CHAPTER ONE
Shadows of Crimson

CRIMSON CITY, CAIRO.

Only the center of the town was nice enough to have stone paths and two story houses, but even those were crumbling and denting without proper care. The rest of the streets were made of worn dirt from everyday wear and tear of travel. The houses that were furthest away from the center of the city became progressively worse, crumbling in their clay brick foundation.

Deterioration was not a sight new to Cairo.

.

A group of children ran down one of the paths, dirt twirling up into the air behind them. Their laughter filled the air like bubbles reflecting the glowing dim hues of that later hours of the day. They pushed and shoved at each other, running past a group of three travelers. As they passed, the fire from one of the roadside torches was blown out.

One of the travelers turned around. He cast a lazy eye behind him, cupping his fingers around his palm. A spark of fire ignited in his hand and twirled upward. The man held out his hand to the torch and the fire reached for it like a moth drawn to light.

It ignited with rejuvenated vigor and flapped in the air as it consumed it. The path was brighter than ever before.

The brown-haired boy sighed, looking up into the sky. Stars were starting to twinkle bright like flames burning in the sky. "It's so bright out here. If it were early daylight I'd need sunglasses." He chuckled to himself. "I guess it's called Crimson City for a reason, huh, Cairo?"

Cairo looked at him with a blank stare, the frown making his cheeks crease. "They call this place Crimson City because it's the city of light. Whether it's the flames they use as light, the constant bonfires they throw, or the extravagant festivals where people use fire magic like it's some kind of magic trick, there's always a surplus of light around here. The color of the flames—crimson. What used to be our dignified capital isn't more than a circus anymore."

Next to Cairo was a girl with ashen hair. She was about up to his shoulders, most of her skin cover with dark clothes that contrasted with her pale skin. Though, next to the boys, she stood out like a sore thumb. "Crimson City..." Her voice was light and carried easily through the air. "The night air is never cold nor are the stars dark. That's what the book Cane had said."

Cane blinked, slightly cocking his head as he creased his eyebrows. He thought for a moment before the girl pointed to his backpack. He exclaimed as he pulled out a small book from one of the pockets he'd unzipped.

The cover was black and the sides were partially worn, but he smiled proudly as he held it up for the other two to see. "You mean my guide book, Aerie?" She nodded, and Cane smiled more. "My grandfather wrote this a long time ago. I heard he traveled all around the country. He's not well known, but... " Cane sighed, caressing the book with his thumb, a light smile on his face. "I don't know, doesn't that that sound amazing—just to be able to say you've seen it all? I hope one day I get to do that."

"In this country?" Cairo scoffed, shaking his head. "Why would you want to do that? There's nothing but poverty and rubble, and what's left standing is probably going to get destroyed anyway. If not by the city fires, I'm sure the rebels will do their fair share of work."

"That's exactly it," Cane exclaimed. "If I see everything I can help—"

Cairo lifted one of his fingers in Cane's direction and shushed him. Cane followed his gaze to a group of people that were gathering around. They were hunched over, squished together, passing hesitant looks back and forth. An older man stood in front of them, his long robes swinging back and forth from his exaggerated hand motions.

Certainly aren't bothering to keep their voices down, Cane thought. It was almost like they wanted to be heard.

"Our once beloved and prosperous Cairo will burn in the flames of purgatory. Everyone who lives in this godforsaken country is doomed. This country's soul is stained in the blood and bones of those who have fallen to our sins. We will rot in the afterlife of eternal suffering. There is no salvation for sinners whose gods have turned their backs on them."

One of the people in the group turned their heads back. It was a woman with scraggly hair and tattered clothes. Her skin was wrinkly. Dark circles hung under her eyes like a bad omen. It was her eyes, however, that caught the most attention—they were blank, as if looking at the eyes of the dead—the eyes of someone who had long since given up. And it wasn't just her. Everyone who stood next to her had the same rotting holes for eyes.

The look shot right through Cane, and he shivered. Blinking, he turned to Cairo with a small frown. "I thought they were talking about you for a second."

"That's what happens when you're named after your county," Cairo grumbled in distaste.

"You hate your name?"

"No..." Cairo sighed, his eyes drifting off to the side. "I hate the meaning behind it. I'm nothing like the light this country was named after." He cleared his throat and straightened his posture. "You should know this by now, but don't tell anyone I'm in the Government. They all think it's our fault that the country is falling apart, and in a city like this where the reform isn't really helping, I'm bound to get lynched if they find out."

Cane scoffed. "Are you really someone who would die that easily? You were just compared to a cockroach earlier."

"Either way, I came here to look for a Kleptos card. It should be around here somewhere... but then that 'somewhere' could apply to anywhere in this city. If there's one thing Crimson City isn't, it's small."

"So what do we do then?" Cane asked, shoving the book back in his backpack. He adjusted it on his shoulders slightly, slipping his fingers under the straps. "Split up and cover more ground? Or we could ask around, but they don't look, um, the friendliest if you catch my drift."

"We'll split up in a bit. Cover more ground. You can call me on the CDP if you find anything. I'll let you go with Aerie in case something happens she can protect you. We'll meet up wherever I leave from in two hours. Probably."

The plan seemed simple enough, and Cane was about to agree when a thought popped up in his mind. He blurted it out without pausing to think. "But does this place even have kleptos? You're looking for the most powerful kleptos right? Why would it or any kleptos for that matter be here? It seems unexpected."

"Unexpected..." Cairo let the world slide out of his mouth. He ran his tongue over his teeth as if testing the word before shaking his head with a muffled chuckle. "Well you can certainly say that, but if you look here"—Cairo knocked his fingers on the wall of the house behind him—"you'll see that there's scratch marks here. Kleptos inhabit every area. It's up to the kleptos themselves, but it's not uncommon to find them littered around places with people. Most low ranked ones, though. But one can never be too careful or a great opportunity could slip through your fingers."

Cane leaned forward. Just as Cairo had said, there were scratch marks in the clay brick wall of the house. They looked like claw marks made my an animal. He mulled the thought over in his head. To be honest, he'd never seen many kleptos and his knowledge was severely lacking in the area. His eyes glanced over to Aerie. She was Cairo's kleptos. At least that was what Cairo said, but to Cane, she looked like an ordinary person. Albeit a tad bit pale for their kind of climate—which should have been a red flag—but she looked and seemed to function just like he did.

She caught Cane's glance and her eyes locked on to his. They were lifeless, like a cold, dark void. It sent a shiver down his spine and to get rid of the feeling, Cane quickly looked back to the scratch marks. There must be all kinds of different kleptos, Cane caught himself thinking. Because he knew there was no way Aerie could make a mark like an animal. She had human hands.

Cairo ruffled Cane's head, and he groaned as he looked up to him. "Unexpected places might hold the best secrets. A word of advice: Look where you least expect. You find a lot of amazing things that way." Cairo glanced to Aerie and a small grin stretched on his face then vanished as if it wasn't there at all—a small secret. "I know I sure did."

It was times like these Cane realized that Cairo was older than him. It wasn't that he didn't look old, he was tall and had an air around him that said he'd been through a lot more than a normal person could ever fathom to think of, some deep-rooted secret laid buried at the bottom of his heart. The fact was that when he opened his mouth he sounded like a facetious little boy and a spoiled brat who always needed to get his way.

Looking over, Cairo gave Cane half of a grin (it'd probably meant he'd known what Cane was thinking, but he never thought of it at the time) that Cane knew he didn't put any effort into. Despite standing right next to him, he felt a strange distance surround the two.

As if Cairo could tell what Cane was thinking, he smirked at him, ruffling his hair as he walked past him to beckon him with a wave of his hand. Cane followed like a lost puppy attached to his shadow behind him, his eyes aglow in fascination as the town started to come to life before him.

.

Flattened and smoothed bricks lined the path to the center of town. The houses, instead of the previous clay shacks, stood tall and fortified with stone, wood, and thickly fortified bricks that held strong in their large two story impressiveness that towered over the small statures of the people underneath their shadows.

There were lights in the houses. They seemed to make the decorated glass windows light up into shades of oranges, reds, and yellows. Striped awnings decorated houses and light coats of chipping paint made the town seem a bit brighter.

Even the people were affected by this slight change of mood. They seemed to stand up taller and even a few smiles were passed around in their clustered groups gathered around the edges of the town square, mostly women who were probably gossiping back and forth with whatever had caught their ear.

The town center was formed in a circle. Traveling caravans and wooden shop stalls lined out their good as they called with loud voices over the noise of the crowd. Today, it seemed, was particularly noisy. Clothing on the merchants seemed frilly and colorful on their large builds; some of the poorer ones, however, had more tattered, humble clothing that showed their bustling muscles from laborious days of slaving for their work. Yet they seemed to have a pleasant smile on their face as they called to their potential customers.

Cane pulled at the sleeve of his t-shirt. He glanced to the people weaving in and out of each other. Their clothes too seemed to have a certain poof and thickness to them. Waving a hand in front of him, he sighed as he began to look for Cairo in the crowd.

When he found him, he jogged quick up to him, pulling his arm to get his attention. "Why's everyone so loud?"

Cairo turned to point down further in the town center where a tent was being put up. People were walking around with large barrels, chunks of firewood, and heaps of meat and vegetables.

In the air, something crackled. Cane snapped his head up to the sound to see a large bolt of fire exploding into little pieces. It highlighted the sky, like crystals evaporating into an airy mist. The crowd yelled their applause, starting to gather together to look up at the spectacle that was starting. Even Cane could barely tear his eyes away.

"Fireworks," he breathed out in awe. His heart clenched and smile stretched across his face. It'd been too long since he'd seen any.

"Looks like we came at the right time. They're preparing for a festival. Everyone's in high spirits." Something shimmered behind Cairo's eyes and he smirked. "And you know what that means? It means they'll all start to be busy here soon, which means they'll be leaving their houses unattended. That house right there—" Cairo pointed a house north east from where he was standing. "—is the one I need to get into. I think it has the kleptos card I want. If the rumors are anything to go by."

Cane blinked, pulling himself out of his inattentive state. His eyebrows scrunched together in disbelief. "Rumors?" he scoffed. "You're following rumors? We came all the way out here for a rumor? Do you know how long it took to get here? That wasn't easy. And what is all this about kleptos cards anyway?"

Cairo shrugged. He looked away as if that sufficed as an answer. Cane grumbled as he stepped forward to grab his arm. When Cairo turned around, he chuckled at the darkened expression on Cane's face, rubbing his mouth as if that would help ease his laughter.

"What do you mean," Cane growled.

"It's what I do." Cairo sighed, scratching the back of his neck when Cane didn't let go of his arm. "Well, I don't go around collecting kleptos, but... I'm looking for certain ones that might be able to help me."

"Help you? What are you trying to start an army?"

"I have no interest in their power," Cairo said, laughing at his remark. "I have an interest in their memory. There's certain kleptos that I think might be able to fill in the missing pieces of a forgotten memory."

"Whose memory?" Cane whispered, as if it were a secret conversation to be talked about in hushed tones and wayward gestures.

Cairo shifted his glance to Cane. It wasn't cold, but Cane could decipher nothing from it, as if there wasn't anything there to begin with. Just like Aerie's blank stare that seemed to look right through him. He shivered.

"That's a secret."

A boom from above shook the ground, erupted through the air. Cane jumped. His heart pounded against his chest, his lungs winded from the breath he didn't even know he was holding. Another set of fireworks were going off in the rapidly increasing darkening sky. He stood there mesmerized by the colors exploding before him like the majority of the people were gathering around to do. Some shoved into him without so much as an apology and kept walking, zealously talking as they pointed up to the sky with open-mouthed smiles.

.

There were decorations all over the town. Banners and streamers tossed about anywhere that would hold them. Their colorful array contrasted with the darkened colors of red that highlighted the town. It wouldn't be Crimson City without a brilliant crimson red.

Just like blood... Cane shook his head quickly when realization dawned on him what he was thinking. He stood up straighter, glancing around to try to get out of his somber thoughts.

Near him, hanging off one of the shop stalls, was a banner that looked to be made out of rough cloth. Cane touched it. It was hard cloth that chipped at the paint if it was bent. There was something about it, though, that made the corners of his mouth tilt up. Perhaps it was the festival mood—the fireworks and slight waft of cooking food—that was getting to him like it seemed to be doing to everyone else.

People were gathered around in the town square and Cairo was nowhere to be seen. Cane sighed, watching as every started to group, calling to the people they knew. It made him feel alone in a large space that felt many times smaller than it actually was.

Silence settled in next to Cane like an old friend despite the loud noise and racket the crowd and fireworks were making all around him. The silence gently rested on his shoulders with an invisible weight he couldn't quite shake off. Aerie shuffled next to Cane. He jumped in his skin. A nervous laughter rang in his throat and he placed his hand on the back of his neck. "I forgot you were there, to be honest. Well, um, that's not right... I thought you'd be with Cairo?"

She said nothing, and Cane filled the silence with his nervous laughter. He scratched his head, racking his brain for something to say. It was then that a child screamed. Cane jumped in his skin once again. He was astounded he could pick it out of the noise.

A group of children were off in the near distance. There were four of them in a circle, surrounding another child. They laughed at the child in the middle. From the angle, Cane could just see past them. His eyes widened when he saw it was a little girl, curled up as she hugged her legs dressed. She was dressed in tattered rags while the other kids seemed much more well off with their thin, colorfully decorated clothing.

The children continued their assault of laughing and poking. The adults turned a blind eye.

When her face lifted up with tears, Cane didn't waste a second in rushing over to her. He swatted at the children. They called him names and stuck their tongues out at him as they left. Cane reached out a hand to the girl when the boys left. She seemed hesitant in his touch, and he smiled gently, bending down on one knee.

"I probably don't have the right to apologize for them," Cane said, his eyes glossing over as memories started to stir. "And I know a couple words from a stranger won't do any good, but I want you to know that I'm on your side."

She looked up to him with her mouth open. In her eyes was hesitance, but Cane could see how she pulled at her dress and bit at her lip. He nodded his head towards her, the smile still on his face, prompting her to continue. She glanced to the side as if ashamed of what she was about to say.

"They were teasing me."

"Boys should protect girls, not hurt them. One day they'll learn."

"No," she said, shaking her head. She paused for a moment, biting her lip in a semi pout as she struggled to make her next sentence. "It...They picked on me because I don't have a kleptos to protect myself. All the kids have a kleptos and they like to fight."

Cane opened his mouth to reply, but he was at a loss of words. The only thing that came out was an airy breath. All of a sudden his mouth felt dry. He dabbed at his forehead, wiping beads of sweat off. from under his damp bangs. He tried hard, he really did, to suppress the memories.

But he couldn't, and he remembered the incident with a hard hit to his chest and a sharp stab with each breath.

.

Blood that oozed red. Like river. Like paint splattered against bricks. The faces that smiled, yet seemed like demonic gestures. And the laughter that greeted at his ears. The large frame of a monster that stood in front of him with the smell of his blood permeating in the air.

One quick jab and it would be all over.

All over...

.

Cane gasped. Pulling his head back, he clutched at the fabric over his chest, rubbing his fingers over the damp roughness of his neck. The beating of his heart vibrated through the flesh all over his body—in his arms and even legs he could feel it.

Seconds later, he took a large breath, calming down, as he watched the silhouette of the girl he was talking to rush through the crowd. There were more people, Cane noted, and even more coming as he caught sight of more people shuffling out of their houses still.

From a bit away, he could hear the crowd stir. A trail of smoke rose into the sky followed by a wisp of fire.

"A bonfire," Aerie said, and Cane gasped, jumping into a person near him. Aerie continued on, ignoring his strange behavior. "They're holding a festival, so of course they'd have a bonfire. It's a tradition, is it not? The people of crimson, to be closer to the blessed color."

"That's right." Cane nodded, glancing back to where the fire he couldn't see was. "Crimson Fires. That's what they call them."

Aerie nodded, holding her hands behind her back as she looked with Cane to the growing fire in the distance. The sky was getting much darker and the flames and fireworks bursting above were dying the sky in a brilliant crimson color that bored at the souls of everyone standing there.

Except for possibly one. Aerie looked over to Cane, who was still lost in thought observing the tips of the flames. She looked him up and down, and at some point Cane must have felt her stare as he looked over to her with a puzzled expression, asking her what was wrong.

She shook her head. Because there wasn't actually anything wrong.

"I just..." Cane bite his lips, his eyes crinkling together as if he was in physical pain. Then he sighed loudly, cursing under his breath. "You're a kleptos, so maybe you know. What do people use kleptos for?"

"Power," Aerie said without a second of hesitation. "We're a sign of dominance, a weapon for war. That's what this country of paradise has turned into: a bloody battlefield. The country is in chaos, so people think they can do whatever they want."

"So in layman's terms that means the weakest have to get picked off so the strongest can feel secure."

Aerie said nothing as the words floated gently above them, filling the air with an imaginary miasma. Cane looked back up into the sky. It was almost dark, and he thought the scene reminded him of the hearts of the people of Cairo—dark and filled to the brim with flowing blood.

Above all the hustle and bustle, Cane thought he heard Aerie say something, but when he looked, she was in the same position, looking up at the display without a hint of emotion covering her face. As if she were a figurine standing there, dressed up to look pretty.

The possibly imaginary words floated through his head as he turned to look for Cairo. A chill ran down his spine and the back of his neck burned. Cane's slammed against his chest like a car without brakes.

.

"Kleptos can kill, but if you lived, it means you aren't weak."

.

The words drilled into the subconscious of Cane's mind. Into the deep places he kept locked and buried. They weren't just some random words that meant a lot more to Cane than anyone else; they were words said with an underlined purpose. He was sure of it.

"What are you talking about?" Cane asked. "I don't understand... how could you—"

But as he looked to Aerie, she wasn't looking at him. Not paying him a wink of attention. Cane wasn't sure if she knew or not until she turned around and lowered her eyes, quickly snapping her head back with a wave of her hand as she moved forward.

"I said it because I knew you'd understand. Is it that hard to grasp?"

It was clear then she'd done it on purpose. There were two questions: how'd she find out and why'd she do it. If it were any ordinary person, Cane ventured he'd be fine, but this was Aerie, and if there was anyone who he thought could see straight into his soul, there was no doubt it would be her.

At the end of it, though, Cane shook his head. There was no use to keep thinking it over and worrying about it. What was done was done; there was no helping that. Kleptos were a mystery, and Cane got the feeling that would be how things would stay. For awhile at least.


Author's Note:

Hello! This is the first chapter of the rewritten version of my original story Cairo (which can also be found on my profile). This is just a preview of the story that can be found updated on wattpad only as of now. However, if this chapter is well received, I will put up more chapters :D So remember to like, follow and comment! And for those of you who've read my previous version, what do you guys think? Big improvement?