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   Chapter 2 NO.2

The Rouges By Alzek16 Characters: 13363

Updated: 2018-01-05 17:35


I AWOKE WITH a start, my arms flailing outward, as the scream caught in my throat. It only took seconds to recognize my surroundings, to calm my racing heart. This was how I awoke every morning, every morning since my parents died. After years I managed to restrain the scream, awakening before it escaped my lips. Screaming in the night could get you found, screaming during the daytime would get you killed.

I checked my father's watch in the green light. It was nearly three in the afternoon. There were still hours until dark. I knew I would have to stock up more food before I left for my next refuge, but scavenging during the daytime wasn't an option.

Thumbing through my book collections, I felt uninspired and bored, having already read them so many times. I thought about trying to sleep longer but my mind was too awake. After eating a breakfast of dried apples, I made a plan to grow my personal library. Aside from needing something else to distract my mind, books always proved a good source of trade. Those few of us who defied the Tribes kept to ourselves and stayed quiet. We never gathered, nor really ever trusted one another. But when goods ran scarce, trades were not uncommon. It was finding the right recluses to trade with that was key. One wrong choice and you could easily find yourself with empty hands and a knife in your back. A select few of my merchants knew how to read and those that didn't, never turned down good kindling.

Rifling through my few belongings, I decided to leave my larger backpack behind. It was too heavy and often cumbersome while crawling through the vents. I would only need a small tote big enough to carry books. My revolver lay on the mattress in its holster. I eyed it, speculating if it was needed. I always took it with me outside or to hunt for food, but no one ever came in the library anymore. I had seen a few rats and the occasional wild dogs on the floors below, but none of them ever bothered me. Instead I slid my knife into my hip sheath and climbed up the shelves to the vent.

As always, I moved with great caution, careful to never make a sound and always listening for others. But like usual, the building was empty. After nearly ten minutes of crawling, I saw light shining up through the galvanized steel. Cautiously I pressed my ear to the vent while holding my breath.

Nothing.

I smiled and pushed open the grate before sliding out onto the top of a bookshelf. Before descending I scanned the rows, my keen eyes looking for any trace of movement, foreign color or moved shelving. Nothing had changed since I was here last. Several of the books I had discarded still lay on the floor where I had dumped them, uninterested.

Relaxing a bit, I took a deep breath. The room was massive, filled with rows upon rows of abandoned books. It smelled like aged paper, and earth from the destroyed floors below. I loved that smell. Soundlessly, I climbed down the metal shelf I had perched on and headed for my favorite sections.

First I stopped by the romance section— business first, then pleasure. These were my least favorite kind of book. People fell into whirlwind romance, swept up with sexual desires and passion. I didn't believe in love, it was a wasted emotion that could get you killed. People did foolish things in the name of love. While I detested these books, they were generally thick and most of my allies didn't care about the content as long as they burned.

I never made friends, not even with my allies. There were those I could barter with safely, and those I couldn't, I stole from. I never stole from the dead. Rationally it made more sense to take from the dead; after all it wasn't like they would be using anything any more. But the thought made me nauseous, reminding me too much of watching my parents' murders. Instead I traded with a few recluses and targeted the Tribes' storage facilities for the rest. I never felt guilty stealing from them.

Blindly grabbing a few thick books, I tossed them into my bag and moved on to the educational section. I browsed the titles looking for books on survival and warfare. After skimming their backs I took two of the most promising titles before moving on to the fiction section. I loved this section the most. The books here provided an escape, a place to let my mind wander free and find friends. Not real friends, but friends I could care about without having to commit to. Once I had opened a book and read its pages, those characters could never be taken away from me. Even if the books were burned, they would still live on in my mind. They couldn't die or betray you, friends on paper proved much more lucrative than real ones.

This section was also the largest, and after years of perusing its shelves I had only just scratched the surface. Leisurely, I moved through the rows looking for authors I recognized or titles that called to me. Upon finding one of interest I would pull it from the shelf and read the back cover or the first few pages. Anything of interest was added to my collection. Everything else got added to the growing pile on the floor. I was so immersed in the pages of a potential gem that I almost didn't hear them.

Two voices were making their way toward me, speaking in hushed tones.

"Shut up. I swear I heard something up here."

"If I scaled that damn rope for nothing, I swear I will slit your throat myself."

Every muscle in my body tensed as the distinctly male voices drifted through the aisles. Careful not to make a sound, I slipped the book into my bag and peeked through a gap in the books. Their backs were turned to me, the black leather of their coats splattered in red. Both men were hulking in size, my head probably even with their chests. The taller one had a red mohawk with feathers dangling from it. The other was bald with deep scars that covered the entire left side of his head like angry red fissures. Both of them had an obscene amount of metal piercings protruding from their skin. My hair rose on end.

Ravagers.

What the hell were they doing here? Panic prickled in the pit of my stomach. The vent leading to safety was nearly five rows over across the aisle; there was no way to make it there without being seen. Why hadn't I brought my gun? I cursed myself as their eyes scanned the empty rows.

"I smell fear." One of them taunted, his gruff voice no longer whispering.

They cackled with delight.

I swallowed hard. Even if it was just a farce to scare me, it was working, my pulse accelerating. Punching the other in the shoulder, the one with the mohawk motioned for them to spilt off. My ears began to ring as they moved to e

ither side of my row and progressed towards me. I was trapped. My eyes instantly searched for another route of escape or a place to hide. As their footsteps moved closer, I began to silently climb.

"Here kitty, kitty. Come on out, we won't hurt you." The higher voice crooned.

"Much." The deep voice replied before they broke into another round of laughter.

Perched on the center of the shelf I waited until they were about even with my aisle. As they turned the corner, I swung my body over the top pressing myself flat against the metal surface. All they had to do was look up and I would be dead. I cursed myself again for leaving my gun. How could I have been so foolish?

I pressed my face to the dusty metal surface, preparing to run at a moment's notice. My hand closed over the hilt of my knife. If I could injure one, I might have a chance of outrunning the other. I stared at the vent several aisles over. I could jump the gaps easily and stick to the shelf tops, but only if they didn't—I heard the familiar click and my heart sank as I finished the thought. They had a gun. A hulking brute I could outrun, but a bullet? The chances were thin.

"They're here somewhere. I feel it." The mohawk whispered again.

My heart pounded in my ears as I prepared to launch myself into motion. Aim for the eye, aim for the eye I reminded myself. As my wrist twitched to free my knife, a crash erupted from the other side of the library.

The shelf I lay on shook, nearly knocking me off as one of the Ravagers clipped the corner in their pursuit of the noise. Rowdily, they blundered down the aisles whooping and hollering their battle cry. Without hesitation I sprang to my feet and sprinted across the bookshelves as they disappeared. My feet slid on the dusty surfaces, but managed to keep their purchase. Another crash emitted from the floor below. I turned, launching across the main aisle toward the vent. My foot slipped on the edge, my shin colliding with the sharp edge as I caught myself. An involuntary cry escaped as pain exploded through my leg.

"Get off the rope you idiot! They're still up here!" A voice screamed, coming closer again.

Limping, I dragged myself the last few steps. Smashing my fist into the vent I knocked it open and pulled myself inside. As I yanked the grate closed I drew my face back from the light, watching as the two Ravagers came back into view. They were both sweating and obviously enraged.

"NO ONE IS HERE DAMN IT!"

I clenched my jaw as mohawk turned his gun on scar face and pulled the trigger. The bullet pierced his arm, blood spraying on the books behind him as he screamed. I couldn't watch the fight that ensued, the sounds of their fists like slapping meat echoing in the vent. While I didn't want to watch I also knew moving wasn't an option. One sound and they would surely fire a round in the ceiling just for fun. Closing my eyes I pressed my face to the cool metal and covered my ears. The sound of colliding flesh wasn't entirely drowned out, but it was at least dulled. The minutes pressed on like hours until they eventually worked off their anger and stumbled away. Even after their voices had faded I lay still. After nearly twenty minutes of silence I finally crawled my way back to the storage closet.

My leg throbbed when I hopped down from the shelving. There was something warm pooling in the top of my shoe. Carefully sitting, I turned my lantern on and pulled up my pant leg. A six-inch gash ran down my shin, specks of raw white flesh were visible under the flowing blood. I took a deep breath and let my head fall against the wall.I had been so stupid, so careless. I was getting too comfortable and it nearly cost me my life. Grabbing a bottle of water I splashed it on a rag and pressed it to the raw skin. Air hissed out my teeth as my body shook with pain, but I forced myself to keep breathing, suppressing a scream.

I would remember this.

I would remember what my carelessness had cost me. What it could have cost me if something hadn't fallen when it did. I was sure it was a part of the building caving in or rotted ceiling tiles crashing to the floor. I had gotten lucky, but one should never be so stupid to rely solely on luck.

My body stopped shaking as the pain lessened, the endorphins now flowing through my system. My pain, the scar I would surely bear would be a vivid reminder to stay vigilant. Carefully, I wrapped my leg to staunch the bleeding. The cut was not deep, but skin over shallow bone seemed to bleed a lot. I dug in my bag and came up empty. My medical salves were gone and infection was a great risk. I would have to see The Healer.

I never learned her real name, but most of us went by false ones anyway. She was an ancient woman with thinning grey hair and a withered face with creased lines deep as craters. Her gnarled hands were frightening when they touched you, but her medicines were good. I would have to find food and herbs to trade with her. And unfortunately, there was only one place I could procure both those things. The Ravagers' supply container. It was a heavily guarded warehouse on the edge of The Wall. I had planned to go there tonight anyway, but an injured leg was sure to slow me down.

I couldn't stay here another night, but if I rolled the dice there was no guarantee I would land on a nearby safe house. If I wanted to be hidden before dark I would have to pick one close to The Healer, even if it broke all of my rules. Mentally I went through my list searching for an easily accessible safe house. The school. It was some kind of an educational housing in the Old World. It was filled with abandoned rooms and decrepit hallways. My refuge there was in the basement, in a room with no windows and hard floors, but there were showers there. Plus it was on the edge of Tartarus, a mere jog from The Healer.

A pang of trepidation rolled though me as I holstered my gun and filled my bag. I was breaking the system, but what choice did I have? Break the system or risk being exposed during the daylight? Neither was a great option, but one was more likely to end up with me dead. The two Ravagers today were nothing, a fluke, but to be on the streets, in the open… that would be tempting fate.

I checked my watch. Darkness had fallen.

I released the magazine on my gun and checked the cartridge. It was still full. Setting the safety, I holstered it again and took a deep breath. Moving more carefully now, I crawled into the vent and headed out into the darkness. Tonight was a night I would steal my food or die trying.

****

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