Ch. IX, p.3

A thick wind blew through the street, heavy with ash and dirt from buildings, burned to the ground in distant parts of the city. Whoever was in charge hadn’t gotten around to closing off a good deal of the wasted areas, and their remains still spread upon the homes and countryside.

Dominic slowed his pace, breathing only as much as was necessary. Even at a stroll, he felt winded by the poor quality of the air. But he wouldn’t wear his mask. He refused to look like some unsympathetic trooper of death, distancing himself from the more ill-equipped denizens of the city.

Truth was, it wasn’t always like this. Some days, the sun did shine. Some days, the air was fresh and clean. Some days… he could almost remember what things had been like before. But today was a heavy day. Most people were inside, drinking themselves to death and fucking to keep the race alive. Most people were…

He stopped.

A young girl, no older than ten or eleven, her hair golden like the sun and her smile radiant like its light, came strutting triumphantly out of an alley, shouting and snapping her fingers, “Here Kamün, heel!”

She looked like she was carrying something beneath her jacket, an oversized leather coat that obviously didn’t belong to her in the first place. Whatever it was had an odd shape, its angles and edges pressing sternly outward.

“Kamün, heel!” she shouted again. A white husky trotted out of the alleyway and slowly licked her hand, his eyes patient and docile. She smiled, patting him affectionately. “Good boy.”

Dom felt as if he had been pulled from a trance. If a girl like that could exist in a world like this, maybe there was more than grim misery awaiting them all. On a whim, he very nearly followed her, just to see what magical place a child like that might have been going. And he smiled, remembering his own daughter, who had been about that girl’s age when she had died.

Elise… he thought, toying with a braided cloth that he always carried. He frequently wondered about what his daughter would have been like if she were still with him. Strong, I bet. On some level, he felt like she had never left his side, her presence greater by the day. He kissed the braid, replacing it in his pocket.

Coming out of his reminiscing, he realized the little girl was gone now, probably having ducked down another alleyway. He earnestly hoped he would see her again, if only to prove that she hadn’t been part of some hallucination.

“Hey man.”

He startled at the sound. Where had it come from?

“Hey man. Hey.”

A ragged pile of fallen cloth shifted near his feet and he stepped away, afraid for a moment that he had trodden upon… whatever it was.

“Hey… wazzup?”

A worn face stared up at him amidst trash and ripped clothing, piled on in incongruous layers, and black-marked rows of teeth grinned euphorically up at him.

“Beautiful day, eh?”

Dominic turned away in disgust and walked on.

“Aw, come on man. Come have a sit with me, it’s fucking wonderful down here.”

The junkie’s voice devolved into random sound utterances, indistinguishable beneath the crunching gravel scattered upon cracked and winding cobblestone pathway. Dominic’s destination wasn’t far away, located in “District 17,” in a popular bar. Which meant he needed to quickly figure out a strategy so he could approach his situation with secrecy and deference. And he was fully aware that a difficult choice could present itself before him, and he wasn’t sure which way he would go when the time came to decide.

Barren trees lined the buildings, passing him by as he mulled over his situation. There was no way out, he figured, other than to hope that he could bargain for everything he wanted. But he would be asking a lot, he knew, coming to a large, domed building.

Dragon’s Breath. He shuffled to a stop in front of the darkly windowed establishment. This is the place…

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