Thank goodness, I thought. Get me out of this creepy place. I want to find Kanin.
"I have but one request before we go," Salazar continued, and I bit down my impatience, tapping my heel against the floor. "Our 'volunteer.' Is he still alive?"
Emerson's face fell, making him look far older. "Yes," he murmured. "Barely. By now, I wonder if we shouldn't just take his head and put him out of his misery." He looked at the Prince for consent, but Salazar didn't give it, just continued to watch him with blank eyes. The doctor nodded slowly. "You want to see him? Follow me."
"I thought we were going to see Kanin," I told Salazar as we trailed the doctor down another hallway, the guards close at our back. "You gave your word you would release him, and I'm not going after Psycho Vamp without him."
The Prince gave me a cold smile.
"Patience, girl. I assure you, Kanin is not going anywhere. Before you meet your sire, I want you to see this."
We'd come to a door in the side of the hallway, marked with a strange yellow-and-black sign in the center. WARNING, it read in bulky letters, but before I could read the rest, Emerson unlocked the door and pushed it open.
Salazar motioned for me to go in. Cautiously, wary of things that might leap at me through the door, I stepped inside. The room was dark, lined with shelves of instruments that winked at me in the shadows. Nothing moved or made a sound, until I heard a low groan coming from the far corner. A curtain hung from the ceiling, obscuring whatever was there from view, but beyond the sheets, something was moving.
Resisting the urge to draw my sword, I stepped up and pushed back the curtain.
A rotting corpse lay there on a mattress, flesh decayed and blackened in areas, showing hints of bone beneath. I could see the chest cavity, where the skin had withered and shriveled away, and ribs poked up through disintegrating flesh. Some of its fingers were missing, either fallen off or lost as it had thrashed around in life, for leather cuffs still encircled the bony wrists, tying it to the bed. Its skull lay on the pillow, gazing sightlessly at the ceiling, much of the skin rotted away. I saw the curve of bone in its jaw, the outline of teeth through its wasted cheek. And just as I was wondering why Salazar would show me this, the corpse turned its head and stared at me with bright, glassy eyes, opening its mouth in a silent scream, and I nearly bolted from the room.
It was a vampire, or it had been, once. I could see its fangs, hear the click of teeth as it opened and closed its mouth, silently gaping at me. Like it was trying to speak, but was unable to make a sound. Horror twisted my stomach when I saw his eyes, glazed over with agony but conscious and alert. He knew what was happening to him.
"Disturbing, is it not?" Salazar said over my shoulder. The vampire Prince moved beside me, staring blankly down at the living, rotting corpse.
"What happened to him?" I asked.
The Prince put a hand on the bed railing. "He was volunteered for an experiment, and given the infected blood of the humans in the Fringe. This is what happens when we feed on the sick outside. Not only does the virus affect humans, it carries over to any vampire who bites one of the infected. We start to rot away from the inside, until our bodies are so damaged they cannot sustain us anymore."
A virus that attacked not only humans but vampires. No wonder the city vamps were freaking out. What had Sarren done? Salazar turned from the body and stared at me with hard black eyes, his expression grim and frightening.
"Now you understand why we must find this madman," he said. "If Sarren truly caused this, we must stop at nothing until we capture him and force him to give us a cure. Otherwise, New Covington will be lost." Without taking his eyes from me, he gestured to the vampire in the bed. "Remember what you have seen tonight, Kanin's daughter. If Sarren is not found, we could all end up like this."
I could only nod. Salazar studied me a moment longer, then turned away. I gazed at the horrific, rotting corpse one last time, seeing his mouth gape, pleading silently for death, before I shuddered and hurried after the Prince.
One of the other vamps met us at the door with a cooler, which he handed solemnly to a guard. Then we followed the Prince through another set of doors, another maze of hallways and, finally, down a long flight of steps that continued past several floors until it seemed we were miles below the surface.
Just as I was about to ask Salazar how deep this place went, the stairwell ended at a pair of massive steel doors, padlocked shut and barred from the outside. Salazar gestured, and we waited as the vampire guards removed the bar, unlocked the chains and pushed the doors open with an earsplitting groan.
The room beyond was dank and cold, carved from natural stone. Cement pillars marched down the aisle, and cells with thick iron bars lined either side. A bloated, hulking figure lumbered toward us, a vampire whose head nearly brushed the low ceiling, whose eyes were beady and cruel. His bottom jaw didn't quite fit the top half, and jagged teeth poked from his mouth like shards of bone. He loomed over the Prince and the guards, eyeing me curiously, until Salazar snapped his fingers.
"Take us to Kanin."
The huge jailor grunted then turned, lurching away down the corridor. We followed him, stepping over puddles and weaving around pillars, until we came to the last cell.
My skin felt tight, crawling with nerves. Through the bars, I could see a pale, ragged shape, shirtless and filthy, huddled against the far corner. Salazar and the guards didn't move, but I edged closer until I was touching the cell door, peering in. Heavy iron chains dangled from rings set into the wall, jangling softly as the figure shifted on the hard ground. I couldn't see his face, but I could suddenly feel him watching me.
"Kanin," I whispered. "I'm here."
He raised his head, and my insides shrank in fear and horror. The face was his: it was Kanin, but the man staring across the cell at me was a mere shadow of my mentor. His skin was chalky-white, stretched tightly across his bones, withered and gaunt. His eyes were hollow, sunken and stared at me with no spark of recognition, no sense of self, nothing but Hunger. His lips curled back, revealing deadly fangs, and he lunged at me with a roar.
I jerked back, even as the chains brought him up short, several feet from the bars. Kanin roared again, straining to reach us, his face a terrifying mask of Hunger and rage.
I felt sick, close to tears, and swallowed hard to control myself. I'd come so far, put everyone through so much, just to find my sire. And now that I'd finally found him...he was gone. Driven to madness by Sarren's cruelty and Salazar's hatred. I never thought I'd see him like this. Despite everything, I'd always thought Kanin was too strong, too wise and composed and stubborn to turn into the savage creature in the cell. A Lost One, like Salazar had said.
I clenched my fists. No. No, I wouldn't give up on him. There had to be something left. Kanin was starving and crazy with bloodlust, but that didn't mean he was gone. He was too strong for that.
The hiss of plastic drew my attention, and I turned to see one of the guards open the cooler and pull out two bloodbags. Their attention, and the attention of the monstrous jailor, was on Kanin, still hissing and snarling at the end of his chains. But Salazar was watching me, a small, pleased smile on his face.
"He can't hear you now, girl," the Prince said over the mad snarling coming from the cell. "He doesn't recognize you, or me, or anyone. All he knows at this moment is Hunger. Let us hope that his mind is still intact when he comes out of his blood frenzy."
Anger flickered, but I pushed it down. I watched the guards approach the cell, and stepped aside as they very cautiously reached through the bars, being careful not to lean too far in. I could see the fear in their eyes. Kanin hissed and snarled, fighting to get to them, a demon barely restrained.
They tossed the bags at his feet, and he fell on them instantly. I forced myself to watch, even though it was hard, seeing him like this. A mindless animal. He ripped the bags to shreds in seconds, gulping down the blood inside, until his lips and hands were dripping with red and the floor of his cell was splattered with it.
At last, the savage feeding came to an end. Growling softly in his throat, Kanin slowly rose, dropping the mangled plastic. For a moment, he just stood there, staring at the bloody floor of his cell, his expression blank. Then, without looking at us, he slowly backed away. Hitting the wall, he slid down until he was hunched over on the floor, staring straight ahead, at nothing.
Salazar turned to me.
"Now it is up to you," he said, dropping a small iron key into my palm. "If you think you can reach him, you may go into his cell and free him from his chains. But be warned- if he is truly Lost, he will attack you viciously, and if that happens, we will not open the cell door again. You will be trapped with a mindless, savage Master vampire, and he will tear you apart. So be very certain, Kanin's daughter. Are you sure you want to do this? Do you trust your sire that much?"
I closed my fist around the key. "Just open the door."
He nodded and motioned to the jailor. The massive vampire drew a ring of keys from somewhere beneath his bloated stomach, inserted one into the cell lock and pulled back the door with a rusty screech.
If I were alive, my heart would've been slamming against my ribs as I approached the cell and slipped through the frame, the key clenched tight in my fist. I took one step forward, and the door shut behind me with a clang, trapping me in the small space with a half-crazed Master vampire fully capable of taking me apart. I gazed at the huddled figure against the wall and shivered. If Kanin attacked me, I would have to defend myself with lethal force. Even if he was shackled and I was armed, he was still far stronger and far more deadly than anything I would ever face. Even if I got away from him, Salazar wouldn't open the door to let me escape, he'd made that very clear. If my sire was truly Lost, if he came at me with nothing on his mind but Hunger, the only way I'd leave this cell would be if I killed him.
Slowly but deliberately, I moved forward until I stood just shy of how far his chains would stretch. Kanin remained still, staring at the floor. But I felt his awareness shift, stirring to my presence. Even though he wasn't looking at me, he knew I was there.
"Kanin," I said very, very softly, ready to surge back if he lunged. "It's Allison. Can you hear me?"
Nothing. No movement or sound from Kanin's hunched figure, though I could still feel his cold stare, aware of my every move. "I'm going to try to set you free," I continued, slowly gathering the nerve to take that first, and perhaps final, step. "I don't know if you can understand what I'm saying right now," I went on, searching for any sign that he was at least listening, "but I'd appreciate it if you didn't try to kill me when I get close."
Again, there was nothing. Kanin shifted just the tiniest bit, making his chains clink against the wall, but he gave no indication that he'd heard. And, standing in that filthy cell, just a few feet from the man who had saved my life, Turned me into a vampire and taught me everything I needed to survive, I suddenly realized...that I was afraid. Of Kanin. Not because I could lose him, though there was that, too. I was afraid to step forward, because I didn't know him anymore, because I'd seen the true demon that lay beneath that smooth, unruffled facade, and it was terrifying. We were all like that, deep down. Stripped of our awareness, our presence of mind, our logic and reason, we were all just monsters waiting to feed.