I gripped my sword so hard the hilt bit into my palm, and I would've snarled in frustration had Jackal not been twenty feet away. Who knew how far Sarren had extended his lead now? Months of searching, of trying to close the gap and find my sire, all for nothing! The psychotic vampire still had him and could be on the other side of the world for all I knew.
And here I was, trapped in this house with my brother, who probably wanted to kill me.
"I've been waiting for you, sister." Jackal smiled as he approached, fangs gleaming. His duster billowed behind him, and I caught a glint of metal beneath. "You took your sweet time, didn't you? And after the Prince of Old D.C. told all the guards and house staff to hide in the basement to let you through, just in case you were Hungry, you still had to skulk through the house like a common burglar. Didn't it seem a bit odd, not running into anyone?"
Now I did snarl at him, baring my fangs. "What are you doing here, Jackal?"
"Visiting the Prince," Jackal said mildly, and shrugged. "Waiting for you." He continued to grin at me, smug and dangerous. "Oh, what's the matter, sister? Did you not expect me? Were you hoping to run into someone else?"
"I was, actually," I shot back, and took a step forward, raising my sword. "But I'll take care of you before I go looking for him again. Let's get on with it."
"Let's not," said a low voice, and a new presence entered the room, closing the door behind her. A tall, statuesque woman gazed down at me with large black eyes. Full red lips stood out sharply against her dusky skin, and her hair floated around her face like a dark cloud. "If you and Jackal are going to fight," she said in a throaty voice, "then wait until tonight and do it outside. I'd rather not have you throwing each other around and breaking furniture."
"Azura." Jackal smiled, waving a hand at me. "This is my lovely little sister."
"I gathered that," the vampiress said, not returning the smile. To me, she said, "Please put your weapon away. If you are going to remain in my house, you will do so on civil terms. I would hate to have you thrown out to face the sun."
I felt trapped, staring them down. Two vampires, one of whom was still a Prince and probably a Master. I was all too happy to fight Jackal again, but I doubted I could take them both. The female had that same calm, cool air of another vampire I knew, another Master, and I could feel the power in that deceitfully slender form.
I sheathed my blade cautiously, still keeping a wary eye on Jackal, who looked far too pleased with this whole situation. "What's going on?"
"Azura is an old...acquaintance of mine," Jackal said, shooting the vampire woman a sultry look. Other than a raised eyebrow, she did not respond. "I thought, since I was passing through, I would her pay a visit. Of course, once I sensed you coming, I thought I'd stick around and wait for you."
"If you're looking for a fight, I'll be glad to give you one."
"Trust me, sister. Nothing would make me happier." Jackal bared his fangs in an evil grin, and I tensed, ready to draw my sword again. "I would love to tear the head from your neck and stick it on the wall outside, but I promised Azura I would behave." He jerked his head at the vampire woman, who continued to watch us both with detached amusement. "Besides," Jackal continued, "I thought you might be interested to know what I discovered about Kanin and Sarren."
That threw me. I narrowed my eyes, staring him down. "How do you know about that?"
"Oh, come on." Jackal crossed his arms. "You're not the only one looking for our dear sire. Kanin and I need to have a little talk, but that freak Sarren is making it difficult. Did you actually come here looking for them?" He shook his head, either in admiration or disgust. "What would you have done if it had been Sarren you stumbled onto, and not me? You think you're a match for him, little sister? He would have turned you inside out."
"So what are you doing?" I challenged. "Hiding out here, hoping Sarren gets bored or tired of tormenting Kanin? Don't want to take on Sarren yourself?"
"Damn straight," Jackal returned with a flash of fangs. "I'm not going after that psycho unless I have to. You think I'm bad?" He snorted and shook his head. "You haven't seen anything until you've met crazy Sarren. And you sure as hell won't be able to take him on alone. Not even Kanin wanted to cross paths with him. He'll completely destroy you."
I blinked, startled at the underlying fear in Jackal's voice. It sounded like he had run into Sarren before, as well, or maybe Kanin had simply warned him about Psycho Vamp and his eternal vendetta. Whatever the reason, hearing Jackal's warning made me even more reluctant to face Sarren and more desperate to get Kanin away from him.
"Listen to your brother," Azura broke in, startling me. "He is correct. We all have heard of Sarren and his cruelty, his ruthlessness, his brilliance even through his madness. When I heard that he was in the city, I ordered my humans to not leave the house even during the day, and ran the fence continuously until I was certain he was gone."
Damn. Even the Master vampire, the Prince of this city, was scared of Sarren. How strong was he, really? Or was he just an unpredictable nut job that no one wanted around, spouting creepy poetry and making everyone nervous?
Somehow, I doubted it. Sarren was cunning and dangerous enough to capture Kanin, the strongest vampire I knew. True, Psycho Vamp had been after him for a very, very long time, and it was partially my fault that he had found us, but still. If Kanin had succumbed to Sarren's cruel insanity, what would he do to me?
"So, why are you still here?" I demanded, glaring at Jackal. "You said you were waiting for me-here I am. What do you want?"
"I have a proposition for you."
Instantly suspicious, I stiffened, and Jackal sighed. "Oh, don't give me that look, sister. I'm a reasonable guy." He smiled dangerously. "You invaded my city, set it on fire, killed my men, and destroyed over ten years of careful planning, but that doesn't mean we can't reach an agreement."
"I have nothing to say to you," I growled. "There's nothing you can offer that will keep me here. I'm leaving. If you want a fight, try me again when the sun goes down."
"Well, that's a shame," Jackal replied, seeming unconcerned as I turned away. "Because I know what Sarren was looking for."
I paused a few feet from the hall. I could feel Jackal's smug, knowing grin at my back and, hating myself, turned slowly back around. "What are you talking about?"
"Like I said, Sarren came to Old D.C. looking for something. Showed up a few days before I did, then took off again with Kanin. I didn't follow, because I'm not stupid enough to take him on myself, and because I could feel you coming. So I thought I'd wait for you."
"You still haven't answered my question. Or given me any reason to stick around." I narrowed my eyes. "In fact, you have about five seconds to make your case before I walk out that door."
"Oh, trust me. You'll want to hear this." The former raider king crossed his arms, unconcerned. "You know how the rabids were created, don't you?" he asked. "That it was our dear sire, the noble Kanin himself, who sacrificed our own kind to seek a cure to the plague, only to have the humans screw everything up when they changed those vampires into rabids?"
"He told me."
"Good. Saves me the time of explaining everything." Jackal leaned against a bookcase. "Well, they didn't have just the one lab. The government had a few of them, scattered about the country, all frantically working to end the plague. And one of them is somewhere in this city." He grinned at my startled expression. "Yeah, Kanin once mentioned there was a hidden lab in the old capital, and when Sarren came sniffing around, I figured that's what he was looking for."
"Where is this lab?"
"No idea." Jackal shrugged. "Figured I'd talk to Azura, see if she knew anything about it. She thinks that it's underneath the city somewhere, down in the old tunnel systems that run belowground. Problem is, those tunnels are crawling with rabids, making it difficult to search for it. That's when I got the brilliant idea to wait until you showed up. I figured we'd cover more ground if we looked for it together."
It was my turn to snort. "And I'm going to agree to help you...why?"
"Because if you help me find the lab," Jackal returned, "I'll help you save Kanin."
"I don't need your help-"
"Yes, you do." He pushed himself off the bookcase, giving me an intense look. "You don't know Sarren. You don't know what he's capable of. You think you're going to storm his lair, take him out and rescue Kanin, but you're wrong. Sarren's a crazy bastard, and he's older and smarter than either of us. You want to stop him, you're going to need my help. We can always kill each other later, when we catch up to our sire. But if you want to see Kanin again, you're going to have to trust me."
"Because you have such a great track record in that department?"
"Oh, come on," Jackal said, smiling encouragingly. "Just because I staked you and tossed you out a window? Surely we can get past that little misunderstanding."
"No," I growled, feeling my fangs slip through my gums. "It's not what you did to me. You kidnapped and murdered my friends. You fed one of them to a rabid. You tortured a man to get what you wanted, and you are responsible for his death." I remembered the bloodstained arena, the cage in the center and the rabid pulling its victim down with chilling screams. My lip curled back from my fangs. "I should kill you now for what you did to them."
"Is that so?" Jackal regarded me intently. "Then tell me, my dear sister, how many have you killed? How many of my men died when you fled the city with your little 'friends,' hmm? How many throats have you torn out, how many humans have you ripped apart, because you couldn't control the Hunger? Or maybe I'm wrong." He tilted his head with a fake quizzical expression. "Maybe you're the first of our kind who doesn't need human blood to survive. If that's the case, then please, tell me now so I can apologize and be on my way." He looked at me expectantly with his eyebrows raised. I clenched my fists and glared back, and he nodded. "Who are you trying to fool? People are food. You know it as well as I do. So don't expect me to feel terribly guilty about killing your humans, not when you reek of blood and death. You're not any less of a monster then I am."
I growled, half tempted to lunge and cut that smirking head from his body. Zeke's father, Jebbadiah Crosse, deserved that much justice. So did Darren and Ruth and all the others we'd lost because of the raider king. But Azura took a single step forward, placing herself closer to me and Jackal, and I could feel her readiness to jump in if needed.
"Work with me here, sister," Jackal went on, his voice low and cajoling. "I'm not asking for much. I just want you to help me find the lab. Then we can go rescue the old man, but I need to find the lab first."
"That could take time," I argued. "Time I don't have. Time Kanin doesn't have. We have to get to him before-"