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The Immortal Rules, Page 4

Julie Kagawa

Chapter 4


  "Allison," Mom said, patting the cushion beside her, "come up here.

  Read with me. "

  I scrambled onto the threadbare couch that smelled of dust and spoiled milk, snuggling against her side. She held a book in her lap, bright happy animals prancing across the pages. I listened as she read to me in a soft, soothing voice, her slender hands turning the pages as if they were made of butterfly wings. Except, I couldn't see her face.

  Everything was blurry, like water sluicing down a windowpane. But I knew she was smiling down at me, and that made me feel warm and safe.

  "Knowledge is important," she explained patiently, now watching an older version of me from across the kitchen table. A sheet of paper lay in front of me, marked with scrawling, messy lines. "Words de-fine us," Mom continued, as I struggled to make my clumsy marks look like her elegant script. "We must protect our knowledge and pass it on whenever we can. If we are ever to become a society again, we must teach others how to remain human. " The kitchen melted away, ran like water down a wall, and turned into something else.

  "Mom," I whispered, sitting beside her on the bed, watching the slow rise and fall of her chest under the thin blanket. "Mom, I brought some soup for you. Try to eat it, okay?" The frail, white form, surrounded by long black hair, stirred weakly.

  I couldn't see her face, though I knew it should be somewhere within that dark mass. "I don't feel well, Allison," she whispered, her voice so faint I barely caught it. "Will you. . . read to me?" That same smile, though her face remained blurry and indistinct.

  Why couldn't I see her? Why couldn't I remember? "Mom," I said again, standing up, feeling the shadows closing in. "We have to go.

  They're coming. "

  "A is for apple," Mom whispered, falling away from me. I cried out and reached for her, but she slipped away, into the dark. "B is for blood. "

  Something boomed against the door.

  I jerked awake, the door to my room still rattling from the sudden blow. On my feet, I glared at the door, heart pounding. I was already a light sleeper, hypersensitive to footsteps and people sneaking up on me while I slept, so the first bang nearly made me jump through the ceiling. By the fourth, I had wrenched the door open, even as Lucas was pulling his fist back to knock again.

  Lucas blinked at me. Dark and muscular, he had large hands and a curiously babylike face, except for his thick, serious eyebrows. When I first joined the group, Lucas had been intim-idating; a serious, no-nonsense figure even as a twelve-year old. Over the years, the fear had lessened, but the respect had not. When our old leader started demanding a food tax-a portion of everything we scavenged-Lucas had stepped in, beaten him to a pulp and taken over the gang. Since then, no one had challenged him. He was always fair; survival was his priority, regardless of feelings. Like me, he'd watched members of our gang die of starvation, cold, sickness, wounds, or just vanish off the face of the earth. We'd burned more

  "friends" than anyone should ever have to. Lucas had to make hard, unpopular decisions sometimes, and I didn't envy him the job, but everything he did was to keep us alive.

  Especially now that the group was so small. Fewer people meant fewer mouths to feed, but that also meant fewer bodies to hunt for food and to protect us from rival gangs if they ever got the notion to invade our turf. It was just the four of us-me, Rat, Lucas and Stick, not enough protection if Kyle's gang decided they wanted us gone. And Lucas knew it.

  Lately he confused me. We'd always been friends, but this past year his interest in me had changed. Maybe because I was the only girl in the group, maybe something else; I didn't know and I wasn't going to ask. We'd kissed last summer, more out of curiosity on my part, but he had wanted more and I wasn't sure if I was ready. He hadn't pressed the issue when I'd stopped him, saying I needed time to think about it, but now it hung between us, unresolved, like a big f lag. It wasn't that Lucas was ugly or undesirable; I just didn't know if I wanted to get that close to someone. What if he disappeared, like so many of our kind did? It would just hurt that much more.

  Lucas was still frozen in the doorway, broad shoulders filling most of the frame. I glanced past him and saw sunlight streaming in the broken windows of the school, casting jagged spots of light over the cement. By the looks of the sky, it was early to midafternoon. Damn. I'd slept far too long.

  Where was Stick and why hadn't he woken me?

  "Allison. " The relief in Lucas's voice was palpable. Stepping forward, he surprised me by pulling me into a tight hug.

  I returned it, feeling the hard muscles of his back, his breath against my skin. Closing my eyes, I relaxed into him, just for a moment. It was nice, having someone I could lean on for a change.

  We drew back quickly, not wanting the others to see just yet. This was still new for both of us. "Allie," Lucas muttered, sounding embarrassed. "Stick told me you came back. Were you out all night?"

  "Yeah. " I gave him a crooked smile. "Sounds like things got exciting after I left. "

  He glared at me. "Rat started telling everyone you'd been Taken. Stick was freaking out. I had to tell both of them to shut up or I'd put a fist in their face. " His glare grew sharper, almost desperate. "Where the hell were you all night? The bloodsuckers were all over the streets. "

  "The ruins. "

  Lucas's dark eyes bulged. "You went outside the Wall? At night? Are you crazy, girl? You want to get eaten by rabids?"

  "Believe me, I didn't mean to get stuck there after sunset. " I shivered, remembering what had almost happened in the shed that night. "Besides, rabids or no, I found something that made it all worth it. "

  "Yeah?" He raised a thick, bristling eyebrow. "This I gotta hear. "

  "A whole basement of food. " I smirked as both of Lucas's eyebrows shot up. "Canned goods, packaged stuff, bottled water, you name it. I'm serious, Luc-wall-to-wall shelves, full of food. And no one's guarding it. We'd be set for months, maybe the whole winter. All we have to do is get out there and grab it before anyone else does. " Lucas's eyes gleamed. I could almost see the wheels in his brain turning. The thought of going into the ruins was scary as hell, but the promise of food trumped that easily. "Where is it?" he asked.

  "Just past the kill zone. You know the drainage pipe that empties out near the old-" He gave me a confused look, and I shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I can get us there. But we should leave now, while there's daylight. "


  "You wanna wait to see if there's a lockdown?" He sighed and jerked his head down the hall. I followed him toward the common room. "No, but it'll be risky. Lots of patrols today-pets and guards combing the streets, still looking for something. It'll get worse tonight, though. " We entered the common room, where Rat lounged in a moldy chair playing with his knife, his legs dangling over the arm.

  "Oh, hey, the lost bitch returns," he drawled. His voice was honking and nasal, as if his nose was still full of blood. "We were sure you'd been Taken, or had your throat torn out in some dark alley. Sure was nice and quiet without you. Except for your wuss boyfriend, bawling in the corner. " He sneered at me, mean and challenging. "I had to shove his pasty head into a doorjamb to get him to stop mewling. " Lucas pretended to ignore him, though I saw his jaw tighten. We'd kept our. . . thing. . . a secret from the others, which meant Lucas couldn't show favoritism by leaping to my defense. Fortunately, I could take care of myself.

  I smiled sweetly at Rat. "I'm sure you did. How's that busted nose treating you, by the way?" Rat's sallow cheeks reddened, and he held up his rusty knife. "Why don't you come over here and take a look?" Lucas kicked the back of his chair, making him yelp. "Make yourself useful and get the backpacks from the hall closet," he ordered. "Allie," he continued, as Rat pulled himself to his feet, scowling, "find Stick. If we're going to do this now, we need all the help we can get. "

  "With what?" Stick asked, coming into the room. Seeing the three of us, his eyes widened, and he edged closer
to me.

  "Are we going somewhere?"

  "Oh, there you are. " Rat smiled like a dog baring its fangs.

  "Yeah, we were just talking about how we don't have enough food and that the weakest link, the one that doesn't do anything around here, should be fed to the vampires. And hey, it's you. No hard feelings, right?"

  "Ignore him," I said, locking eyes with Rat as Stick cringed away. "He's being an ass, as usual. "

  "Hey. " Rat held up his hands. "I'm only being honest. No one else has the guts to say it, so I will. "

  "Aren't you supposed to be doing something?" Lucas asked in a warning voice, and Rat left the room with a leer, waggling his tongue in my direction. I made a note to break his nose the other way as soon as I got the opportunity.

  Stick frowned, looking back and forth at both of us. "What's going on?" he asked warily. "You guys aren't. . . " He trailed off, looking at me. "You aren't really discussing what Rat said, right? I'm not that pathetic. . . am I?"

  I sighed, ready to brush it off as being stupid, but Lucas spoke up before I got the chance. "Well, now's your chance to prove him wrong," he said. "Allison, in her insane night-time wandering, found something important. We're going to get it. "

  Stick blinked, glanced nervously at Rat coming into the room again, four dusty, tattered backpacks slung over his shoulders. "Where?"

  "The ruins," I answered as Rat instantly dropped the packs in horror and disbelief. "We're going into the ruins. " We split into two teams, partly to avoid notice with the patrols still wandering about the Fringe, and partly because I would've strangled Rat if I had to hear him complain one more time that I was going to get us killed. Stick wasn't happy, either, but at least he shut up after the first round of protests.

  Lucas finally gave Rat a choice: either help out, or get out and don't come back. Personally, I was hoping Rat would choose the latter, swear at us all and stalk out of our lives in a huff, but after a murderous look at me, he grabbed a pack from the f loor and finally shut up.

  I gave Lucas directions to the tunnel entrance before we split into two groups, taking different routes in case we met with any patrols. Guards didn't look kindly on street rats and Unregistereds, and because we "didn't exist," this gave some the idea that they could do anything they wanted to us, including beatings, target practice and. . . other things. I'd seen enough to know it was true. It was almost better to be caught by the hungry, soulless vampires; the most they would probably do was drink your blood and leave you to die. Humans were capable of far, far worse.

  Stick and I reached the ditch first and descended into the tunnels. I had the f lashlight, but it was more of a " just-in-case" item. I didn't want to be spoiled by artificial light or, more important, use up all the battery life. The sun peeking in through the grating up top was still more than enough to see by.

  "Rat and Lucas better get here soon," I muttered, crossing my arms and gazing up at the cracks overhead. "We have a lot of stuff to move, and there's not much daylight left. I'm not doing a repeat of yesterday, that's for sure. "


  I glanced at Stick, huddled against the wall, an oversize pack hanging from his skinny shoulders. His face was tight with fear, and his hands clutched the straps so hard his knuckles were white. He was trying to be brave, and for a moment, I felt a stab of guilt. Stick hated the dark.

  "Do you think I'm useless?"

  "Are you obsessing over what Rat said?" I snorted and waved it off. "Ignore him. He's a greasy little rodent with a security problem. Lucas will probably kick him out soon, anyway. "

  "But he has a point. " Stick kicked at a loose bit of pavement, not meeting my eyes. "I'm the weakest link in the gang. I'm not good at stealing like Rat or fighting like Lucas, and I'm not brave enough to go scavenging outside the Wall by myself like you. What am I good for, if I can't even take care of myself ?"

  I shrugged, uncomfortable with this conversation. "What do you want me to say?" I asked, my voice coming out sharper than I'd intended. Maybe it was the fight with Rat, maybe I was still tense from last night. But I was tired of listening to excuses, of him wishing for things to be different. In this world, you were either strong, or you were dead. You did what you had to if you wanted to survive. And I could barely take care of myself; I couldn't worry about someone else's in-securities. "You don't like the way you are?" I asked Stick, who shrank back from my tone. "Fine-then don't be that way. Grow some balls and tell Rat to piss off. Punch him in the nose if he tries to bully you. Do something, but don't just roll over and take it. " He seemed to collapse in on himself, looking miserable, and I sighed. "You can't depend on me forever," I said in a softer voice. "Yeah, we look out for each other, mostly. Yeah, Lucas preaches family and all-for- oneness and whatever, but that's a load of crap. You think any of them would jump in front of a vampire for you?" I sneered at the thought. "Lucas would be the first one out the door, with Rat right behind him. And me. "

  Stick turned away, hunching his shoulders. It was an old tactic of his, avoid the problem and hope it went away, and that only pissed me off more. "I know that's not what you wanted to hear," I continued ruthlessly, "but, God, Stick, wake up! This is the way things are. Sooner or later, you're going to learn that it's everyone for themselves out here, and the only person you can depend on is you. " He didn't answer, just continued staring down at the pavement. I turned away as well, leaning against the wall. I wasn't worried. Give him a few minutes, and he'd be back to normal, talking and pretending that nothing had happened. If he wanted to keep burying his head in the sand, I wouldn't stop him. But I wasn't going to keep holding his hand anymore, either.

  After several long minutes, Rat and Lucas still hadn't showed. I fidgeted and glanced at the sky through the grate.

  Hurry up, you two. Cutting it this close to evening was already making me jumpy. But I wanted that food. I was hungry again, and knowing there was a whole stash of food out there, just beyond the wall, was driving me crazy. I'd almost forgotten what it was like not to be starving all the time. Not feeling your stomach cramp so badly you wanted to puke, only there was nothing in it to throw up. Not having to eat roaches and spiders, just to stay alive. Or share a crust of stolen bread with Stick, because if I didn't take care of him, he would curl up somewhere and die. If we could get to that food, I wouldn't have to worry about any of that for a long, long time. If Rat and Lucas ever got their sorry butts down here.

  And then, I had another thought, one that the cynical street rat in me hadn't had before. If we could get all that food, I wouldn't have to worry about Stick as much. Lucas would probably be happier and less stressed, and might agree to learn how to read. Even Rat might go for it-if I could stomach teaching him, anyway. Again, I had no idea where it would lead, but every revolution had to start somewhere.

  The vampires have taken everything from us, I thought, angrily kicking a pebble into a wall. Well, I'm going to make sure we take something back.

  First things first, though, and that was surviving.

  Several minutes later, Rat and Lucas finally showed up.

  Both were panting, and Rat glared daggers at me as he dropped from the ladder, his beady eyes filled with fear and hate.

  "What happened?" I asked, narrowing my eyes as Lucas came down the tube.

  "Ran into a couple pets near the broken statue," he muttered as he dropped beside me, wiping sweat from his brow.

  "They followed us several blocks before we lost them in the park. Everyone up there is twitchy. Wish I knew what was going on. "

  "This is stupid," Rat broke in, his gaze darting up and down the tunnel, as if it was about to close on him. "We shouldn't be going. . . out there. "

  "Should we go back?" Stick whispered.

  "No," I snapped. "If we don't do this now, who knows when we'll get another chance. "

  "How do we even know she's telling the truth?" Rat continued, switching tactics now that he couldn't scare me into givi
ng up. "A whole basement of food? Gimme a break. " His lips twisted. "Girls don't know what to look for out there.

  Maybe she saw a few empty cans and jumped to conclusions.

  Maybe she's too scared to go by herself and needs a big strong guy to keep her safe. "

  "Keep talking, moron. I think it's funny when you use big words. "

  "Will you two shut up?" Lucas snapped, showing how on edge he was. "We're wasting time! Allie, you know the way, right?" He motioned me down the tunnel. "After you. " The sky was considerably darker when we crawled out of the drainage ditch into the open, gazing around warily.

  Overhead, slate-gray clouds massed together, and a f licker of lightning lit up the ground.

  "There's a storm coming," Lucas muttered unnecessarily, as a growl of thunder followed his statement. I muttered a curse. Back in New Covington, the rain would fill the wells and cisterns of the sectors, but it also drew more things out into the open. "And the sun is going down. We have to do this now. "

  "Come on," I said, pushing through weeds and brush and chest-high grass to reach the top of the bank. They followed, scrambling up the ditch until we came to the edge and the tangled, empty ruins sprawled out before us, silent and menacing in the fading light.

  Rat swore and Stick was breathing hard, almost hyperven-tilating. "I can't do this," he whispered, edging away toward the ditch. "I can't go in there. I have to go back. Let me go back. "

  "I knew it," Rat sneered. "Pissing little coward. Totally useless. Let him run home, but he sure ain't getting my share of the food. "

  Lucas grabbed Stick's arm before he could run away. "Rat's right. You do this, don't expect a share of anything we bring back. "

  "I don't care," Stick panted, his eyes wide. "This is crazy.

  The sun is about to go down. You're all going to be killed. "

  "Stick," I said, trying to be reasonable, "you don't know the way back. Are you going to go through the tunnels in the dark? Alone?"

  That seemed to get through to him. He stopped fighting Lucas and cast a fearful glance at the dark entrance to the sewers. Shoulders sagging, he looked up at me, pleading. "I don't want to," he whispered. "Let's go back, Allie, please. I have a bad feeling about this. "

  Rat made a disgusted noise, and my annoyance f lared.

  "No," I said f latly. "We keep moving. There's still some light left. We're not going back without that food. " I looked at Stick with an encouraging smile. "Wait till you see how much there is-it'll be worth it. "

  He still looked terrified but followed silently as we sprinted through the cracked, tangled streets, leaping over roots and weaving between rusty cars to beat the coming storm. A small herd of deer scattered before us as we hurried down the sidewalk, and a f lock of crows took to the air with startled, screaming cries. But other than that, the ruins were still except for our footsteps pounding over the cement and our own raspy breathing.

  As I led them through the overgrown yard to the crumbled shed, the first raindrops began to fall. By the time we had crowded into the tiny building, a deluge was drumming the tin roof and pouring in through the holes. I clicked on the f lashlight as I descended the ladder into the basement, half-terrified that when we got there the food would be gone. But everything was as I had left it: a section of shelf lay broken on the cement, and cans were scattered everywhere, glinting in the f lashlight beam.

  "Holy shit. " Rat shoved past me, stumbling into the room.

  His mouth dropped open as he scanned the wall of tins, his eyes gleaming hungrily. "The bitch wasn't kidding. Look at all this. "

  "Is that. . . all food?" Stick asked timidly, picking up a can.

  And before I could reply, Rat shocked me with a wild, high-pitched laugh.

  "It sure is, piss-wad!" Snatching the can from Stick's fingers, he pried the top open and shoved it back at him. "Check that out! Tell me that's not the greatest thing you've ever seen!" Stick blinked in astonishment, nearly dropping the opened can, but Rat didn't seem to notice. Grabbing two more tins from the f loor, he wrenched the tops away and started digging into them with long dirty fingers.

  "We don't really have time for this," I cautioned, but not even Lucas was listening now, busy tugging the lid off his own can. Stick gave me an apologetic look before scooping out handfuls of beans, devouring them with as much gusto as Rat, whose face was now smeared with a slimy coating.

  "Guys!" I tried again. "We can't stand around stuffing our faces all night. We're almost out of time. " But they were deaf to my arguments, drunk on the amount of food and the prospect of filling their stomachs. That's what being Unregistered teaches you; when you find food, you eat as much of it as you can, because you don't know when your next meal might be. Still, all I could think of was how they were fat-tening themselves up for the things that wanted to eat u s.

  Outside, the storm had picked up, howling against the walls of the shed, and water began to drip through the trapdoor. It was very dark up top, a dimming twilight, the clouds hiding what little sun remained. I peered up the steps, narrowing my eyes. The spaces between the slats were almost impossible to see in the darkness, but I thought I saw something move outside the wall. It could've been a tree branch, blowing in the wind, or it might've been my imagination.

  I clicked off the f lashlight. The room plunged into shadow.

  There was a startled yelp from Stick, and then a moment of silence as everyone finally realized what was happening.

  "Something is out there," I said into the stillness, very aware of my own heartbeat thudding against my ribs. And, for just a moment, I wondered why I'd been stupid enough to lead everyone here. Stick was right. This had been a mistake. In the darkness, with the rain screaming outside, the piles of food didn't seem important enough to die for. "We have to get out of here now. "

  "Get the packs. " Lucas's voice was gruff, embarrassed, as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I shot him a glance, and it was difficult to see his face in the shadows, but he must've seen my expression. "We're not leaving empty-handed," he said, "but let's do this as quickly as possible. Take as much as you can, but don't pack so much it slows you down.

  We're not going to get it all in one trip, anyway. " I started to say something, but he cut me off with a sharp gesture. "Let's move, people!"

  Without arguing, Rat and Stick knelt and began stuffing their packs with cans, moving as quietly as they could. After a moment, I unzipped my bag and joined them. For several minutes, the only sounds were the scuff le of hands in the dark, the clink of metal on metal and the rain beating the roof overhead.

  I could hear Stick's frightened breathing, Rat's occasional curses as he dropped cans in his haste to stuff them into the packs. I said nothing to anyone as I worked, only looking up when my bag was full. Zipping it up, I hefted it onto my shoulders, wincing at the weight. It might slow me down a bit, but Lucas was right; we'd come too far to leave empty-handed.

  "Everyone ready?" Lucas asked, his gruff voice sounding low and small in the darkness. I looked around as Rat and Stick finished zipping their packs and stood up, Stick grunt-ing a little under the weight of his half-full bag. "Let's get out of here, then. Allie, lead the way. "

  We left the basement, inching up the steps to the ruined shed. Water poured in from the storm, running in streams from the roof, splashing over everything. Somewhere in the darkness, droplets kept striking a metal bucket with a rhyth-mic ping-pinging sound. It sounded like my heartbeat; rapid, frantic.

  A gust of wind blew open the door with a creak, knocking it into the side of the building. Beyond the frame, the ruins were blurry and dark.

  I swallowed hard and stepped out into the rain.

  Water drenched me in half a second, sliding down my neck and f lattening my hair. I shivered and hunched my shoulders, striding through the tall, wet grass. Behind me, I heard the others following my steps as I pushed through the weeds.

  Lightning f lickered ove
rhead, turning everything white for a split second, showing rows of ruined houses side by side before plunging everything into darkness once more.

  Thunder boomed. As the rumble faded, I thought I heard another sound, somewhere to my left. A faint rustle that didn't come from my friends behind me.

  Something brushed against my jeans in the grass, something hard and pointy. I jerked away and clicked on the f lashlight, shining it at whatever snagged me in the darkness.

  It was a hoof, small and cloven, attached to a hind leg that led to the gutted carcass of a doe lying on her side in the weeds. Her stomach had been torn open, and intestines spilled from the hole like pink snakes. Her eyes, glazed and dark, stared sightlessly up at the rain.

  "Allie?" Lucas whispered, coming up behind me. "What's going- Oh, shit!"

  I swung the light around, taking a breath to shout a warning to the others.

  Something pale and terrible rose from the grass behind Rat, all limbs and claws and shining teeth. Before he knew what was happening, it yanked him off his feet. I didn't even have time to shout before he vanished into the weeds and darkness with a yelp.

  Then he began to scream.

  We didn't pause. We didn't waste breath to scream out the word. The grass around us started to move, rustling madly as they came toward us, and we just ran. Behind us, Rat's agonized shrieks abruptly cut off, and we didn't look back.

  I reached the chain-link fence surrounding the yard and vaulted over it, landing unsteadily as the bag's weight nearly toppled me over. Lucas was right behind me, using both hands to launch himself over the top. Stick scrambled over and fell in the dirt on the other side but bounced to his feet in an instant and followed me as we ran.


  Lucas's scream made me look back. His backpack had caught on the prongs at the top of the fence, and he was yanking at it madly, his eyes huge and frantic. I glanced at Stick, sprinting away into the darkness, and swore.

  "Just leave the damn bag!" I shouted, stepping toward Lucas, but my voice was drowned in a roar of thunder overhead, and Lucas continued to yank on it, terrified. "Lucas, leave the pack already! Just get out of there!" Understanding dawned on his face. He shrugged out of the straps, just as a long white arm whipped over the links and grabbed his shirt, dragging him back against the fence.

  Lucas screamed, yanking and thrashing, trying to free himself, but another claw reached over and sank into his neck, and his screams became gurgles. My gut heaved. I watched, dazed, as Lucas was dragged, kicking and wailing, back over the fence, and vanished under the pale mass of creatures on the other side. His screams didn't last as long as Rat's, and by that time, I was already running after Stick, ignoring my twisting insides and not daring to look back.

  I could barely make out Stick's lanky form in the distance, running down the middle of the road, weaving between cars.

  Stripping off my pack, I followed, feeling highly exposed on the open street. The rain was slowly letting up, the brunt of the storm passing on, toward the city. Over the fading rain, I heard the cans clanking against his back with every step he took. In his panic, he hadn't thought to take off his pack, either. I sprinted after him, knowing he couldn't keep up that pace for long.

  Two blocks later, I found him leaning against the rusty hulk of an overturned car, next to a tree growing out of the sidewalk. He was gasping so hard he couldn't speak. I crouched down beside him, breathing hard, seeing Lucas's and Rat's deaths over and over again, their screams echoing in my mind.

  "Lucas?" Stick's voice was so soft I barely heard him.

  "Dead. " My voice sounded as if it belonged to someone else.

  It didn't seem real that I'd lost him. My stomach threatened to crawl up my throat, and I forced it down. "He's dead," I whispered again. "The rabids got him. "

  "Oh, God. " Stick's hands went to his mouth. "Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God!"

  "Hey," I snapped, and shoved him, halting the string of words before they got even more frantic. "Stop it. We have to keep our heads if we're going to get out of here, okay?" There would be time later to shed tears, to mourn what I'd lost. But right now, the most important thing was figuring out how to stay alive.

  Stick nodded, his eyes still glazed and terrified. "Where do we go now?"

  I started to look around to get my bearings but suddenly noticed something that turned my blood to ice. "Stick," I said softly, looking down at his leg, "what happened?" Blood was oozing from a gash in his knee, spreading through the thin fabric of his pants. "Oh," Stick said, as if he'd just noticed it himself. "I must've cut it when I fell off the fence. It's not very deep. . . " He stopped when he saw my face. "Why?"

  I stood slowly, carefully, my mouth going dry. "Blood," I murmured, backing away. "Rabids can smell blood if they're close enough. We have to go n-"

  It leaped atop the car with a howl, lashing out at the space I'd been a moment before, ripping through the metal with its claws. Stick yelled and dove away, skittering behind me, as the thing atop the car gave a chilling wail and looked right at us.

  It had been human once, that was the most horrible thing about it. It still had a vaguely human face and emaciated body, though its skin, nearly pure white and stretched tightly across its bones, looked more skeleton than human. The tattered threads of what had been clothes hung on its frame, and its hair was tangled and matted. Its eyes were white orbs with no irises or pupils, just a blank, dead white. It hopped off the car and hissed at us, baring a mouthful of pointed teeth, the two oversize fangs extending outward like a snake's.

  Behind me, Stick was whimpering, soft choked noises that made no sense, and I caught the sharp ammonia smell of urine. Heart pounding, I eased away from him, and the rabid's hollow gaze followed me before returning to Stick. Its nostrils f lared, and bloody foam dripped from its jaws as it took a lurching step forward.

  Stick was frozen in terror, watching the rabid like a cornered mouse would a snake. I had no idea why I did what I did next. But my hand reached into my pocket and grabbed the knife. Pulling open the blade, I closed my fist around the edge and, before I thought better of it, sliced it across my palm.

  "Hey!" I yelled, and the rabid snapped its horrible gaze to me, nostrils f laring. "That's right," I continued, backing away as it followed, leaping atop another car as easily as walking.

  "Look at me, not him. Stick," I called without taking my eyes from the rabid, keeping a car between it and myself, "get out of here. Find the drain-it'll take you back to the city. Do you hear me?"

  No answer. I chanced a sideways glance and saw him still frozen in the same spot, eyes glued to the rabid stalking me.

  "Stick!" I hissed furiously, but he didn't move. "Dammit, you spineless little shit! Get out of here now!" With a chilling shriek like nothing human, the rabid lunged.

  I ran, ducking behind a truck, hearing the rabid's claws screech off the rusty metal as it followed. I dodged and wove my way through the vehicle-littered street, keeping the cars between myself and the pursuing rabid, glancing back to gauge how close it was. It snarled and hissed at me over the vehicles, hollow eyes blazing with madness and hunger, its claws leaving white gashes in the rust.

  Dodging behind another car, I gazed around frantically for a weapon. A pipe, a branch I could use as a club, anything.

  The rabid's shriek rang out behind me, horrifyingly near. As I reached down and grabbed a chunk of broken pavement from the curb, I glimpsed a pale form in the corner of my eye and turned quickly, swinging with all my might.

  The jagged concrete hit the rabid square in the temple as it lunged for me, grasping claws inches from my face. I heard something crack beneath the stone as I knocked the creature aside, smashing it into the door of a car. The rabid collapsed to the pavement, trying to get up, and I brought the stone down again, smashing the back of its skull. Once, twice and again.

  The rabid screamed and twitched, limbs jerking sporadically, before collapsing to the
sidewalk. A dark puddle oozed from beneath its head and spread over the street.

  Trembling, I dropped the stone and sank to the curb. My hands shook, my knees shook, and my heart was doing its best to hammer its way through my ribs. The rabid looked smaller in death than in life, all brittle limbs and protruding bones. But its face was as horrible and terrifying as ever, fangs frozen in a snarl, soulless white eyes staring up at me.

  And then a hiss behind me made my heart stop a second time.

  I turned slowly as another rabid slid out from behind a car, arms and mouth smeared with wet crimson. It clutched a branch in one claw. . . only the branch had five fingers, and the tattered remains of a shirt clung to it. Seeing me, the rabid dropped the arm to the pavement and crept forward.

  Another rabid followed. And another leaped to the roof of a car, hissing. I spun and faced two more, sliding from beneath a truck, pale dead eyes fastened on me. Five of them.

  From all directions. And me, in the center. Alone.

  Everything grew very quiet. All I heard was my pulse, roaring in my ears, and my ragged breathing. I gazed around at the pale, foaming rabids, not ten yards from me in any direction and for just a moment I felt calm. So this was the knowledge that you were about to die, that no one could help you, that it would all be over in a few short seconds.

  In that brief moment between life and death, I looked between cars and saw a figure striding toward me, silhouetted black against the rain. Something bright gleamed in its hand, but then a rabid passed through my field of vision, and it was gone.

  Survival instincts kicked in, and I ran.

  Something hit me from behind, hard, and warmth spread over my neck and back, though there was no pain. The blow knocked me forward, and I stumbled, falling to my knees. A weight landed on me, screeching, tearing at me, and bright strips of fire began to spread across my shoulders. I screamed and f lipped over, using my legs to shove it away, but another pale creature filled my vision, and all I could see was its face and teeth and blank, dead eyes, lunging forward. My hands shot out, slamming into its jaw, keeping those snapping teeth away from my face. It snarled and sank its fangs into my wrist, chewing and tearing, but I barely felt the pain.

  All I could think about was keeping the teeth away from my throat, though I knew its claws were ripping open my chest and stomach- I had to keep it away from my throat.

  And then the others closed in, screaming, ripping. And the last thing I remembered, before the bloody red haze finally melted into blackness, was a f lash of something bright and the rabid's body dropping onto my chest while its head continued to bite my arm.

  Then there was nothing.

  When I woke up, I knew I was in hell. My whole body was on fire, or at least it felt that way, though I couldn't see the f lames. It was dark, and a light rain was falling from the sky, which I found strange for hell. Then a dark figure loomed over me, jet-black eyes boring into mine, and I thought I knew him from. . . somewhere. Hadn't I met him before. . . ?

  "Can you hear me?" His voice was familiar, too, low and calm. I opened my mouth to reply, but only a choked gurgle escaped. What was wrong with me? It felt as if my mouth and throat were clogged with warm mud.

  "Don't try to speak. " The soothing voice broke through my agony and confusion. "Listen to me, human. You're dying.

  The damage the rabids did to your body is extreme. You have only a few minutes left in this world. " He leaned closer, face intense. "Do you understand what I'm telling you?" Barely. My head felt heavy, and everything was foggy and surreal. The pain was still there, but seemed far away now, as if I was disconnected from my body. I tried raising my head to see the extent of my wounds, but the stranger put a hand on my shoulder, stopping me. "No," he said gently, easing me back. "Don't look. It's better that you do not see. Just know that, whatever you choose, you will die today. The manner of your death, however, is up to you. "

  "Wha-" I choked on that warm wetness, spat it out to clear my throat. "What do you mean?" I rasped, my voice sounding strange in my ears. The stranger regarded me without expression.

  "I'm giving you a choice," he said. "You are intelligent enough to know what I am, what I'm offering. I watched you draw the rabids away to save your friend. I watched your struggle to fight, to live, when most would have lain down and died. I see. . . potential.

  "I can end the pain," he continued, smoothing a strand of hair from my eyes. "I can offer you release from the mortal coil, and I promise that you will not spend eternity as one of them. " He nodded to a pale body, crumpled against a tire a few yards away. "I can give you that much peace, at least. "

  "Or?" I whispered. He sighed.

  "Or. . . I can make you one of us. I can drain you to the point of death, and give you my blood, so that when you die you will rise again. . . as an immortal. A vampire. It will be a different life, and perhaps not one that you would suffer through. Perhaps you would rather be dead with your soul intact than exist forever without one. But the choice, and the manner of your death, is up to you. "

  I lay there, trying to catch my breath, my mind reeling. I was dying. I was dying, and this stranger-this vampire-was offering me a way out.

  Die as a human, or become a bloodsucker. Either way, the choice was death, because the vampires were dead, they just had the audacity to keep living-walking corpses that preyed on humans to survive. I hated the vampires; everything about them-their city, their pets, their domination of the human race-I despised with my entire being. They had taken everything from me, everything that was important. I would never forgive them for what I had lost.

  And I'd been so close, so close to changing something. To maybe making a difference in this stupid, screwed-up world.

  I'd wanted to know what it was like not to live under vampire rule, not to be starving all the time, not having to shut everyone out because you were afraid they would die in front of you. Such a world had existed, once. If I could only make others realize that as well. . . but that choice was gone. My world would remain as it always was: dark, bloody and hopeless. The vampires would always rule, and I couldn't change anything.

  But the other choice. The other choice. . . was to die for real.

  "You are running out of time, little human. "

  I wished I could've said I would rather die than become a bloodsucker. I wished I had the courage, the strength, to stick with my convictions. But in reality, when faced with death and the great unknown that came after, my survival instinct snatched wildly at whatever lifeline was offered. I didn't want to die. Even if it meant becoming something I loathed, my nature was, first and always, to survive.

  The stranger, the vampire, still knelt beside me, waiting for my answer. I looked up into his dark eyes and made my decision.

  "I want. . . to live. "

  The stranger nodded. He didn't ask if I was sure. He only moved closer and slid his hands under my body. "This will hurt," he warned and lifted me into his arms.

  Though he was gentle, I gasped as pain shot through my broken body, biting down a scream as the vampire drew me to his chest. He lowered his head, close enough for me to see his cold pale skin, the dark circles beneath his eyes.

  "Be warned," he said in a low voice, "even if I turn you now, there is still a chance for you to rise as a rabid. If that happens I will destroy you permanently. But I will not leave you," he promised in an even softer voice. "I will stay with you until the transformation, whatever it may be, is complete. "

  I could only nod. Then the vampire's lips parted, and I saw his fangs grow, lengthen, become long and sharp. It was nothing like the rabid's teeth, jagged and uneven, like broken glass. The vampire's fangs were surgical instruments, precise and dangerous, almost elegant. I was surprised. Even living so close to the bloodsuckers, I had not seen a vampire's killing tools until now.

  My pulse throbbed, and I saw the vampire's nostrils twitch, as if smelling the blood coursing through my veins, righ
t below my skin. His eyes changed, growing even darker, the pupils expanding so they swallowed all of the white. Before I could be terrified, before I could change my mind, he lowered his head in one smooth, quick motion, and those long, bright fangs sank into my throat.

  I gasped, arching my back, my hands fisting in his shirt. I couldn't move or speak. Pain, pleasure and warmth f looded my body, coursing through my veins. Someone once told me there was some kind of narcotic in the vampire's fangs, a soothing agent; that was why having two long incisors in your neck wasn't the blinding agony one thought it should be. Of course, that was only speculation. Maybe there wasn't a scientific explanation. Maybe the bite of a vampire just felt like this: agony and pleasure, all at the same time.

  I could feel him drinking, though, feel my blood leaving my veins at an alarming rate. I felt drowsy and numb, and the world started to blur at the edges. Abruptly, the vampire released me, brought a hand to his lips and sliced his wrist open on his fangs. As I watched, dazed and nearly insensible, he pressed the bleeding arm to my mouth. Thick, hot blood spread over my tongue, and I gagged, trying to pull away.

  But the hand pressing against my mouth was as immovable as a wall.

  "Drink," a voice commanded, low and stern, and I did, wondering if it would come right back up. It didn't. I felt the blood slide down my throat, burning a path all the way to my stomach. The arm didn't move, and hot liquid continued to f low into my mouth. Only when I had swallowed three or four times did the wrist pull away and the vampire lay me back down. The pavement was cold and hard against my back.

  "I don't know if I got to you in time," he murmured almost to himself. "We shall have to wait and see what becomes of you. And what you will become. "

  "What. . . happens now?" I was barely conscious enough to force out the words. Sleepily, I gazed at him as the pain faded to a distant throbbing that belonged to someone else. Blackness crawled at the edges of my vision like a million ants.

  "Now, little human," the vampire said, placing a hand on my forehead. "Now, you will die. And hopefully I will see you again on the other side. "

  Then, my eyes f lickered shut, darkness pulled me under and, lying in the rain, in the cold embrace of a nameless vampire, I exited the world of the living.

  Part II Vampire