"Come on then, old man," Jackal urged as the other vampire continued through the aisles, ignoring us all. "Let's get out of here, what do you say? Wasn't it you who taught me not to fight battles we can't win? Forget Salazar. Forget this hellhole. Let Sarren come to us."
I snorted. "Your compassion continues to astound me. James."
He shot me an evil glare. "Oh sorry, I should've been more clear. I'm only interested in the opinions of real vampires."
"Well, if that's the case, why don't you go find Sarren without us? I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about."
Kanin finally turned then, giving us both a weary look that said, Are you two quite finished? "We can't stop," he stated calmly. "We keep moving. Hopefully Sarren will have left something in the lab that we can use."
"And if he hasn't?" Jackal asked.
Then Kanin is dead, I thought numbly. Because there won't be enough time to develop a cure, not for him. He'll rot away until he looks like that vampire in the hospital room. Sickened, I clenched my fists, not knowing how Kanin could be so calm about it.
"Then we find another way," Kanin replied, still talking to Jackal. "We hunt down Sarren, if we must. But I am not leaving the city until this is over. You, however, are free to go." He nodded back the way we came. "I'm not keeping you here, I never have. If you want to leave, I'm not stopping you."
"You'd love that, wouldn't you?" Jackal's grin turned vicious. "What's the matter, Kanin? Don't want your newest spawn to hear about your greatest disappointment? What you created and then tried to kill?"
Kanin didn't answer, though I saw a flicker of regret pass through his eyes. Regret that he'd tried to destroy Jackal, or that he hadn't been able to? "Is there anyone you haven't pissed off so much they want to kill you?" I asked Jackal, who sneered at me.
"Hmm, lemme think. Well, there was this one chick who... No, wait, never mind. That didn't end well, either."
A shot rang out behind us.
I spun around, ready to draw my sword or attack. Zeke stood with his gun drawn, pointed down the aisle behind us. Several yards away, a human screeched and collapsed, pitching forward from an all-out charge, crashing to the ground. Another human leaped over the body and came rushing down the aisle, shrieking and waving a hammer, and Zeke's pistol barked once more. The body slammed into the shelves, laughing, twitching, clawing at its face, before it slumped and finally stopped moving.
Zeke holstered the weapon, his face grim, and I forced my nerves to calm down. "I know I'm the only human here," he said in a low, even voice, glancing back at us, "but maybe we can move the vampire family discussion to a later time? Maybe when we're off the streets and out of the open?"
I blinked at him, and even Kanin raised an eyebrow, a flicker of amusement crossing his face. But he only nodded and turned away. "Come, then. We're not far from the next stretch of tunnels."
Leaving the store, we walked swiftly through the ruins of the Fringe, wary this time of bleeders who might've been drawn to the noise. Kanin led, with Jackal close behind him. Zeke and I brought up the rear, hanging back a few paces.
"What's the story with Jackal and Kanin?" Zeke asked after a few minutes, his voice soft. "Kanin Turned him, right? What happened between them that made him change his mind?"
"I have no idea," I replied. "In fact, I was wondering that myself, but good luck getting a straight answer from either of them. Kanin has never spoken about his past, and Jackal will be a bastard just on principle. Why?" I glanced at Zeke, forgetting for a moment that I was trying to remain aloof. "You've never been curious about them before. What brought that on?"
"Nothing." He looked away, sounding evasive. "I was just wondering."
It hit me then, and my eyes widened. "Because you want to know if Kanin is planning to kill Jackal before you have the chance to," I guessed, and Zeke winced. "You're still planning to fight him when this is over."
"He killed my father, Allison." Zeke's eyes met mine, angry and hard. "Jebbadiah and Darren and Dorothy, even Ruth-they're all dead because of him. And I'm sorry, but I can't let that go. Yes, he's helping us now, but what happens after that? It doesn't change the past. My family is still dead."
"Killing him won't bring them back," I said softly.
"I know." Zeke looked away again, his face tightening. "I just...I need to find some kind of peace. If I can send him to hell where he belongs..."
My stomach clenched. "Jeb thought he would bring a vampire back to hell with him," I said, not really knowing why I was telling him this. "That was me."
He glanced back sharply, but at that moment, a sudden crackle buzzed in the silence, making us both jump.
"Zeke?" came a faint voice, and Zeke's hand went to his belt, pulling out that strange rectangular box. The voice came from the device, broken and hissing with static. "...there? Mole men...coming...you gotta..."
"Roach!" Zeke put the device to his mouth, his face intense. "Can you hear me? What's happening? Where are you?"
"...help us!" the box spat back. "Everyone is...sealed the entrance...mole men...will kill us!"
The device buzzed, then faded into an unbroken string of static, despite Zeke's attempts to contact the voice on the other end.
"Dammit," Zeke muttered, and I blinked. I couldn't remember ever hearing him swear before. He looked back at me, guilty but determined. "I have to go."
"Go?" Jackal repeated, having circled back with Kanin. His yellow eyes regarded Zeke curiously. "Where exactly are you going, bloodbag?"
"The refugees are in trouble," Zeke continued as Kanin stepped up, his dark gaze searching. "The mole men are moving on the base and will kill them if they get in. I have to help them."
Kanin frowned. "Refugees?"
"A bunch of noninfected humans living in the tunnels," I answered, watching Zeke eye the road behind us, like he could barely keep himself from rushing off. "It's on the edge of mole man territory, though, and they don't want them there anymore. They were threatening to drive them out when we came to find you."
"How many?" Kanin asked Zeke.
"Close to two dozen or, at least, that's how many there were when I left." Zeke raked a hand through his hair, looking distressed. "I can't leave them. They've locked the gate and sealed themselves in, but the mole men are waiting for them outside and they don't have any food. I promised I would come back if there was trouble, especially now that Salazar isn't sending any help."
"Have fun with that," Jackal said, crossing his arms. "They'll probably be dead by the time we get there. But don't let us stop you. We don't have time to play with bloodthirsty cannibals."
He was more right than he knew. Time was our enemy now, more than ever. Kanin's seconds were ticking away, even as we stood here and argued. But I also knew Zeke would never abandon those he'd sworn to help. "You go on," he told us all, backing away. "Keep looking for the lab. I'll catch up when I can."
"Zeke, no." I stepped forward, stopping him from running off. "There are too many. You're going to get yourself killed." And, knowing that he didn't fear death like he should, like all sane people did, I added, "If you die, you won't be able to help anyone."
Zeke hesitated. Stared at me, as if he was about to say something then thought better of it. Then, in a very quiet voice, he murmured, "Come with me, Allie?"
It was a question. Not a demand, or even a request. He was giving me a choice: human or vampire. Help the refugees, or continue on with Jackal and Kanin. I didn't know what to do. I wanted, desperately, to go with Zeke. I couldn't let him rush off to face an army of mole men by himself. He would be killed, and I'd never forgive myself.
But...Kanin was dying. He literally had hours left. If we couldn't find Sarren and a cure, Kanin was doomed. I couldn't leave him, either. If I returned to find my sire dead, killed by Sarren or the insidious virus working its way inside him...
Dammit. How could I choose between them? This was impossible.
I could feel the eyes of all three on me, waiting for a decision. Frustration and despair rose up, and I stifled the urge to snarl and drive my fist through a wall. "Zeke," I began, not really knowing what I would say next. "I..."
"Where are they?" Kanin suddenly asked.
Surprised, we all looked at the Master vampire, who waited calmly for Zeke's answer, no emotion crossing his face. "Sector Four," Zeke replied, and glanced at me. "Allison's old district."
"That isn't far," Kanin murmured, sounding tired and resigned. He closed his eyes, as if preparing himself, or coming to a decision, then sighed. "All right. Let's go."
"What?" I gaped at him as he stepped forward, brushing by us. "Kanin...are you sure? What about..." I trailed off, certain he knew what I was talking about.
My sire looked back and gave me a weary nod. "Don't worry about that, Allison. This is important, a debt I must pay. I..." He hesitated, briefly closing his eyes. "I have an obligation to fulfill," he almost whispered. "Yours and his both. You came to New Covington for me, and I owe you several lives for that. Let this be the start of my compensation." He shook himself and gestured at Zeke then, motioning him forward. "Come. If we hurry, we can be there in a couple hours. Let's hope your people can hold out that long."
"Wait, I'm confused," Jackal said as we began walking back the way we came. "Did the entire world just get turned on its head? Now we're going to save a bunch of dirty meatsacks from a bunch of dirty cannibals? Why don't we rescue some orphaned kittens and put food out for stray puppies while we're at it?"
It took longer than we'd hoped to get to the tunnel that would lead to Sector Four. Bleeders roamed the streets between buildings, forcing us to hide, sneak around or wait for them to pass. This irritated Jackal to no end. They were only human, we should just carve a path right through and let God sort them out. But the rest of our party, Zeke especially, were opposed to needless killing, besides the fact that we didn't know how many of them were out there. The last thing we needed was a huge mob to come rushing down on us.
The last stretch to the tunnel was eerily silent. Kanin took us through an abandoned lot overgrown with frosted weeds and grass, crumbling buildings lining either side. I didn't like how exposed we were, even less so when I tripped over something large in the weeds and discovered it was a corpse, eyeless face turned to the sky.
Wrinkling my nose, I hurried on. It was too quiet. The houses sitting on the edge of the lot seemed to watch us with silent intensity. I could feel eyes on me, and though everything was deathly still, the air was thick with the smell of blood and open wounds.
"Kanin," I whispered, catching up to him, "I don't like this. Are we almost there?"
He nodded, and I could see that he was tense, too. "Very close. The entrance to the sewers is about another hundred yards from-"
And the screaming began.