This city used to be something once. I’ve seen pictures of the way it gleamed—sun so bright off windows it could burn your eyes. At night, lights shouted from steel like catcalls, loud and lewd, while all day long white-gloved men rushed to open doors for women who tottered about on skyscraper heels.
I wonder sometimes what happened to those women when the Return hit—how they were able to run and survive with such absurd contraptions strapped to their feet. How different the world must have been before—safe and comfortable.
The City’s nothing like that anymore. Now, bare beams scrape the sky like splintered finger bones. Half the high-rises have fallen, and scavengers pilfered the intricately scrolled ironwork long ago. There’s not much of anything left anymore, just the fear that seeps fog-like through the streets.
Fear of the Recruiters. Fear of the Unconsecrated. Fear of tomorrow.
Even so, this city’s been my home. Other than the village I lived in as a child, this is the only world I’ve known. It’s sharp-cornered and raw but it’s a refuge for those with a burn to survive. You pay your rents, you follow the rules and you do what it takes to keep living.
Which is why I find myself on the Neverlands side of the Palisade wall that cordons off and protects the Dark City as the last dregs of evening slide across the sky. This is the place where Elias would go when he was desperate for money, desperate to trade so we could pay our rent and stay in our tiny flat for another year. It’s the place where anything can be found for the right trade, and where, after the blade of my only knife broke this afternoon, I’ve come for help.
Clutching the replacement blade tightly, I’ve started to cross over one of the bridges strung between two buildings when I hear a deep rumbling cough. It’s approaching dusk and storm clouds hover over the river, causing the light to drip a dull green. I shuffle faster toward the next roof, determined to get back to my flat in the Dark City before full night, but as soon as my foot lands on the rickety bridge connecting the buildings a voice calls out, “Wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
I freeze, the frayed rope railing in one hand. I’ve been alone long enough to have learned to look out for myself, yet something about the warning makes me hesitate. Just as I start to take another step the voice says, “Look down,” and I do.
The alley a dozen stories below is dim and choked in shadows, but even so I see something moving. A moan floats up, echoing softly between the buildings as it rises. The sun breaks through a narrow gap in the clouds and the light reflects down the alley, glinting briefly off what looks like eyes and a row of cracked teeth.
As my gaze adjusts I can make out dozens of clawing fingers reaching for me amid a pile of broken bodies that should have died from their fall but didn’t. Or maybe they did die and infection’s brought them back as plague rats. I shiver, disgust rolling through me.
Carefully, I inch back onto the roof, noticing how the wooden boards I was just about to walk onto are rotten. One step more and I’d have been down on that heap as well.
“You’re the first one to listen to me and not take a dive,” the voice says, and I spin, pulling my new knife between us. A woman sits tucked between two crumbling stone chimneys. In her hand she clutches a charred wooden pipe that feebly chokes out smoke.
I glance around the roof, expecting some sort of trap. The woman gestures toward my knife. “Don’t bother,” she says. “Just me up here.”
She puts the pipe back in her mouth, the end of it burning a bright red, and in that instant I get a clear look at her face: thick dark lines painted around eyes smudged by tears or sweat or both. Then the ember fades, pulling her back into shadow.
But not before I see the raw circle around her wrist, festering with infection. The flesh edging the wound puffs and oozes, and I recognize it as a bite. I pull my knife back up between us, refusing to let it shake.
I’m usually pretty good at avoiding any confrontation with the Unconsecrated. No matter how careful you are, there’s always the risk that something will go wrong and they’ll get their teeth into you one way or another.
The woman shrugs and inhales. The light makes her skin glow again and I watch how her hand trembles. Cracks etch through the powder she used to make her old skin appear blushing and fresh—it looks like a fractured mirror instead.
I think of my own face, the scars overlaying the left side of my body like a thick spider web. Her cracks can be washed away. Mine can’t.
It’s easy to see that she’s close to the end—when the infection will kill her. I glance down again at the pile of bodies below, their feeble moans filtering into the night. She’ll be one of them soon. If she’s lucky someone will take care of her before she turns. If she isn’t…
With a sickening heaviness in my stomach I realize I’m the one who’s going to have to kill her. It makes me feel off balance and I take a few steps away from the edge of the building, suddenly unsettled by such height.
The last of the evening light slides down my body, a final brush of heat, before disappearing for what will be yet another night of forever. The woman’s eyes aren’t on my knife; instead they focus on my face.
She inhales but her chest barely moves. She considers me a moment, staring at my scars. “There are men who like ’em like you—messed up,” she says, nodding. Her gaze slips past me back down the island toward the ruins of the bigger buildings of the Dark City in the distance.
No they don’t, I think.
She exhales a wavering line of smoke. “But more ’n likely, they’re the ones that want to do the messing.” She pushes a thumb into the corner of her mouth, as if tidying up a lip stain that she’s no longer wearing, the gesture a habit of so many years that’s become useless.
I should say something. I should be comforting or consoling or helpful. This woman’s infected and she’s facing the final moments of her life and I realize how utterly useless I am faced with the enormity of what’s going on. Instead I clear my throat. How in the world would I know what could give this woman comfort?
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie RyanCopyright © 2011 by Carrie Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.