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A dense smog stretched out in welcome, engulfing the workers who streamed in. Their red hats disappered one by one but their idle chatter lingered in the heavy air. There was something else in that haze that steadily bit and nipped at what bit of skin I left exposed, something I couldn’t see. 

I pulled the combersome face mask out of my pack and snapped it into place but it was too late. My eyes watered, my nose stung, my skin tingled, and the vengeful denseness only grew the deeper I ventured into the Zones. I adjusted the mask so the air filter sat properly just under my nose instead of on it. 

The Zones weren’t safe to work in, or near, but somehow there was never a shortage of Red Hats proudly walking through the gate and beyond the wall. There was a rumor that Red Hats were immune to the Zones but I wasn’t one for rumors I couldn’t see for myself. There was one truth though – if not for the wall, Capere would slowly suffocate. 

The upperups weren’t the kind to normally put resources into protecting people who couldn’t protect themselves. The wall that separated the Zones was the only unnerving exception. It towered over  Capere, keeping the old city from view and the polluted noxious air at bay. But there was nothing that could conceal the telling stream of smoke that came from the demolitions. 

I took my time walking blindly through the haze. Nothing made sense about the upperups. They were unpredictable even when you knew the outcome. But there was one thing I could rely on. Capere always rewarded strength. 

A saying as old as Capere has been passed down on the whispers of old tongues. “Strength fuels the future and it’s the strength of the survivors that fuel Capere.” 

I never cared for sayings or stories but there was some truth to those words that I couldn’t ignore. People died. It was the simple truth that every child faced from the moment they were presented to this callous world.

“HAIL IMPERIA!”

The voice echoed loudly, jarring me from my idle thoughts. The timing was perfect, as usual, bellowing out just as an explosion sounded nearby. I slowed down my pace, counting to five before taking another step. The air around me thinned by the fifth step and I could make out some disheveled buildings by the ninth. The voice came again on the tenth, loud and gravely, “HAIL IMPERIA!”

With a sigh, I stealed myself and pulled off my mask. “Hail the Gray.” The sudden intake of air sent me into a coughing fit but the password was out which meant I could regain my composure without being shot. 

“Looks like the shadow city can’t make everyone immune.” 

Still doubled over, I could only manage a very intimidating glower at the direction of the haze covered blur before I coughed a few more times. Capere, the shadow city. It had been years since I heard anyone refer to it that way, and even longer since I’ve seen someone not wince in fear when they whispered it. That fear didn’t seem to exist past the wall. 

The air around the massive blur finally cleared, no doubt thanks to his doing, and I was able to see who was my contact. 

“Kason,” I wheezed out.

He chuckled as he handed me a bottle. “You used to be tougher. Did they finally get their hands on yuh?”

Shrugging, I raised the bottle to my lips and almost sighed in relief. The liquid soothed my throat upon contact. “I used to be here more than you. A little time away can take its toll.” I exchanged the bottle for familiar nose plugs that had a useful set of air filters on them. “I need to talk to Jax.” 

“You can talk to the dead whenever yuh want. You didn’t have to come out here for that.” He cocked his clean shaven head to one side as he crossed his arms. It was possible that Jax didn’t want to be found so easily but he wasn’t dead. Jax was smart, too smart, and he had plenty of soldiers willing to fall for him, including the five-seven muscle lying for him. “Hurry home, Indra.”

I had a plan. I would go in, warn Jax, and get out. It was a solid plan that would have left us even and well out of each other’s lives but there was something about hearing my name that made me want to risk more. 

“Why?” I pressed, throwing the half empty bottle at him. “Scared I’ll steal your prophet away for a quick pay day?”

“Like I said, Indra, the dead is available to talk whenever yuh want.”

I ignored his sneer as he said my name for a second time and bit back what I really wanted to say. As good as it would have felt to see him stumble through what little vocabulary he likely knew, I was there for a reason and it wasn’t him or his nagging presence. “Listen this time. I’m telling you that you better resurrect him before somebody else does.”

“Threatening me now?” Kason grinned. “I’d sell you piece by piece.”

Sighing, I let him think the detailed description of the various ways he’d make a profit off of my dismemberment while I slipped my pack off one shoulder to rifle through for the bounty paper. The leadership that surrounded Jax when I last saw him wasn’t nearly as barbaric. They understood the difference between a threat and a warning. My fingers found the crumbled ball just as Kason finished explaining how much a fingernail was worth. 

“Riveting,” I whispered under my breath. It was likely that he missed the sarcastic comment in the midst of his own rendition of intimidation. An act I still ignored even as he growled down at me for calmly walking over to him and slapping the uncrumpled paper against his chest. 

“I don’t care how you get the message to him but tell Jax that we need to talk. After that, we’re even.”

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