Walking closer, I gently brushed his arm. “You okay?” I murmured.
He nodded once. “Trying not to think about it,” he said.
“About…them. About everyone. Mostly Caleb and Bethany, and how they used to sit next to me in church and tell me everything their goats did that week. And…I just failed spectacularly, didn’t I?” He gave a humorless chuckle and hung his head, running his fingers through his hair. “They’re the last ones, Allie,” he said, his voice pained as he raised his head.
“They can’t be gone.”
It was hard to think anything could still be alive out here.
It was foolish to hope, and to offer hope, when reality was dark and cruel and didn’t care about human attachments, or emotions, or what was right. I had dared to hope before, and it had nearly killed me. It went against everything Allie the Fringer believed; nothing lasted in the world, and the only way to survive was not to care, about anything.
But Allie the Fringer was dead. And Allison the vampire had a family now. A strange, undead, sometimes infuriating family, but she was no longer alone. She had lost the human boy she loved, only to find him again, back from the dead.
And, somehow, though he’d sworn that he would rather die than become a vampire, he was still here, walking right beside her.
So…maybe it was okay to hope, to trust that things could work out. Maybe…maybe that was what had kept me human all this time, that faith that I could be more than a monster.
When I lost that hope—that was when the monster won.
I shook myself. Epiphanies aside, I could not let myself be distracted. And I couldn’t let Zeke be distracted, either. If there was hope for a future, for all of us, we had to stop Sarren, before he destroyed all hope, forever.
“They’re tough,” I told Zeke. “Those little kids followed you all the way to Eden, through rabids and wild animals and the psycho raider king himself. If they’re alive, we’ll find them.”
“But Sarren comes first,” Zeke finished, nodding gravely.
“I know.” Meeting my gaze, he offered a grim smile. “Don’t worry about me, Allison. I have my priorities straight. I know what we have to do.” He paused, then added in a very soft voice, “But you have to be ready to do the same.”
I frowned at him, confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Hey, puppy.” Jackal’s voice echoed over the rooftops, interrupting us. He and Kanin stood at the edge of the roof, looking back at us. In the distance, wisps of smoke writhed into the air from a much closer power plant. Jackal’s eyes glowed yellow, and he crossed his arms with a smirk in Zeke’s direction. “When you’re done making goo-goo eyes at my sister, why don’t you step on over here and show us where we’re supposed to go?”
Zeke gave me an apologetic look and moved forward, joining Kanin and Jackal at the edge of the rooftops. I followed, peering down from our perch, curious as to what lay below.
Several yards from where we stood, the crowded apartments ended, and a chain-link fence separated the buildings from a large, flat field. Across the open lot, surrounded by another fence, the power plant glimmered like a metal castle, wreathed in billowing smoke. Smaller buildings surrounded it, long and white, and Zeke pointed to one on the very corner, engulfed in the shadow of the plant.
“There,” he said, his voice grim. “That’s the laboratory.”
Where Sarren will be, I added to myself, feeling a chill crawl up my spine. Waiting for us. I swallowed as the realization hit hard: this was it. We were going in to face the terrifying, brilliantly insane vampire who wanted to destroy the world. No telling what we would find when we went in, but it would probably be awful, dangerous and as horrifying as Sarren’s twisted brain would allow. I hope you’re ready, Al ie. The last time you went down into his lair, one of you didn’t come out.
Kanin, standing motionless at the edge of the roof, observed the lab with impassive black eyes and nodded once.
“Let’s be careful,” he said quietly, echoing my thoughts. “Sarren knows we’re here and that we’re very close. He has had time to prepare for our arrival. When we go into the lab, it is likely that he will attempt to whittle us down first, either with traps or living creatures. We must be prepared to face whatever horrors he is sure to throw at us. Sarren himself is at his most dangerous face-to-face, and his mood can shift in the blink of an eye. Even after decades of knowing him, learning his patterns and how his mind works, I still could not tell you exactly what he will do in a fight.”
“Well, I can answer that,” Jackal said breezily, and bared his fangs in a lethal grin. “He can die. Painfully. After I rip his other arm from the socket and shove it so far down his poetry-spouting piehole that he chokes on it. What I don’t understand is why we’re standing up here yapping away when we should be down there kicking in his door. So, come on, team.” Jackal’s gaze was mocking but dangerous. “Let’s go kill ourselves a psychopath.”
The lab was quiet as we scaled the chain-link fence and made our way toward the long white building at the end of the lot. Nothing moved; no rabids roamed around the lab, at least not on the outside. The windows were empty and dark, but the closer we got to the building, the more convinced I became that Sarren was watching us. Kanin avoided the front doors, taking us around the back, though I didn’t know why we bothered with stealth. If Sarren knew we were here, we might as well kick down the doors and start killing anything in our way.
Instead, Kanin used his elbow to break a window, somehow managing to do it silently, and we slipped into the dark rooms of a madman’s lair.
Once inside, Kanin turned to Zeke.
“Where to now?” he asked softly, as I scanned the room warily. It was white and sterile, with long counters lined with many small things that glinted in the darkness. I shivered, re- membering another lab, another set of precise, sharp instruments, winking at me from a pool of Zeke’s blood.
“I’m not sure,” Zeke whispered back, unaware of my sudden, gruesome recollections. “But if I had to guess, I would say the basement level. That’s where the scientists did a lot of their experiments. Where I stayed most of the time when I was here.”
My stomach turned, thinking of all the things they might have done to Zeke, but Kanin only nodded. “Then lead the way,” he said, nodding to the door. “And let’s be careful.”