Jackal emerged from the slaughter, blood-drenched and dangerous-looking, crimson streaking his face and hands.
Gazing around, he nodded in satisfaction. Kanin also appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, stepping over bodies as he made his way to the center.
“All righty, then.” Jackal kicked a body out of his path and sauntered forward, grinning. “I feel better already. Nothing like massacring a bunch of filthy traitors to get the blood flowing. Wonder where the rest of the bastards are hiding.”
I blinked at him. “There’s more?”
He sneered at me. “This wasn’t even half the army, sister. When I said there’s a whole f**king lot of them, I wasn’t exaggerating. I’m guessing this was just the welcome-home party, and the rest of them are somewhere between this floor and Sarren.”
“Then perhaps we should keep moving,” Kanin suggested.
“Unless there is another way to the top.”
“Not unless you want to climb the elevator shaft,” Jackal said, and began walking across the floor, weaving between beams and rubble, stepping over dead bodies. We picked our way through the room, the scent of blood now mingling with the stench of lingering smoke and charred flesh, until we reached a metal door on the other side.
“Ladies first,” Jackal grinned, and pushed open the door to the stairwell.
I stepped through, frowning, then paused. Directly across from me, on the far wall, someone had written a message. In blood. Below that, a wet, unrecognizable lump of…something…had been speared to the wall with a knife. Stepping closer, I looked up at the top line, and my blood went cold.
Little bird, it read, making my stomach turn in hate and revulsion. There was only one sicko who called me that. I could see his scarred face, hear his awful, raspy voice as he smiled at me, whispering his insane plans. “Sing for me, little bird,” he’d told me once, holding up his knife and smiling. “Sing for me, and make it a glorious song.”
I shivered and forced myself to read the rest of the message.
This is yours, the bloody note went on, the letters dripping into each other. Or, at least, I believe Ezekiel wanted you to have it.
I went numb with dread. Fearfully, unable to stop myself, I looked at the lump at the bottom of the message, recognizing it for what it really was. Immediately wishing I hadn’t.
A human heart.
Behind me, Jackal swore, and Kanin called out to me, his voice urgent. I barely heard them. I didn’t register the words. I couldn’t see anything but that awful token Sarren had left behind. It was like he’d reached into my consciousness, found the one thing that scared me more than anything else, and dragged it, twisted and perverse, into the light. My eyes burned, hot tears welling in the corners, but they weren’t tears of sadness or grief. They were tears of blinding, uncon-trollable rage.
My vision went black and red. Baring my fangs, I gave a strangled cry that was part roar, part scream, my voice echoing up the stairwell. Gripping my katana, ignoring Kanin’s cries for me to stop, I leaped up the stairs, my mind only on one thing. Finding Sarren, and ripping him to pieces bit by bit. Driving my fist into his chest and tearing the warped, evil heart from his body, making sure he watched me do it.
I heard Kanin and Jackal start after me. But as I raced up the stairs, a sharp, ominous beeping echoed behind me, making the hairs on my neck stand up. I turned just as an explosion boomed through the stairwell, making the whole structure shake. Rock, dust and rubble rained down on me, and I staggered away, shielding my face. When the smoke and debris cleared, the stairs behind me were collapsed, and a wall of concrete, rubble and steel beams blocked the way down.
“Kanin!” I scrambled to the edge and tugged on a massive iron girder, trying to yank it aside. I was strong, but the girder was huge and half buried under a few tons of rock; it groaned but didn’t budge. “Kanin! Jackal! Where are you?
Can you hear me?”
A familiar annoyed voice came from somewhere below, muffled through the stone and rock, but there.
“We’re fine, Allison,” Kanin called over Jackal’s swearing, making me slump with relief. But a gunshot rang out, followed by distant shouting, and the sound of bullets sparking off the walls below. Jackal snarled.
“Well, shit. There are the rest of ’em. I was wondering where they were hiding.”
“Allison!” Kanin called, as the shouts and gunshots grew louder. “Wait for us! We’ll find another way up! Do not take on Sarren by yourself, do you understand?”
A yell echoed somewhere below, and bullets ricocheted off the walls. “We gotta move, old man,” Jackal yelled, his voice booming through the stairwell. “Now!”
“Kanin!” I called, but there was no answer. Kanin and Jackal had already moved back into the room. I listened as the screams, shots and roars of furious vampires raged below for a few seconds, then faded away, growing distant as if the fight had left the room. Or as if Jackal and Kanin had fled, taking the army with them.
Alone in the stairwell, I straightened, backed away from the cave-in, and gazed up the stairs. He was up there, somewhere. Waiting for me. Everything he’d done so far—the trap, the horrible message…Zeke’s heart—was to separate me from my group. He wasn’t interested in Kanin and Jackal.
He wanted me.
Okay, you bastard, I thought, gripping my blade. A cold resolve filled my heart, and I glanced up the stairwell. You want me? Here I come.
I met no one on my journey up the tower, probably because all the raiders were busy dealing with Jackal and Kanin.
I desperately hoped they were all right, though it was pointless to worry; I couldn’t help them now.
The long, twisting stairwell went on, dark and empty but never silent. The stairs creaked under my weight, and every so often a rusty groan would echo through the shaft, making my skin crawl. I tried not to imagine the whole thing collapsing beneath me, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
As I neared the top, the scent of old blood hit me, faint and indistinct, and I proceeded more cautiously. Reaching another landing, I stopped, stifling the tiny ripple of fear that crawled up my spine. Overhead, a light flickered, casting erratic, disjointed shadows over the wall, and the message written on it in blood.
Almost there, little bird.
I swallowed hard. Almost there, I agreed. And you’re going to pay for what you did to him. Watch me, Zeke. I’ll send your kil er to hel , and I’ll smile while I’m doing it.