A dark figure sat on the top steps of the flight, elbows resting on knees and head bowed. Just seeing him like that made me uneasy. He looked like he was in pain-Kanin, the vampire who'd taken three bullets to the chest once and pulled them out again without flinching. Then Kanin raised his head, and I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out in horror.
The skin on his cheeks, forehead and jaw had blackened and was beginning to peel away, showing hints of bone through the wasted flesh. His dark eyes had sunk into his head, leaving black circles beneath them, and were glazed over with pain. The skin along his arms and the backs of his hands had darkened, too, ominous patches getting ready to crack and rot away, as the virus ravaging his body from the inside finally started to break through.
"Oh, Kanin..." The words came out choked. I didn't even know what to say-it was too horrible. And terrifying. One day. One day for the virus to spread this far. What will he look like in another twenty-four hours?
"Are we ready to leave?" His voice was as deep and as calm as ever. You would never guess he was in terrible pain unless you noticed the glassy look in his eyes, the tight set of his jaw. I nodded, and Kanin pushed himself upright, glancing at Zeke behind me. "Will you be able to travel?"
"I can make it."
He didn't argue, only nodded and started down the stairs. "Then let's go. It will take us several hours to reach Sector Two on foot."
The door to the basement hall was open as we walked by, and one of the refugees hovered in the frame, watching us pass. His face was hard as he stared at us, eyes narrowed in suspicion and fear. When Zeke glanced at him, his lips thinned, and he vanished through the frame without a word, the door clicking shut behind him.
Back in the sewers, we moved quickly, feeling the night slipping away from us. Neither Kanin nor Zeke spoke much, saving their strength for walking. Zeke's coughs seemed to have slowed, but he would often press a hand to his eyes or temple, gritting his teeth, and a few times he stumbled, as if he couldn't quite see what was on the ground in front of him. It made me sick with worry, for both him and Kanin. Kanin, of course, didn't make a sound, marching on with grim determination, his jaw set. But the one time he stopped to get his bearings, leaning heavily against a wall with his shoulders hunched, I could tell how awful he was feeling.
They're dying, was the thought in my head, constantly tormenting me with every step, every labored breath from Zeke or look of pain from my sire. They're dying, and I can't help them. I can't do anything for them. Dammit, what good is immortality if I can't help the ones I care about? If I have to spend eternity alone?
Overhead, the bleeders roamed the streets, muttering and laughing to themselves. Or they would scream at nothing, beat at cars, walls and each other, claw at their faces. And though I didn't want to, I wondered when Zeke would start showing signs of that insanity. The screaming and blind rage, the tearing at eyes and skin until the face was a mangled, bloody mess. What would I do if he started that?
Just make it quick. Don't let me suffer, or become a danger to anyone else.
Ice formed in my veins, chilling me to the bone, as the realization hit all at once. I might have to kill them. Both of them. If we couldn't get to Sarren in time, Zeke would turn on us, and Kanin would be in so much agony he'd be better off dead. I hadn't let myself think we could fail until now, but if Sarren didn't have a cure, I would have to...
I veered away from those thoughts, my throat dangerously tight. There was no one else. It would have to be me. It wasn't a question of whether I could do it. I would not let Kanin suffer like that vampire in the hospital room, his eyes begging me to kill him. If it came down to that choice, I would take his head and put him out of his misery at last. I knew my sire well enough to know he would want it that way.
But Zeke. I could barely stand to think about it. It didn't seem right that we had just found each other, that I had just let myself think that we could make this work, and he might have to die. By my hand.
But the world wasn't fair, and I'd known that for a while. If I had to kill Kanin and Zeke, so be it. I would mourn and scream and grieve their loss, and I would never get that close to anyone again, but I would not let them suffer needless agony because I couldn't let them go.
Someone, however, would pay for their deaths. Sarren and Salazar would pay, and now I could add Jackal to that list, as well. If we couldn't find a cure in time, not even the Prince himself would be safe from my retribution. If either of them died, there would be hell to pay.
But I wasn't giving up yet.
After a few hours of walking, Zeke began to stumble badly, and Kanin stopped, turning to give him an appraising look.
"Take a break," he said, nodding to a section of wall that had crumbled-large, flat stones providing a few places to sit. I was struck by how awful he looked, the blackened wounds on his cheeks and forehead spreading a bit more each time I looked at him. "We're going topside soon, and we'll need to hurry to get out of the open. Rest a few minutes."
"I'm fine," Zeke said stubbornly, though his voice was ragged. "I can keep going."
"It's not negotiable." Kanin's eyes narrowed and he gestured more firmly to the rocks. "Sit."
Zeke complied, dropping onto a stone block, rubbing his eyes. Kanin leaned against a wall, wincing slightly, as if the pressure of the cement against his back was painful. I hoped more wounds had not opened up beneath his clothes.
"How far are we from the hospital?" I asked Kanin. "I don't remember going this way the last time we were here."
"A couple more hours, depending how crowded the streets are." Kanin closed his eyes for a moment, a tiny flicker of pain crossing his features. "This way is a bit longer, but we've stayed belowground nearly the whole way there. I would rather avoid the infected for as long as we can."
"What if Sarren isn't there?"
Kanin smiled humorlessly. "I think the more pressing question would be, what if he is?"
I shivered. Then we'd probably have to fight him. He certainly wouldn't just give us the cure, even if he had one. I hoped I was up for it. I hoped Kanin and Zeke were up for it. Sarren was certainly no pushover when it came to violence.
"Sarren." Dropping his hands, Zeke leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. For a moment, he appeared deep in thought. "I remember Jeb telling me something," he muttered at last, staring into the darkness, "about the vampire who killed his family. He was sixteen when it happened, and I only got the story out of him one time. He never spoke of it again, ever."
I blinked. Jebbadiah as a kid, a teenager like me. I tried to picture it and failed. The dour, unsmiling old man with the steely eyes was all I could see.
"What happened?" I asked.
Zeke's brow furrowed. "I don't remember the whole story. But, the way Jeb told it-his father came home one night, frantic, saying they had to leave town, that Malachi had done something horrible, and that something was coming for them. So they loaded everyone into the car, Jeb and his younger sister in the back, and left without taking anything."
Another shock. Jebbadiah had had a sister. How old would she be now? I wondered. And would Jeb be the same bitter, angry old man if she had lived? I didn't know anything about him, I realized. Even Zeke, his adopted son, barely knew his father at all.
I wondered how many more secrets Jebbadiah had taken with him to the grave.
"They thought they had gotten away," Zeke continued, oblivious to my thoughts about his father. "But, a few miles out of town, a tall, pale man suddenly appeared in the middle of the road, smiling at them. Jeb's father swerved, and the car went into a gully, rolling down to the bottom. Jeb was thrown clear, but when he crawled back to the car, his sister was dead, his mom was lying against a rock with her head split open and his father was bleeding all over the place. Jeb tried to pull him free, but his father pressed something into his hand, said it must be protected at all costs and told him to run. He wouldn't have listened, except the pale man was coming. So he ran."
Kanin stood silent, unmoving, while I still tried to wrap my head around the thought of Jeb as a teen and a brother, watching his family die. "That was Sarren, wasn't it?" Zeke asked, looking up at Kanin. "Taking revenge by killing the scientists and their families. When you were talking about the lab burning down and the rabids escaping, everything sort of clicked." When Kanin still didn't answer, he gave a humorless chuckle, shaking his head. "It all comes back to you, doesn't it?" he murmured. "The rabids, Sarren, Jackal. Everything."
"If you want vengeance for your father," Kanin finally said, his tone low and weary, "I would ask you to wait until we solve this crises. Afterward, if I am still alive, feel free to join the ranks of every vampire and human who wishes to remove my head, though I fear it is a very, very long line."
"I don't want revenge," Zeke told him before I could speak up. "Not on you, anyway. And not just because of Allison, either." He leveled a piercing stare at Kanin, who regarded him blankly. "You tried to help the scientists before," he said. "Do you still feel the same way? Do you still want to save the human race?" When Kanin frowned, Zeke paused, as if debating with himself whether or not to continue. Finally, he sighed. "If there was a possible cure for Rabidism," he went on slowly, "what would you do to find it, to protect it?"
"Zeke." I stared at him as Kanin straightened, giving him his full attention. "What are you saying?"
He gave me a guilty look. "I wanted to tell you earlier," he began. "But I didn't want to mention it around Jackal or the other vampires. The scientists in Eden...have something. At least, that's what they hope."
I gaped, feeling my stomach drop. "There's a cure?"
"Maybe. It's too soon to tell." He looked at me and Kanin in turn. "With Jeb's research, they've been able to get closer than they ever have before. But they've hit a block. They're missing something crucial. Something that isn't in Eden."
I frowned in confusion, but Kanin closed his eyes. "Vampire blood," he murmured, and my insides went cold.
Vampire blood. The thing that had started it all, that had birthed the rabids and turned the whole world into hell on earth.
And then the real reason Zeke was here, the reason he had tracked me across the country, begged me to go with him to Eden, hit me like a slap in the face. "That's...that's why you wanted me to come with you to Eden?" I asked faintly, looking at Zeke in horror. "You want to hand me over to the scientists, to use as their damn lab rat? So they can stick me in a cage and poke me with needles, like the vampires in the old hospital? Like the humans in the Old D.C. lab, tied to their beds and screaming while they were being experimented on?" My voice was growing louder, the vampire within howling at this betrayal, urging me to attack. My fangs slid out, and I bared them at the human before me. "Is that why you came, Ezekiel?"
"Of course not!" Zeke rose quickly, wincing as he steadied himself. I snarled and backed away from him, and he held out a hand, his voice gentle. "Allie," he pleaded, "you know me better than that. I would never do anything that would hurt or imprison or put you in danger. If that was my only reason for coming, I wouldn't be down here trying to stop Sarren. I would've gotten the blood some other way and gone back to Eden by now." His brow furrowed, and he rubbed his forehead before focusing on me again. "You...you are the only reason I'm here, the only reason I came."