"All right!" I held up a hand, trying to calm him down. Zeke was tense, both arms raised, his gaze never leaving the gun. I was quick, but I didn't know if I could reach Stick before the gun went off. And at such a close range, Zeke would definitely die. "I'm listening, Stick," I told him. "What the hell do you want from me?"
Stick grinned, eyes bright. "I want you to tell him-" he jerked the gun at Zeke again, who stiffened "-what happened to Lucas that night. And Rat. Go on, Allie, tell him. Tell him what happened to everyone else."
"They died," I answered, not really knowing where this was going. All I wanted was to get that gun out of his hands, but the muzzle was so close to Zeke's face I wasn't going to risk it.
"Why?" Stick demanded.
"They were killed by rabids."
"Why?" Stick asked again, and I scowled. What did he want me to say? What the hell was he trying to prove? "Why were we there in the first place?" Stick asked, keeping his gaze on Zeke. "Why were we outside the Wall?"
I suddenly knew what he wanted. My shoulders slumped, not wanting to say it, to remember that night. But I had to. "We were outside the Wall," I answered in a flat voice, "because I led us there."
"And why did Lucas die?"
Lucas. I glared at Stick, and he raised the gun a fraction, aiming for Zeke's face. His eyes were hard. I clenched my fists and muttered, "Because...I left him."
"To die," Stick repeated.
Damn you, Stick. "Yes."
Anger, sorrow and guilt burned. I tried not to think about that night, to remember the horror and terror when the rabids had surrounded me, when they'd yanked Rat into the tall grass, when they'd dragged Lucas over a fence. But the memories were still painfully clear, as if it had happened yesterday. I remembered the way Lucas had stared at me, his eyes begging me to save him, right before the rabids pulled him into the darkness. Stick didn't need to remind me. I already knew. It was my fault they had died, my fault we had all died.
I felt Zeke trying to catch my gaze, and glanced at him quickly. His face was grim, his eyes staring at me, trying to tell me something. Be ready, they seemed to say. I spared a quick glance at the guards. They seemed uncomfortable, still keeping the crossbows trained on me but also shooting Stick looks of anger and disgust. Obviously, their boss's erratic behavior was making them uneasy, too.
Oblivious, Stick waggled the gun at Zeke, making me tense. "You see?" he asked the other boy. "She doesn't care. She lets others die to save herself. Isn't that right, Allie? Tell him. Tell him that you don't care, that you're just using him, just like Lucas."
"I..." The words caught in my throat. Swallowing, I forced them out, making myself talk, to let Stick think I was playing his sick little game. "I don't care about you, Zeke. Stick's right. I'd leave you to the rabids if I had to, same as Lucas." My eyes narrowed. "In fact, I'm about ready to let you die, just so I can get to Stick and rip his arms out of their sockets."
Stick jerked, his attention flashing to me, and Zeke moved.
He ducked to the side, lunged forward, and grabbed the other boy's wrist with both hands. Stick let out a yelp, fighting him, the gun flashing in a deadly arc between them. The guards gave shouts of their own, turning to the boys, and I hit one of them hard, slamming my fist into his nose, snapping his head back. The second was on the other side of Zeke and Stick, still grappling for the gun. He grabbed for the weapon, but a shot rang out, and the guard fell back, the side of his face covered in blood, his crossbow dropping to the floor.
All of this happened in the space of a heartbeat. As the gunshot boomed behind him, the driver swerved, lost control of the vehicle and smashed into the hulk of another car sitting on the sidewalk. The force jerked us all sideways, one of the guard's bodies slamming into me as we hit the wall, his skull cracking against mine. As the car rocked to a halt, I pushed the body off to see Stick, dazed and still holding the gun, wrench open the door and stagger into the road. Zeke was right behind him, though, shoving away the second body and lunging out of the car.
I followed, reaching back to draw my sword, but it was clear Zeke didn't need any help. As Stick stumbled away, raising the gun, Zeke leaped forward and smashed his fist across Stick's jaw. Stick's head snapped sideways, his body jerking as if an invisible string had been cut, and he sprawled limply on the pavement.
Panting, Zeke bent down and took the gun from Stick's numb fingers. Releasing the clip with practiced ease, he stuffed it into a vest pocket, racking the slide to get the last round of the chamber. That also got tucked neatly away before he tossed the gun aside with a revolted look. As I came up, he held out an arm to me, and I stepped into him without hesitation, feeling his heart race through his vest as he hugged me close.
"You okay?" he murmured as we drew back. I nodded, then looked down at Stick's limp body, lying on the cement, the snow falling around him. Rage flared, and I had to fight the overwhelming urge to pounce on him, drive my fist through his rib cage and tear the heart from his chest. Maybe Zeke knew what I was thinking, for his grip on my arms tightened.
"I'm fine, Allie," he whispered. "It's over."
The first car with Kanin and Jackal had pulled around and was now speeding back toward us, the headlights blinding through the snow. I raised an arm, shielding my face as it skidded to a halt and the guards leaped out, pointing guns and crossbows in our direction.
"What's going on here?"
Kanin and Jackal stepped out, too, regarding the body in the snow with looks of detached curiosity and amusement. No one, I noticed, went forward to see if Stick was all right, if he was even still alive. As the guard shouted at me again, demanding to know what had happened, Stick groaned and stirred weakly. I smelled the blood that streamed from his cut lip, spotting the snow, and felt a vindictive stab of pleasure. I hoped it hurt. I hoped he'd have a swollen jaw for weeks. He'd gotten off easy this time.
"Ask him," I told the guard as the body in the snow struggled to rise. "He's the one who tried to kill us."
All eyes went to Stick, who clawed himself upright and stood there panting, glaring at me and Zeke. His face twisted into a mask of rage and hate.
"Kill him!" he spat, stabbing a finger in Zeke's direction. I snarled and tensed, baring fangs, as Zeke put a warning hand on my arm. No one moved. "Well? What are you waiting for?" Stick snapped, staring at the guard captain. "Shoot him, now!"
The guard shifted uncomfortably. "Sir, that's not really an option."
"What?" Stick narrowed his eyes. "What did you say, Captain?"
"The Prince ordered us to escort them to the gate, sir." The captain's voice was stiff, flat. "All of them. We cannot countermand his orders, even for you."
"He's just a human!" Stick burst out. His eyes were bright and glassy, and a vein pulsed in his temple. "Not a vampire. The Prince won't care about one human. Do as I say!"
"I would think very carefully about that," came a low, deep voice. Kanin's, from the edge of the circle. He stood in front of the car, while Jackal leaned casually against the hood, watching in amusement. Though both vampires were stationary, they stared at the humans with unmistakable menace, and Jackal's eyes glowed in the shadows. "I would think very carefully on where you are standing, right now," Kanin went on. "Alone, far from the Prince's tower, surrounded by three vampires. If violence erupts, what do you think is going to happen here?"
The guards were pale now, as if they'd just realized their position and the danger from all sides. "Sir," the captain said, turning back to Stick, his voice low and deliberately calm. "We need to go, now. Let's get you back to the tower and inform the Prince of what has happened." He motioned at Stick with his gun, his voice polite but brooking no argument. "Go, sir. Now."
"And where do you think you're going, exactly?" Jackal crooned, sliding off the hood of the car. An edge had crept into his voice, and his eyes glittered. "Running back to the Prince, are we? I don't think so, bloodbags."
Stick's eyes widened, fear finally piercing the madness as he realized his guards were dead and the ones remaining could not protect him. Not from three angry vampires, far from the safety of the Prince's tower.
I glanced at Kanin, expecting him to step in, but he said nothing, his face expressionless as he stood there, unmoving. The guards raised their weapons and shuffled hastily away, keeping Stick behind them. But between me and the other two vampires, there was nowhere for them to run.
Jackal's gold eyes slid to mine, and he grinned, vicious and eager. "Come on then, sister. Let's do this, you and me. I'll even leave you the little parasite. You can rip his heart out and eat it in front of him if you like."
I growled and turned on the humans, curling my lip back. It was tempting. I could kill Stick. Right here. No one would miss him. The Prince wouldn't care, so long as we found Sarren and a cure. Stick, for all his delusions of grandeur, was still just one human in a world dominated by vampires. A pet. And pets could be replaced.
"Allie, no!" Stick's voice came from behind the guards. "Don't let him hurt me," he pleaded. "We were friends, once. That means something, right? You're better than this."
I snarled at him, and the demon roared up full force, releasing all the anger, hurt, rage and grief that I'd kept locked away for so long. "You have no right to bring that up!" I shouted, and he shrank back, looking like the Stick I'd known. I took a step forward, baring my fangs, hating him now. "Don't you dare, not after what you've done! I can live with your hate, your anger, your crazy vendetta to prove that you're better than me now. I could even live with the fact that you sold me out to the Prince in exchange for an easy life. That's fine. You always had it in you, I knew that. I always knew..." Unexpectedly, my throat closed up, and I swallowed hard to open it.
"But don't try to appeal to my humanity now," I rasped, my voice low and cold, unfamiliar, "not when you forced me to admit that I'm a monster. Not when you tried to take away the only good thing I'll ever know. If he had died, I would've shown you a real monster."
"Yes," Jackal encouraged, grinning as he stalked forward. "That's right, sister. Let it go. This is what we are. And it's been ages since I've had a decent kill. Let's send the Prince a message, that this is what happens to pets who don't fear vampires like they should."
My demon agreed. I was losing myself to the monster, and I didn't care. Reaching back, I pulled my sword, drawing it with a metallic screech. The guards angled their weapons at us, but they were insignificant, a fragile wall of meat and blood. They would fall, and then there would be nothing between myself and my enemy. "You want to see what I am now?" I told Stick, who looked about ready to faint. "What saving your life turned me into? Fine! I'll show you what I really am!"
Gripping my sword, I tensed to lunge.
Something grabbed my arm from behind, jerking me to a halt. Snarling, fangs bared, I whirled on Zeke, barely stopping myself from springing forward and plunging my teeth into his neck. Zeke met my gaze, unflinching, even though I could see myself in his eyes, furious and demonic, lips curled back to show the full length of my fangs.