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The Immortal Rules, Page 3

Julie Kagawa

Chapter 3


  A pounding in my skull brought me back to reality. My ears rang, and when I opened my eyes, darkness greeted me. For a moment, I didn't know where I was or what had happened.

  Something heavy pressed on my chest and legs, and when I shifted, several small, metal things rolled off me and pinged to the ground.

  "Shit," I whispered, remembering. Frantically, I wiggled out from beneath the shelf and limped to the steps, gazing up. Through the hole in the roof, the night sky was hazy and starless, but a sickly yellow moon peered through the clouds like a swollen eye.

  I was in trouble.

  Careless, stupid mistake, Allie. Creeping up the steps, I scanned the darkness and shadows, my heart crashing against my ribs in the silence. Below me, the cans made soft metallic sounds as they rolled across the f loor, but I couldn't worry about the wealth I was leaving behind. I had to get back to the city. I couldn't stay here. I'd heard stories of rabids tearing through walls and f loors to get to their prey; they never gave up once they sensed you. I couldn't let anything slow me down.

  Carefully, I eased myself out of the hole and crept to the door, reaching out to push it open. Froze.

  Along the side of the shed, something was moving.

  Weeds hissed against the wall as footsteps shuff led over the ground, and low growling that might've belonged to an animal slithered through the cracks. Withdrawing my hand, I silently eased into a corner and put my back to the wall, squeezing my knife to stop my hands from shaking. Outside the shed, it was nearly pitch-black, but I caught glimpses of a pale, emaciated figure through the cracks in the wood, listened to its steps as it moved along the outer wall. . . and stopped at the door.

  I held my breath, counting the seconds with every frantic heartbeat, biting my cheek to keep from panting.

  The door creaked and swung slowly inward.

  I didn't move. I didn't breathe. I felt the rough wood at my back and imagined myself a part of the wall, part of the shadows that cloaked me, hiding me from everything. On the other side of the door between us, the slow, raspy growls grew louder as the shadow turned its head from side to side, scanning the walls.

  An eternity passed.

  Finally, the door slowly creaked shut, and the shadow turned away, slouching off into the weeds. I listened to the shuff ling footsteps as they moved away, growing fainter, until the only sounds were the buzz of insects in the night.

  It was a moment before I could move or even breathe properly. Once the shaking stopped, I slipped out of the shed and hurried through the weeds, following the same path I'd taken to get there. With a chill I noted that my trail wasn't the only one cutting through the tall grass; a few other paths now crisscrossed the yard, showing I hadn't been alone in my time belowground. If it had found the stairs. . .

  I shuddered and hurried onward, stumbling through the empty streets. In the moonlight, the ruins looked even more foreboding, stark and hostile to the intruder in their midst.

  After dark within the city walls, people vanished off the streets and vampires walked the night, but the shadows were familiar, the darkness comforting. Here in the ruins, the darkness was alien, and the shadows seemed to creep closer, reaching out for you.

  Something shrieked in the night, a scream of animalistic fury, and I began to run.

  It was the longest few minutes of my life, but I made it back to the tunnels. Wriggling through the drain pipe, I'd almost convinced myself that something was behind me and sharp claws would close around my ankles, dragging me back.

  Mercifully, that didn't happen, and I leaned against the wall, gasping in short, frantic breaths until my heart stopped racing around my rib cage.

  In the tunnel, I couldn't see my hand before my face, and no amount of waiting would help my eyes adjust to the pitch blackness. Digging in my pocket, I brought out the lighter, clicking a tiny f lame to life. It barely illuminated the ground at my feet, but it was better than nothing.

  With the f lickering light held up before me, I started down the tunnels.

  Strange how a few short hours could change your view of the world. The once familiar tunnels were menacing now, the darkness a living thing, pressing in on all sides, suffocat-ing me. My footsteps seemed too loud in the quiet, and several times I held my breath, listening for phantom noises I was certain I'd heard over my quiet panting.

  The tunnels went on, and despite all my fears and imagin-ings, nothing leaped out at me. I was nearly home, just another turn and a few hundred yards to the ladder that led topside, when a splash echoed in the darkness.

  It wasn't loud, and in the daylight hours, with sunlight slanting in through the grates, I might've blamed a rat or something similar. But in the looming silence and blackness, my heart nearly stopped, and my blood turned to ice. I doused my f lame and ducked into a corner, holding my breath, straining my ears to listen. I didn't have to wait long.

  In the darkness of the tunnel ahead, a single f lashlight beam f lickered over the ground, and low, guttural voices echoed off the walls.

  ". . . what've we got here?" a voice wheezed, as I pressed myself into the wall. "A rat? A big rat, come creeping out of the darkness. You sure picked the wrong night to go wandering the undercity, friend. "

  Holding my breath, I risked a quick peek around the corner.

  Four men blocked the exit of the tunnel, thin and ragged, in filthy clothes and unkempt hair. They stood slightly hunched over, their shoulders bent and crooked, as if they spent all their lives in small cramped spaces and weren't used to standing up straight. They clutched jagged, rusty blades in their hands and grinned maniacally at a lone figure in the center of the tunnel, their eyes gleaming with anticipation and something darker.

  I ducked behind the corner again, heart pounding. You've got to be kidding, I mused, sinking farther into the concealing shadows, hoping they didn't hear me. This just isn't my night.

  Deer, rabids, and now freaking mole men in the tunnels. No one is going to believe this. I shook my head and huddled lower, clutching the handle of my knife. Now all I need is a vampire to come sauntering through and it'll be perfect.

  The mole men chuckled, and I heard them ease forward, probably surrounding the poor bastard who'd walked into their ambush. Run, you idiot, I thought, wondering what he thought he was doing, why I didn't hear footsteps pounding frantically away. Don't you know what they'll do to you? If you don't want to be on a stick over the fire, you'd better run.

  "I want no trouble," said a low voice, calm and collected.

  And even though I couldn't see him, didn't dare peek around the corner again, it sent shivers up my spine. "Let me pass, and I'll be on my way. You don't want to do this. "

  "Oh," one mole man purred, and I imagined him sidling forward, grinning, "I think we d-"

  His voice abruptly changed to a startled gurgle, followed by a wet splat, and the faint, coppery stench of blood filled the air. Enraged cries rang out, the sound of a scuff le, blades cutting through f lesh, agonized screams. I crouched in my shadowy corner and held my breath, until the final shriek died away, until the last body fell and silence crept into the tunnels once more.

  I counted thirty seconds of quiet. Sixty seconds. A minute and a half. Two. The tunnel remained silent. No footsteps, no shifting movements, no breathing. It was as still as the dead.

  Warily, I peered around the corner and bit my lip.

  The four mole men lay in heaps, weapons scattered about, the f lashlight shining weakly against a wall. Its beam pointed to a vivid splash of red, trickling down the cement to a motionless body. I scanned the tunnel again, looking for a fifth heap, but there were only the mole men, lying dead in the pale f lashlight beam. The dark stranger had disappeared.

  I sidled closer. I didn't want to touch the bodies, but the f lashlight was a valuable find. One that would keep me fed for several days if I could find the right trader. Edging around a pale, dirty arm, I snat
ched my trophy and rose-

  -shining the light right into the face of the stranger. Who didn't wince. Didn't even blink. I scrambled back, nearly tripping over the arm I'd stepped around, bringing my knife up before me. The stranger remained where he was, though his eyes, blacker than pitch, followed me as I retreated. I kept both the blade and the f lashlight pointed in his direction until I reached the edge and tensed to bolt into the shadows.

  "If you run, you'll be dead before you take three steps. " I stopped, heart pounding. I believed him. Gripping my knife, I turned around, staring at him over the bodies of the dead, waiting for his next move.

  There was no doubt in my mind. I knew what I faced, what stared at me across the tunnel, so still he might've been a statue. I was down here, alone, with a vampire. And there was no one who could help me.

  "What do you want?" My voice came out shakier than I'd wanted, but I planted my feet and glared defiantly. Show no fear. Vampires could sense fear, at least that's what everybody said. If you ever ran into a hungry bloodsucker alone at night, not looking like prey might give you an edge in surviving the encounter.

  I didn't believe that, of course. A vampire would bite you whether you were scared of him or not. But I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction, either.

  The vamp tilted his head, a tiny movement that would've gone unnoticed, save the rest of him was so very, very still.

  "I am trying to decide," he said in that same low, cool voice,

  "if you are a simple scavenger, eavesdropping on the conversation, or if you are about to scuttle off to tell the rest of your clan I am here. "

  "Do I look like one of them?"

  "Then. . . you are a scavenger. Waiting until your prey is dead to feed, instead of killing it yourself. " His tone hadn't changed. It was the same, cool and detached, but I felt myself bristle through my fear. Anger, hate and resentment bubbled to the surface, making me stupid, making me want to hurt it. Who did this murdering, soulless bloodsucker think he was, lecturing me? "Yeah, well, that's what happens when you let the cattle starve," I snapped, narrowing my eyes. "They start turning on each other, or didn't you know that?" I gestured to the dead mole men, scattered at my feet, and curled a lip. "But I'm not one of them. And I sure as hell don't eat people. That's your thing, remember?" The vampire just looked at me. Long enough for me to regret taunting him, which was a stupid thing to do from the start. I almost didn't care. I wouldn't grovel and beg, if that's what he was looking for. Vampires had no souls, no emotions and no empathy to appeal to. If the bloodsucker wanted to drain me dry and leave me here to rot, there wasn't anything I could say that would stop him.

  But I'd give him one hell of a fight.

  "Interesting," the vamp finally mused, almost to himself.

  "I forget, sometimes, the complexities of the human race.

  We've reduced so many of you to animals-savage, cowardly, so willing to turn on each other to survive. And yet, in the darkest places, I can still find those who are still, more or less, human. "

  He wasn't making any sense, and I was tired of talking, of waiting for him to make his move. "What do you want, vampire?" I challenged again. "Why are we still talking? If you're going to bite me, just get on with it already. " Though don't expect me to lie down and take it. You'll have a pocketknife shoved through your eye socket before I'm done, I swear.

  Amazingly, the vampire smiled. Just a slight curl of pale lips, but in that granite face, he might as well have beamed from ear to ear. "I have already fed tonight," he stated calmly, and took one step backward, into the shadows. "And you, little wildcat, I suspect you have claws you wouldn't hesitate to use. I find I am in no mood for another fight, so consider yourself lucky. You met a heartless, soulless bloodsucker and lived. Next time, it might be very different. " And just like that, he turned on his heel and walked away into the darkness. His final words drifted out of the black as he disappeared. "Thank you for the conversation. " And he was gone.

  I frowned, utterly confused. What kind of vampire killed four people, had a cryptic conversation with a street rat, thanked the street rat for talking with him, and then walked off ? I swept the f lashlight around the tunnel, wondering if it was a trick to get me to lower my guard, and the bloodsucker was lying in ambush just ahead, laughing to himself. That seemed like something a vampire would do. But the tunnel was empty and silent in the f lashlight beam, and after a moment, I picked my way over the still-bleeding corpses, hurried to the ladder and scaled the tube as fast as I could.

  Aboveground, the city was silent. Nothing moved on the streets; the crumbling stores and houses and apartments lay quiet and dark. Overhead, looming above everything, the vampire towers glittered in the night, cold and impassive like their masters. It was still the predator's time, this silent hour before dawn, and everyone was off the street, huddled in their beds with their doors and windows barred. But at least on this side of the Wall, the darkness didn't conceal savage, mindless horrors that had once been human. Here, the predators were more complex, though just as dangerous.

  A cold wind blew down the street, stirring up dust and sending an empty can skittering over the ground. It reminded me of what I'd left behind, on the other side of the Wall, and anger burned its way into my stomach, killing the last of the fear. So much food! So much wealth, to have to leave it all behind. . . . The thought made my gut boil, and I kicked a rock into a dead car, the stone clanking off the rusty frame.

  I had to get back there. No way was I going to huddle behind the Wall, eating cockroaches, fantasizing about shelves and shelves of real food rotting away in someone's basement.

  One way or another, I was going to return to that place and reclaim what I'd lost.

  But right now, my stomach was full, I ached from my fall, and I was damn tired. The f lashlight beam shone weakly in the darkness, and I clicked it off, not wanting to waste valuable battery life. I didn't need artificial light to navigate the Fringe, anyway. Slipping my single prize into a back pocket, I headed for home.

  "Oh, my God, you're alive. "

  I gave Stick a disdainful look as I slipped into my room, kicking the door shut behind me. He scrambled off my mattress, gaping, as if I was a hallucination. "What's that look for?" I frowned at him. "And why are you here, anyway?

  Have you been waiting up for me all night?"

  "You didn't hear?" Stick's eyes darted about, as if someone could be lurking in the shadows, listening. "Lucas didn't tell you?"

  "Stick. " I sighed and collapsed on the mattress. "I just got back from a rather hellish night out," I muttered, putting an arm over my eyes. "I'm tired, I'm cranky, and unless someone is on the verge of death or the vampires are breaking down our doors, I want to go to sleep. Whatever this is, can it wait till morning? I need to talk to Lucas, anyway. "

  "The vampires were out tonight," Stick continued, as if I hadn't said a word.

  I removed my arm and sat up to face him, a chill crawling up my spine. His face was pale in the shadows of the room, thin mouth tight with fear. "I saw them. They were going from sector to sector with their pets and guards and everything, breaking down doors, going into people's houses. They didn't come here, but Lucas moved us all into the basement until he was sure they had moved on. I heard. . . I heard someone was killed. . . trying to run away. "

  "Was anyone Taken?"

  Stick shrugged bony shoulders. "I don't think so. They just came through, went into several buildings and left. Lucas said they were looking for something, but no one knows what it is. "

  Or some one. I thought back to the vampire in the tunnels below the city. Was he part of that search party, exploring the underworld for whatever item the bloodsuckers wanted?

  Or. . . was he the mysterious thing they were all searching for?

  But that didn't make much sense. Why would the vampires be hunting one of their own?

  And if they were, why couldn't they do it more often?

re are rumors of a citywide lockdown," Stick went on in a low, frightened voice. "Curfews, guards, area restric-tions, everything. "

  I muttered a curse. Lockdowns were bad news and not just for Unregistereds. There had been two in the past, once when gang warfare swept through the Fringe, clogging the streets with dead bodies, and once when an infestation of rabid rats created a citywide panic. Lockdowns were the vampires' last resort, their answer when things got out of control. Everyone was required to stay in their homes during curfew hours, while armed guards swept the streets. If you were caught outside during lockdown, they would shoot you, no questions asked.

  "Allie, what are we going to do?"

  "Nothing," I said, and he stared at me. I shrugged. "Nothing tonight. It'll be dawn in a few hours. The bloodsuckers will go back to their towers, and nothing will be done until this evening. We can worry about it then. "

  "But. . . "

  "Stick. I. Am. Tired. " I rose from the mattress and, taking his elbow, steered him to the door. "If Lucas is still up, tell him I need to speak to him tomorrow. It's important. Really important. " He started to protest, but I firmly pushed him over the threshold. "Look, if you want to stay up and worry about vampire hunts, you can do it for both of us. I'm going to sleep while I still can. Wake me when it's dawn, okay?" And before he could make any more excuses, I shut the door in his face.

  Collapsing on the mattress, I turned my face to the wall and closed my eyes. Stick's news was troublesome, but I'd learned that worrying about things you couldn't change was useless and just kept you from getting sleep. Tomorrow, I'd talk to Lucas and tell him about the food cache I'd found, and he could convince the others to go after it. Before the city went into lockdown, of course. Working together, we could probably clear that whole room in two or three trips and not have to worry about the coming winter. Rat was a dick and a bully, but he was part of my crew, and we looked out for each other. Besides, it would take a single person forever to clear that place, and I didn't want to be in the ruins any longer than I had to be.

  With plan firmly in mind, I dismissed all thoughts of that night-of rabids and manhunts and vampires in the sewers-and drifted into oblivion.