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   Chapter 1 NO.1

The Rouges By Alzek16 Characters: 18108

Updated: 2018-01-05 17:35


THE WIND SLAPPED my face as I looked down on the city below me. The scarce figures moving in the streets looked like ants. Their small bodies skittered through the shadows, avoiding the few street lamps that still worked. The dark meant protection, safety. Those amber pools of light meant exposing yourself, being seen, and no one wanted to be seen out in the open. Not unless they had a death wish.

Death sounded nice sometimes. It would be so… easy.

I leaned out farther from the ledge, rising on my toes to support the shifting weight. One little movement, one second of letting go and it could all be over. I wouldn't even have to watch my impending collision. I could just close my eyes and wait for the pavement to claim me. I doubted I would even feel it. My consciousness would surely be gone before even the Scavengers found me.

I could jump.

I wouldn't be the first to give up, to want out.

A cold gust of wind pushed the hood back from my face. I leaned backwards, letting my heels fall to meet the solid cement again. It would be easy, too easy. My mother's last words echoed in my mind. "Be strong, survive."

It had been six years since I watched my parents' murders. Six years of hiding, of surviving this god-forsaken place. Six years could make people forget, lose themselves, but it only sharpened my hate, chiseling their deaths, their last words into every fiber of my being.

"Be strong, survive."

Those three words made me get up, made me eat, and made me keep moving. And those same three words haunted me everyday.

I closed my eyes, seeing my mother's face. She was beautiful. I always looked too much like her, but her face was soft. That softness was lost on me. I was hardened. I could still feel the iron bars of the grate pressed against my palms, see my father's scared face as he lowered me into the storm drain, hear my mother's voice as she slipped the backpack over my shoulders. I watched silently from the prison where my parents placed me as the Ravagers took their lives, my knuckles bleeding as I pressed them to my mouth to keep from screaming. I saw my father bleed out as he watched them rape his wife. I listened to my mother fight back before they took her life too. I fought to free myself, to save her, but the grate was too heavy and I was too weak. Later, I watched as the Scavengers came for them, stealing the clothing off my parents' backs while their bodies were still warm.

I thought I would die in that storm drain, trapped forever, but one of the Scavengers saw me— and for reasons I still do not understand— he pulled up the grate and dragged me out. I should have screamed or fought him, but I remembered my mother's words and instead just held his gaze. He seemed fascinated by my boldness before turning his back to me. I watched as he pulled my father's shoes over his own stained and tattered socks.

"Life's harsh out here kid, it's every man for himself. But don't say nobody never did nothing for you." Without a second glance at me, he tossed my father's pocketknife at my feet and left me standing alone in a dark alley.

I was eleven.

After that day I was on my own. I never trusted anyone, never sought friends. My father had left his journal in the backpack. It contained plans, ideas for surviving in the city we called Tartarus— or as the Ancient Greeks referred to it: "The dungeon of the damned."

I scoured his notes, following them devoutly. And I survived.

I stepped down from the ledge of the building. I was a survivor, not a coward. Death would not be so easy for me. As many times as I had thought about giving up, stepping off a building or walking out into the daylight unarmed, I could never commit. As much as I wanted death, I couldn't surrender to it. For my parents' sake, more than mine, I had to try. I had to keep going. I owed that much to them.

I checked my father's pocket watch. It was one of the other few things he had left in the backpack. It was a handsome, old hand-wound timepiece. It wasn't much, but I loved the old watch. No batteries meant no failure and power was a scarce thing in Tartarus. I watched the frail hands tick. The sun would be coming up soon which meant the Tribes would take control of the streets once again.

The Tribes ruled Tartarus. While they prowled mostly during they daytime, their power was unequivocal.

Join or die— that was the way of the city.

There were five Tribes to choose from. The five lesser evils as I liked to think of them. Each had their own defining virtues— if you could call them that— but they were all murderers, all tyrants seeking power.

The Adroits were probably the lesser of all the evils. They were the cleverest of the Tribes, keeping their hands clean by their own standards. They sought death and power, but rarely got close to the dirty work. Adroits set numerous traps throughout Tartarus— bombs that could take out a city block, IEDs that would take a man out at the knees leaving him to bleed out, pits that could swallow a person into the sea of waiting spikes at the bottom. Yes, they rarely killed a person with their own bare hands, but their death toll was still high.

Equally as cunning and incredibly more deceitful were the Taciturns, but unlike the Adroits they were not afraid to get their hands dirty. They moved like silent shadows. Rarely heard, but their presence was everywhere. Tribe wars rarely started or ended without the Taciturns' involvement. How they managed to get into the minds of other Tribes perplexed me, but somehow they always seemed to know everything.

The Wraiths were even more of a mystery; rarely seen, they were called the ghosts of the city. Few knew where they gathered or what their true numbers were, but their reputation preceded them. No one survived an attack to tell about it, but the aftermaths were enough to strike fear in even the darkest heart. Each murder was marked by the removal of the victim's left hand. As the victim's blood spilled out, the murderer marked his or her kill with a handprint pressed into their victim's freshly pooling blood. Wraiths always claimed their killings, marking each massacre with pride.

The Scavengers were the least threatening, but they were the scum of the city. The vile rats that slithered amongst sewage. They scurried behind other Tribes, reaping the profits of their kills. When spoils ran slim they would pick off the weak, turning on each other just as often as they would a stranger. Their motto was "Sleep with one eye open." They were also the number one contributor to the city's lost orphans. The Scavengers reproduced like the rodents they were, but didn't possess a nurturing bone in their disease-ridden bodies. Any child born in their tribe was usually left for dead. If the child could walk on its own, it could fend for itself. I never forgave them for robbing my parents, even if I was spared. My hatred for those filthy rats was only overpowered by my hate for one other Tribe. The Ravagers.

Scavengers might have taken my parents' last belongings, but it was the Ravagers who took their lives. They were the largest and most deadly Tribe. Aside from their overwhelming numbers, they ran purely on their ids. Always seeking out instant gratification for their basic urges, needs, and desires. If they wanted something, they took it. The Ravagers feared no one, took what they wanted and lived like death could never find them. They raped women, killed children and generally took pleasure in others' pain. Humanity was becoming a dying breed under their reign.

Join or die.

Those were the rules of their city, not mine. I may live here now, but it was not where I was born.

I wouldn't play by their rules.

I wouldn't sell my soul to the devil, even if it meant living longer. And if you won't play with the devil you had better learn to hide from him.

The way I saw it, I had two choices. Go underground or take to the sky. In the end I figured it was better to see from above rather than to bury myself. In truth, there really wasn't much of a choice. The smell of the underground reminded me of the storm drain, of my parents' deaths, the hot air swirling around my feet as the faint hint of sewage and decay clung to my nostrils. I gagged just thinking about it.

As an outcast, I never stayed more than one consecutive day in any of my refuges. As morning threatened I would pack up my things and roll my twenty-sided dice. It was a strange dice, red with white faded letters on each side. But to me, each letter meant a different safe house, a different place to hide. The real security was in randomness. Without patterns a person is harder to track and the dice proved to be my greatest ally in remaining unpredictable.

I watched the red dice bounce to a halt falling on the letter B. I smiled. Tonight's safe house was my favorite and it had been nearly a month since I had been there. Snatching up the dice, I slung my bag over my shoulder and took off at a run.

As always, I kept to t

he rooftops. I ran lightly, careful not to fall, careful not to give my location away. Here, in the remnants of what was once a great city, the decrepit buildings lay close together. While their frames held true, most of their insides had been gutted. Torn apart over the years by Tribe wars, animals and time. Unless you could scale a drainpipe, brave an abandoned elevator shaft or climb the eroded brick on the side of a building, most rooftops were unreachable. It didn't help that I had been slowly deconstructing most avenues to get skyward over the years. There were now few buildings that allowed access upwards and I knew them all.

I leapt over the small gap between buildings just as the first drop fell. I glared at the sky before pulling up my hood and picking up speed.

"Rain…" I grumbled to myself.

This wasn't the drinking kind, the kind that replenished the earth. What was once the world's lifeline, now reeked of toxicity. If drank, it would surely kill a person and if caught in it for too long, your skin would pay the price. I only had to get the blistering rash once to know that rain was to be avoided.

I came to the padlocked door just as the sky opened up. Quickly, I pulled the pins in the door's hinge. Locks kept most people out but only because they never thought to remove the hinges. I dragged the heavy door closed behind me, feeling a weight slide off my shoulders as it shut.

Pushing the rain-soaked hood back from my face, I started forward in the dark. My feet knew the way even when my eyes couldn't see it. I let my fingers trace the wall, until they found open air. Dodging sideways, I ducked into the hole just big enough for my body. The air duct had gotten tighter over the years as I had grown but my progress was still uninhibited. After twenty feet or so, I felt the grated vent against my palms. I pressed my ear to the perforated surface and listened for a sixty count. Upon hearing nothing, I pushed. Carefully, I lowered myself through the opening until my feet found a solid surface. My chest felt tight in the darkness, but I knew precautions must be taken before I could light a torch. When sloppiness can cost you your life, you learn not to be sloppy.

I pressed the vent closed, my fingers tracing the cardboard outline covering it. Taking great care, I stepped down from my perch and took seven calculated steps forward. As before with the vent, I traced the door, ensuring all the gaps were still covered. Once I was confident no light would escape, I pulled the torch from my bag.

I had to crank the handle fifteen times, and then clicked the switch. The light was an odd shade of green, but it was still a light. Choices of light sources were slim here and although this bulb cast everything in a sickly hue, the benefit was that it would probably outlive me. Despite my distaste for the green glow, it was still a welcome friend in the darkness. The light was oddly fitting here, the wan illumination the perfect representation of the city of Tartarus. Vile and repulsive and yet, somehow, it had become home.

The room was exactly as I had left it. At one point it must have been a supply closet or something of the sort, but it was void of any cleaning supplies or unnecessary boxes. The old shelving I had used as a ladder was now covered in books with a few surplus food boxes mixed in. I tried to keep a small stash in every hostel for days like this when the rain trapped me inside. I threw my bag down, hung up my coat to dry in the corner and ran my hands over the books' bindings. Pulling a familiar leather-bound book from the shelf, I held it to my nose.

I loved that smell. In all of my adventures, nothing ever smelled quite like an old book. This one was by a Charles Dickens, entitled A Tale of Two Cities. It was one of my favorites, not just because of its characters and story, but because I remembered my parents reading it to me as a child. One of the few memories I had. Touching the book, reading over its words made me feel like they were still with me, like I wasn't alone. That's why I loved this refuge more than any other, not for its location in the city or its safety, but for what was contained within its walls. Outside this storage closest was what remained of the Old World's library. During my visits here, I would brave the open aisles and steal books. The main floor of the library was desolate. Few people knew how to read anymore and most books had been stolen for kindling during the winters. Fortunately though, the Adroits had blown up the stairs leading to the upper levels at some point so most of the books there remained intact. I had collected many of my favorites, but my reading choices were becoming limited. Maybe after some sleep, I would venture out for new material.

I placed the book back with its brothers and took inventory of my supplies.

There were two bottles of fresh water, three empty bottles, five water purifying tablets, two packs of dried fruit, two military grade MREs and a rare can of pears. It had expired a year ago, but a girl could not afford to be picky. I wrote down everything in my notebook, logging what I would need to restock. My supplies were running low.

Grabbing a bottle of water, a MRE and the can of pears, I settled into the makeshift cot I had stuffed in the corner. The MREs were never bad, but they weren't great either. The hardest part was usually finding a way to heat them. If I placed the bag over my torch lantern, I could usually get a lukewarm meal in about thirty minutes, give or take. I poured in a measured amount of water and balanced the bag precariously on top of the glowing light.

While my meal warmed, I took my father's notebook out. Idly, I ran my fingertips over the four-inch scar behind my right ear as I looked over the pages. His handwriting was so small and precise to a fault. My scrawl looked childlike next to his. The notebook was filled with his words. A good portion of it was written in a code he had taught me. While I could remember how to read the script, I couldn't remember what he had called it. Latin or Larin or something like that. My mind could never latch onto its name, but as long as I knew how to read it, I didn't really care. Lists spanned the pages, ideas that had filtered through his mind. Places to seek shelter, places to avoid, people who might trade, things to remember, old ways that should never be forgotten. Things like the written word, where we came from, what had happened to the world before our time.

In the Old World, before The Devastation, planet earth was escalating. Science had changed the world— in some ways for the better, in other ways toward its detriment. Science saved lives that would have been otherwise damned, constantly cheating death. The world's population was soaring. But Mother Nature got her revenge. When The Devastation came she got her comeuppance. For every life science had saved, she reaped thousands.

There were many names for what happened to the world. Some called it the Armageddon or the apocalypse; others saw it as nature's way of purging itself. Either way, the destruction of the world was devastating. It started with the earthquakes. While cities fell into rubble, other parts of the earth opened up. Once dormant volcanoes awoke, searing the sky and smothering the land. Then the water came. The earth took back its land, drowning most of the world. Oceans swallowed continents whole, countries that once shared borders became islands and islands disappeared never to be seen again.

Governments fell apart and panic ruled. So many lives were lost, technologies destroyed. Life as the human race knew it ceased to exist. But, as with all great travesties, there came hope. Survivors banded together, The Wall was built and The Sanctuary was created. Those who sought security and equality were welcomed to The Sanctuary with open arms. Those who sought power and dominance were left to Tartarus. Cultures ceased to exist and races blended together but the human race still found a way to divide itself. The Sanctuary formed a civilization that ostracized the world outside its walls, and that abandoned world formed the Tribes to survive. This was the New World.I traced my father's script, wishing for the one answer he didn't leave me. Why did he make our family leave The Sanctuary?

No matter how many times I reread his pages or how many times I traced his words, the answer was never there. I wished I could remember something, anything from before the night of my parents' deaths. But it was as if all those memories had died with them. I think maybe it was my mind's way of protecting itself. I would get flashes of them reading me books or looking up at my mother as I held her hand. But that's all they were. Flashes. I set his journal aside and opened the can of pears, relishing the sweet smell. I pulled one out, toasting myself before taking a bite.

"Happy Birthday."

***

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