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The Immortal Rules, Page 2

Julie Kagawa

Chapter 2


  People will tell you that it's impossible to leave New Covington, that the Outer Wall is impenetrable, that no one can get in or out of the city even if they want to.

  People are wrong.

  The Fringe is a massive concrete jungle; canyons of broken glass and rusting steel, skeletal giants choked by vines, rot and corrosion. Save for the very center of the city, where the looming vampire towers gleam with dark radiance, the surrounding structures look diseased, hollow and perilously close to collapse. Below the jagged skyline, with few humans to keep it in check, the wilderness outside creeps closer. Rusted shells of what were once cars are scattered about the streets, their rotted frames wrapped in vegetation. Trees, roots and vines push up through sidewalks and even rooftops, splitting pavement and steel, as nature slowly claims the city for its own. In recent years, a few of the looming skyscrapers finally succumbed to time and decay, tumbling to the ground in a roar of dust and cement and breaking glass, killing everyone unlucky enough to be around it when it happened. It was a fact of life anymore. Enter any building nowadays, and you could hear it creaking and groaning above your head, maybe decades away from collapse, or maybe only seconds.

  The city is falling apart. Everyone in the Fringe knows it, but you can't think about that. No use in worrying about what you can't change.


  I was worried about, more than anything, was avoiding the vamps, not getting caught, and getting enough to eat to survive one more day.

  Sometimes, like today, that called for drastic measures.

  What I was about to do was risky and dangerous as hell, but if I was worried about risk, I wouldn't be Unregistered, would I?

  The Fringe was divided into several sections, sectors as they called them, all neatly fenced off to control the f low of food and people. Another device built "for our protection. " Call it what you want; a cage is still a cage. As far as I knew, there were five or six sectors in a loose semicircle around the Inner City. We were Sector 4. If I had a tattoo that could be scanned, it would read something like: Allison Sekemoto, resident number 7229, Sector 4, New Covington. Property of Prince Salazar. Technically, the Prince owned every human in the city, but his officers had harems and thralls-bloodslaves-of their own, as well. Fringers, on the other hand-Registered Fringers anyway-were "communal property. " Which meant any vampire could do anything they wanted to them.

  No one in the Fringe seemed bothered by their tattoo.

  Nate, one of the assistants at Hurley's trading post, was constantly trying to get me to Register, saying the tattooing didn't hurt very much and the whole giving blood part wasn't so bad once you got used to it. He couldn't understand why I was being so stubborn. I told him it wasn't the scanning or the giving blood that I hated the most.

  It was the whole "Property of " bit that bothered me. I was no one's property. If the damn bloodsuckers wanted me, they'd have to catch me first. And I wasn't going to make it easy for them.

  The barrier between sectors was simple: chain-link topped with barbed wire. The steel curtains ran for miles and weren't well patrolled. There were guards at the iron gates in each sector that let the food trucks in and out of the Inner City, but nowhere else. Really, the vamps didn't particularly care if some of their cattle slipped back and forth between sectors.

  The majority of the deadly, lethal force was dedicated to protecting the Outer Wall every night.

  You had to admit, the Outer Wall was pretty impressive.

  Thirty feet high, six feet thick, the ugly monstrosity of iron, steel and concrete loomed over the perimeter of the Fringe, surrounding the entire city. There was only one gate to the outside, two doors of solid iron, barred from the inside with heavy steel girders that took three men to remove. It wasn't in my sector, but I'd seen it open once, while scavenging far from home. Spotlights had been placed along the Wall every fifty yards, scanning the ground like enormous eyes. Beyond the Wall was the "kill zone," a razed strip of ground littered with barbed-wire coils, trenches, spiked pits and mines, all designed to do one thing: keep rabids away from the Wall.

  The Outer Wall was feared and hated throughout New Covington, reminding us that we were trapped here, like penned-in sheep, but it was greatly revered, as well. No one could survive the ruins beyond the city, especially when darkness fell. Even the vamps disliked going into the ruins. Beyond the Wall, the night belonged to the rabids. No sane person went over the Wall, and those who tried were either gunned down or blown to bits in the kill zone.

  Which was why I planned to go beneath.

  I pushed my way through the waist-high weeds that filled the ditch, keeping one hand on the cement wall as I maneuvered puddles and shattered glass. I hadn't been here in a while, and the weeds had covered all traces of previous passing. Circling the rock pile, ignoring the suspicious-looking bones scattered about the base, I counted a dozen steps from the edge of the rubble, stopped and knelt down in the grass.

  I brushed away the weeds, careful not to disturb the surroundings too much. I didn't want anyone knowing this was here. If word got out-if the vampires heard rumors that there was a possible exit out of their city, they would have every square inch of the Fringe searched until it was found and sealed tighter than a pet's hold on the food warehouse key. Not that they were terribly concerned about people getting out; there was nothing beyond the Outer Wall except ruins, wilderness and rabids. But exits were also entrances, and every few years, a rabid would find its way into the city via the tunnels that ran beneath. And there would be chaos and panic and death until the rabid was killed and the entry-way found and blocked off. But they always missed this one.

  The weeds parted, revealing a circle of black metal sunk into the ground. It was insanely heavy, but I kept a piece of rebar nearby to pry it up. Letting the cover thump into the grass, I gazed into a long, narrow hole. Rusty metal bars were set into the cement tube beneath the cover, leading down into the darkness.

  I glanced around, making sure no one was watching, then started down the ladder. It always worried me, leaving the tunnel entrance wide open, but the cover was too heavy for me to slide back once inside the tube. But it was well hidden in the long grass, and no one had discovered it yet, not in all the years of me sneaking out of the city.

  Still, I couldn't dawdle.

  Dropping to the cement f loor, I gazed around, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Putting a hand in my coat pocket, I closed it around my two most prized possessions: a lighter, still half full of f luid, and my pocket knife. The lighter I'd found on my previous trip into the ruins, and the knife I'd had for years. Both were extremely valuable, and I never went anywhere without them.

  As usual, the tunnels beneath the city reeked. The old-timers, the ones who had been kids in the time before the plague, said that all of the city's waste was once carried away through the pipes under the streets, instead of in buckets emptied into covered holes. If that was true, then it certainly explained the smell. About a foot from where I stood, the ledge dropped away into sludgy black water, trickling lazily down the tunnel. A huge rat, nearly the size of some of the alley cats I glimpsed topside, scurried off into the shadows, reminding me why I was here.

  With one last glance through the hole at the sky-still sunny and bright-I headed into the darkness.

  People used to think rabids lurked underground, in caves or abandoned tunnels, where they slept during the daylight hours and came out at night. Actually, most everyone still thought that, but I'd never seen a rabid down here, not once.

  Not even a sleeping one. That didn't mean anything, however.

  No one topside had ever seen a mole man, but everyone knew the rumors of diseased, light-shy humans living beneath the city, who would grab your ankles from storm drains and drag you down to eat you. I hadn't seen a mole man, either, but there were hundreds, maybe thousands of tunnels I'd never explored and didn't plan to. My goal, whenever I ventu
red into this dark, eerie world, was to get past the Wall and back up to the sunlight as quickly as possible.

  Luckily, I knew this stretch of tunnel, and it wasn't completely lightless. Sunlight filtered in from grates and storm drains, little bars of color in an otherwise gray world. There were places where it was pitch-black, and I had to use my lighter to continue, but the spaces were familiar, and I knew where I was going, so it wasn't terrible.

  Eventually, I wiggled my way out of a large cement tube that emptied into a weed-choked ditch, almost sliding on my stomach to get through the pipe. Sometimes there were perks to being very skinny. Wringing nasty warm water from my clothes, I stood up and gazed around.

  Over the rows of dilapidated roofs, past the barren, razed field of the kill zone, I could see the Outer Wall rising up in its dark, deadly glory. For some reason, it always looked strange from this side. The sun hovered between the towers in the center of the city, gleaming off their mirrored walls.

  There were still a few good hours left to hunt, but I needed to work fast.

  Past the kill zone, sprawled out like a gray-green, suburban carpet, the remains of the old suburbs waited for me in the fading afternoon light. I vaulted up the bank and slipped into the ruins of a dead civilization.

  Scavenging the ruins was tricky. They say there used to be massive stores that had rows and rows of food, clothes and all kinds of other things. They were enormous and easily iden-tified by their wide, sprawling parking lots. But you didn't want to look there, because they were the first to be picked clean when everything went bad. Nearly sixty years after the plague, the only things left behind were gutted-out walls and empty shelves. The same was true of smaller food marts and gas stations. Nothing was left. I'd wasted many hours searching through those buildings to come up empty-handed every time, so now I didn't bother.

  But the normal residences, the rows of rotting, dilapidated houses along the crumbling streets, were a different story.

  Because here's something interesting I've learned about the human race: we like to hoard. Call it stockpiling, call it paranoia, call it preparing for the worst-the houses were far more likely to have food stashed away in cellars or buried deep in closets. You just had to ferret it out.

  The f loorboards creaked as I eased through the door of my fifth or sixth hopeful-a two-story house surrounded by a warped chain-link fence and nearly swallowed up by ivy, windows broken, porch strangled under vines and weeds. The roof and part of the upper f loor had fallen in, and faint rays of light filtered through the rotten beams. The air was thick with the smell of mold, dust and vegetation, and the house seemed to hold its breath as I stepped inside.

  I searched the kitchen first, rummaging through cupboards, opening drawers, even checking the ancient refrigerator in the corner. Nothing. A few rusty forks, an empty tin can, a broken mug. All stuff I'd seen before. In one bedroom, the closets were empty, the dresser overturned, a large oval mirror shattered on the f loor. The blankets and sheets had been stripped from the bed, and a suspicious dark blot stained one side of the mattress. I didn't wonder what it might be. You don't wonder about things like that. You just move on.

  In the second bedroom, which was not quite as ravaged as the first, an old crib stood in the corner, filmy and covered in cobwebs. I eased around it, deliberately not looking inside the peeling bars, to the once-white shelves on the wall.

  A shattered lamp stood on one shelf, but beneath it, I saw a familiar, dust-covered rectangle.

  Picking it up, I wiped away the film and cobwebs, scanning the title at the top. Goodnight, Moon, it read, and I smiled ruefully. I wasn't here for books, and I needed to remember that. If I brought this home instead of say, food, Lucas would be furious, and we'd probably fight about it, again.

  Maybe I was being too hard on him. It wasn't that he was stupid, just practical. He was more concerned with survival than learning a skill that was useless in his eyes. But I couldn't give up just because he was being stubborn. If I could get him to read, maybe we could start teaching other Fringers, kids like us. And maybe, just maybe, that would be enough to start. . . something. I didn't know what, but there had to be something better than just survival.

  I'd tucked the book under my arm, filled with a new resolve, when a soft clink made me freeze. Something was in the house with me, moving around just outside the bedroom door.

  Very carefully, I laid the book back on the shelf without disturbing the dust. I'd come back for it later, if I survived whatever was coming.

  Slipping my hand into my pocket, I gripped my knife and slowly turned. Shadows moved through the sickly light coming from the living room, and the faint, tapping steps echoed just outside the doorway. I f lipped the knife blade open and stepped backward, pressing myself against the wall and the dresser, my heart thudding against my ribs. As a dark shape paused just outside the door, I heard slow, labored panting, and held my breath.

  A deer stepped into the frame.

  My gut and throat unclenched, though I didn't immediately relax. Wildlife was common enough in the city ruins, though why a deer would be wandering around a human house, I didn't know. Straightening, I blew out a slow breath, causing the doe to jerk her head up, peering in my direction, as if she couldn't quite see what was there.

  My stomach growled, and for a moment, I had visions of sidling up to the deer and plunging the blade into her neck.

  You almost never saw meat of any kind in the Fringe. Rat and mouse were highly prized, and I've seen nasty, bloody fights over a dead pigeon. There were a few stray dogs and cats running around the Fringe, but they were wild, vicious creatures that, unless you wanted to risk an infected bite, were best left alone. The guards also had leave to shoot any animal found wandering about the streets, and usually did, so meat of any kind was extremely scarce.

  A whole deer carcass, cut into strips and dried, would feed me and my crew for a month. Or I could trade cuts for meal tickets, blankets, new clothes, whatever I wanted. Just thinking about it made my stomach growl again, and I shifted my weight to one leg, ready to ease forward. As soon as I moved, the deer would probably bolt out the door, but I had to try.

  But then, the doe looked right at me, and I saw the thin streams of blood oozing from her eyes, spotting the f loor.

  My blood ran cold. No wonder she wasn't afraid. No wonder she had followed me here and was watching me with the f lat, glazed stare of a predator. She had been bitten by a rabid.

  And the disease had driven her mad.

  I took a quiet breath to slow my heartbeat, trying not to panic. This was bad. The doe was blocking the door, so there was no way I could go through her without risking an attack.

  Her eyes hadn't turned completely white yet, so the sickness was still in its beginning stages. Hopefully if I kept calm, I could get out of here without being trampled to death.

  The doe snorted and tossed her head, the jerky movement causing her to stumble into the door frame. Another effect of the sickness; diseased animals seemed confused and unco-ordinated one moment but could switch to hyper-aggressive fury in the blink of an eye. I gripped my knife and eased to the side, toward the broken window along the wall.

  The doe raised her head, rolling her eyes, and gave a raspy growl unlike anything I'd ever heard from a deer. I saw her muscles bunching up to charge, and I bolted for the window.

  The deer lunged into the room, snorting, hooves f lailing in deadly arcs. One of them caught my thigh as I darted past, a glancing blow, but it felt like someone had hit it with a hammer. The doe crashed into the far wall, overturning a shelf, and I threw myself out the window.

  Scrambling through the weeds, I ran for a partially collapsed shed in the corner of the backyard. The roof had fallen in, and vines completely covered the rotting walls, but the doors were still intact. I squeezed through the frame and ducked into a corner, panting, listening for sounds of pursuit.

  For the moment, everything was
silent. After my heartbeat returned to normal, I peered through a crack between boards and could just make out the doe's dark form still in the room, stumbling about in confusion, occasionally attacking the mattress or broken dresser, blind in her rage. Okay, then. I would just sit tight until psycho deer calmed down and wandered away. Hopefully, that would be before the sun went down. I needed to head back to the city soon.

  Easing away from the wall, I turned to observe the shed, wondering if anything useful was still intact. There didn't seem to be much: a few collapsed shelves, a handful of rusty nails that I quickly pocketed, and a strange, squat machine with four wheels and a long handle that looked like you'd push it around. To what end, I hadn't a clue.

  I noticed a hole in the planks beneath the strange machine and shoved it back, revealing a trapdoor underneath.

  It had been sealed with a heavy padlock, now so rusty a key would've been useless, but the f loorboards themselves were rotten and falling apart. I easily pried up several planks to make a big enough hole and found a set of folding steps leading down into the darkness.

  Gripping my knife, I descended into the hole.

  It was dark in the basement, but at least an hour of broad daylight remained, enough to filter in through the hole and the cracks in the ceiling above me. I stood in a small, cool room, concrete lining the walls and f loor, a lightbulb with a string dangling overhead. The walls were lined with wooden shelves, and on those shelves, dozens upon dozens of cans winked at me in the dim light. My heart stood still.


  Lunging forward, I snatched the nearest can off the shelf, sending three others clattering to the f loor in my excitement.

  The can had a faded label wrapped around it, but I didn't bother trying to figure out the words. Digging out my knife, I jammed the blade into the top and attacked the tin furiously, sawing at the metal with shaking hands.

  A sweet, heavenly aroma arose from inside, and my hunger roared to life in response, making me slightly dizzy. Food! Real food! Prying back the lid, I barely took the time to glance at the contents-some kind of mushy fruit in a slimy liquid-

  before I dumped the whole thing back and into my mouth.

  The sweetness shocked me, cloyingly thick and pulpy, unlike anything I'd tasted before. In the Fringe, fruit and vegetables were almost unheard of. I drank the entire thing without pause, feeling it settle in my empty stomach, and grabbed another can.

  This one contained beans in more glistening liquid, and I devoured that, too, scooping the red mush out with my fingers. I went through another can of fruit slime, a can of creamed corn, and a small tin of sausage links the size of my finger, before I finally slowed down enough to think.

  I'd stumbled upon a treasure trove, one so vast it was staggering. These kinds of hidden caches were the stuff of legends, and here I was, standing in the middle of one. With my stomach full-a rare sensation-I started exploring, taking stock of what was here.

  Nearly one whole wall was dedicated to cans, but there was so much variety, according to the different labels. Most were too faded or torn to read, but I was still able to pick out a lot of canned vegetables, fruit, beans and soup. There were also cans containing strange foods I'd never heard of. Spa Gettee Ohs, and Rah Vee Oh Lee, and other weird things. Shelved in with the cans were boxes containing squarish bundles of something wrapped in shiny, silvery paper. I had no idea what they were, but if the answer was more food, I wasn't complaining.

  The opposite wall had dozens of clear gallon water jugs, a few propane tanks, one of those portable green stoves I'd seen Hurley use, and a gas lantern. Whoever set this place up sure wasn't taking any chances, for all the good it did them in the end.

  Well, thanks, mysterious person. You sure made my life a lot easier.

  My mind raced, considering my options. I could keep this place a secret, but why? There was enough food here to feed my whole gang for months. I scanned the room, pondering how I wanted to do this. If I told Lucas about this place, the four of us-me, Rat, Lucas and Stick-could come back and take everything in one fell swoop. It would be dangerous, but for this amount of food, it would be worth it.

  I turned slowly, regretting that I didn't have anything to carry the food back in. That was intelligent of you, Allison. I usually took one of the backpacks the crew kept in a hall closet when venturing into the ruins-that's what we kept them for, after all-but I hadn't wanted to run into Rat again. Still, I had to take something back. If I was going to convince Lucas to risk a very dangerous trip out of the city, I'd need some kind of proof.

  Scanning the room, I paused. A pair of bulging garbage bags lay on the top shelf, shoved against the wall. They looked like they might hold blankets or clothes or other useful things, but right now, I was more concerned with food.

  "That'll work," I muttered and walked up to the shelves.

  Without a ladder or a box or anything to stand on, I was going to have to climb. Putting a foot between the cans, I heaved myself up.

  The board creaked horribly under my weight but held.

  Gripping the rough wood, I pulled myself up another foot, then another, until I could reach my arm over the top shelf and feel around for the bags. Gripping a corner of filmy plastic in two fingers, I pulled it toward me.

  The wood suddenly groaned, and before I knew it, the entire shelf tipped backward. Panicked, I tried to jump clear, but dozens of cans rushed forward, slamming into me, and I lost my grip. I struck the cement f loor, the ring and clatter of metal tins all around me, and had a split-second glance of the shelves filling my vision before everything went black.