anymore."
I could only watch as Zeke and Jackal were stripped of weapons and cuffed, as well. Jackal rolled his eyes and seemed annoyed with the entire event, but Zeke looked pale as his gun and machete were removed and the shackles were locked in place. He met my gaze, and I could see the resignation on his face, the expectancy that he wasn't going to make it out alive.
I'm sorry, Zeke. I didn't mean to drag you into this. I'll get us out somehow, I promise.
When we were restrained, Stick gave a self-satisfied nod, his pale eyes lingering on me. "This way," he stated grandly, as if he was announcing a tour. "Prince Salazar is expecting us."
A guard nudged me in the shoulder with the crossbow, and I went, following my former friend into the halls of the vampire tower.
Dammit, this was not the way I'd wanted to meet Salazar: arrested and in chains, unable to defend myself and those around me. Things had gone very wrong, but there was nothing I could do but try to bluff my way out when we met the Prince. I wondered if Jackal was already working on a plan, some kind of speech or con to get us out of this alive. He was the one who knew about vampire politics, not me. Of course, he was part of the reason we were in this mess to begin with.
I wanted to talk to him, and Zeke, too, but the guards to either side of us made that impossible.
We came to a pair of elevators, working ones, at the end of a hall, and Stick eyed us warily as the doors opened.
"Take them to the top floor," he told the four vampire guards, and stepped toward the other elevator across the hall. "I'll meet you there."
Coward, I thought, as Stick went into a box with his two human bodyguards, smiling and folding his hands before him as the doors slid shut. Doesn't want to be in a tight space with the vampire he stabbed in the back, I guess.
The guards drew their weapons and herded us into the elevator, standing at the corners as we huddled in the center. The doors glided shut, plunging the box into darkness, and the lift began to move.
I tensed, gritting my teeth. I'd been in an elevator before- a rickety, jerry-built one that had crackled and jerked and spit out sparks, making me afraid it would fall at any moment. I didn't like small, tight spaces with no way out-they made me very twitchy. The guards stared straight ahead, weapons drawn but not pointed at us, paying no attention. Experimentally I yanked at the chains around my wrists. If I could just get my hands free, I'd be prepared should an opportunity to escape arise. Unfortunately, the cuffs held. I wouldn't be going anywhere.
Jackal leaned in, his mouth close to my ear. "You didn't tell me about your little friend," he murmured, and if the guards heard him, they didn't care. "That would've been a nice tidbit to share, going into the Prince's tower."
"I didn't think I would see him here," I whispered back. "And it doesn't matter now. I hope you have something in that twisted head to stop the Prince from ripping it off."
"Working on it."
"Faster would be nice."
The guard closest to me gave the evil eye and curled a lip in warning, revealing fangs. I bared mine in return and faced forward, watching the numbers light up over the door-10... 12...14...16... How far up did this thing go? With every floor, we were getting farther away from the exit and closer to the lair of a Master vampire.
"Allie," Zeke murmured, barely audible even as close as we were. Despite our situation, and the vampires surrounding us on every side, his voice and expression were calm. Too calm. "If we don't make it...I'm glad that I found you. It was good to see you again."
I growled and bent toward him, lowering my voice. "Don't you even start with that, Zeke," I hissed, not knowing if I was angry or terrified at his words. "You have people waiting for you in Eden. You are not going to die here."
"It's all right." Zeke managed the tiniest of smiles. "I'm not afraid to die. I just wish..." He trailed off, a flicker of pain crossing his face, before he shook that off, too. "Never mind. It's not important now. I just... I want you to promise me one thing."
I didn't know how well I'd be able to keep any kind of promise now. I really hoped he wouldn't ask me to go to Eden and inform his family if he was killed. I wasn't sure I could do that, even if we made it out of here. But this was Zeke; it was hard to tell him no. "What do you want me to do?" I whispered.
He held my gaze, blue eyes solemn and intense. "Don't Turn me," he whispered, sending a spear of ice through my stomach. "Even if I'm dying, don't make me one of them. Just let me go."
"Zeke." My throat suddenly closed up. Zeke leaned forward, resting his forehead to mine, closing his eyes.
"Please," he whispered, his breath warm on my cold skin. "I don't... I can't spend eternity as a vampire. I can't. Promise me, if it comes to that, you'll let me go."
"Let you die?" I choked out. My first instinct was to refuse. The sudden thought that I could lose him tore a raw, gaping wound inside, which both shocked and terrified me. I'd distanced myself from everyone to avoid these kinds of attachments. In my world, people died. The only way to survive it was to numb yourself to loss and keep going. But Zeke... I couldn't lose him. If he was dying, and I could keep him here, if there was the barest chance to save him, I would take it. Even if I wasn't a Master vampire, and my attempt to Turn Zeke would likely spawn a rabid, there was still that chance. Or I would get another, stronger vampire to do it. Kanin, perhaps. Kanin was a Master, though he considered his immortality a curse and would likely be reluctant to Turn a complete stranger. I didn't care. I'd convince him, somehow. I couldn't let Zeke die without trying to save him.
Then I realized how selfish I was being.
You would really attempt to Turn Zeke, even though he hates and fears becoming a vampire more than anything? Kanin gave you a choice. He respected you enough to allow you to make that decision.
"Damn you, Zeke," I growled. "You're really going to ask me to stand there and watch you die?"
Zeke opened his eyes, his face just a breath away. In my mind the guards disappeared. Jackal vanished. It was just me and Zeke now, facing each other in the dark. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I know it's selfish, but I'm not like you, Allie."
Hurt, I drew back and curled my lip, showing fangs. "You mean evil and soulless?"
"I mean, I'm not as strong as you are," Zeke went on earnestly. "I can't do what you do, what's required to be a vampire. Please." His gaze turned pleading. "If it comes to that, let me die as a human. Promise you'll let me go."
"You can't deny him that choice," Jackal muttered behind my shoulder, shocking me again. "It takes a certain mindset to be one of us. If you Turn someone who can't handle it, they end up destroying themselves, going out to meet the sun. I've seen it before. Better to let the little bloodsack die, if that's what he wants."