Chapter 1:

Different set, same tune.

UnCrowned


When Lev Zaytsev walked through the doors, the receptionist gripped the stock of a shotgun underneath the counter. It was a well-practised motion. Bookmark here

The city of Minerva was no stranger to luxury casinos that catered to society’s elites. Corsac Casino, Saint Peter’s Crest– any real gambler can attest they are just as good as the places you’d find in Vegas or Macau. Rivers of champagne, a Michelin chef working in the kitchen. Bookmark here

This wasn’t that sort of casino.Bookmark here

The windows were braced with iron bars and the ceiling was an amalgam of dripping metal pipes, their rust bleeding into the walls. Ancient burnt light bulbs cast the room in a sickly yellow haze. Yet, the people here still danced to the humdrum of slot machines and clanking poker chips. Different set, same tune. Bookmark here

“We don’t serve Nabi-wannabes,” said the receptionist. His grip on the stock tightened. Bookmark here

Nabi-what? Sensing his confusion, the receptionist pointed to his face.Bookmark here

He felt his mask, running a finger across its frozen snarl, two tusks protruding at either edge. He must have looked monstrous. “The mask stays on.”Bookmark here

“No Nabis welcome. Go look for trouble somewhere else.”Bookmark here

Lev reached behind and laid a wad of bills on the bench, neatly stacked.Bookmark here

“I already said we won’t serve you. I’m not exchanging those.”Bookmark here

“For your troubles.”Bookmark here

The receptionist’s eyes gleamed. Immediately, he reached for the notes, slipping them under the counter. “How much are you planning to play tonight, sir? Can I get you a drink?”Bookmark here

No matter where, money still talks. Lev turned away. “I’m not playing. I need to borrow your backroom.”Bookmark here

“Backroom? Sir, that’s for staff only. Sir?”Bookmark here

Lev had already moved on. He scanned the room and made his way through the maze of baccarat tables. Hidden behind a row of slot machines was a door. ‘Restricted Area’, the sign read.Bookmark here

Lev threw it open. Bookmark here

Inside was a woman, back turned to him. Her hair was blue– almost distractingly so. It was the neon bubblegum blue one would find in a candy store, though her natural colours were just visible at the roots. Bookmark here

“Sorry, I’ll be with you in a second,” she said. She moved to take something off a table, and Lev caught a glimpse of a man in a folding chair. His head was tipped back, his nose drenched wet with blood.Bookmark here

“Alright, get out of here.” The woman dusted his jacket, folded it, and left it on his lap. “I can’t let you back in ever again. No hard feelings, Jackie, it’s my boss’s words.”Bookmark here

The man said nothing, only sat there unmoving. Probably unconscious. Bookmark here

The woman greeted Lev. “Hey. You’re a new face. What’s your name?”Bookmark here

Lev shook his head.Bookmark here

“Alright, I can work with that.” She pulled a beer from a mini-fridge under the table. “Can I help you?”Bookmark here

“A hundred thousand.”Bookmark here

“Sorry?”Bookmark here

“A hundred thousand dollars,” he clarified.Bookmark here

“Ah.” She sipped her drink. “More business.”Bookmark here

“I’m looking for someone.” Lev showed her a photo. “His name is Sehyun Seok. He’s been missing for a little more than a week.”Bookmark here

“Missing people is the police’s job.”Bookmark here

“They won’t go anywhere near the case.”Bookmark here

“Jesus.” She picked up the photo. “Which gang did he piss off?”Bookmark here

“I just need information. Anything helps.”Bookmark here

The woman pondered on the photo and took another sip. She tilted her head to one side, then the other. “Look, I don’t know anything about this guy or who might’ve done what to him. There’s something happening tonight though, so if you’re looking to dig deeper, I reckon that’s a good place to start. I can take you there if you want–”Bookmark here

Lev could not see where the knife came from and neither could the woman. The man in the chair simply stood up, and it was in his hand, swinging down on her. He was inexperienced though and didn’t know how to use the weapon nor how hard to drive it. The woman twisted away just in time, but the blade marked her arm in a thin red line.Bookmark here

Lev got to him before she could. The man tried to stab at him the same way he tried with her, screaming as he thrust the edge forward. Without missing a beat, Lev leaned back and the blade cut into nothing. Lev stretched his arm down and swung up. In one clean move, he caught a fire extinguisher and in a perfect arc, slammed it against the man’s head. He fell, unmoving. Bookmark here

“Jesus, mother of god,” she cursed, rubbing her wound. Her beer was now a puddle on the floor. “What a dick. Alright, I’m going to need a while before we can go.”Bookmark here

“You can find someone else to clean up.”Bookmark here

“Clean up? I can’t drive right after I have a beer.”Bookmark here

“I...er….” What was he supposed to say to that? “You barely drank anything.”Bookmark here

“I’m not risking my license,” she said. She offered him a handshake and a smile. “Call me Astri.”Bookmark here

                                                                                ❖
Bookmark here

“So who actually is Sehyun Seok?”Bookmark here

Behind her, Lev glanced up. “Does it matter?”Bookmark here

“No,” Astri shouted over the rumbling of her motorcycle. “But it feels better on my conscience if I knew he wasn’t a serial killer or something, y’know.”Bookmark here

“He wasn’t a serial killer,” said Lev, without a hint of sarcasm. Bookmark here

“Are you sure?”Bookmark here

“Yes.”Bookmark here

Astri took a sharp left, leaving the asphalt for a dirt path. Grime and dust shot up around them as they rode. “Then was he in a gang?”Bookmark here

“No.”Bookmark here

“He must’ve done something.”Bookmark here

“He did nothing wrong!” Lev spoke as if he was the one being accused.Bookmark here

“Kid,” she said. “You wouldn’t come to me if he was just an average guy.”Bookmark here

The comment hurt him more than she likely meant. “Sehyun tried to help people,” he defended. “He couldn’t stand by when people did terrible things. Naturally, he made a lot of enemies.”Bookmark here

“Gangs and Warlords.”Bookmark here

“Criminals,” Lev corrected.Bookmark here

Astri laughed. “Like me?”Bookmark here

“Yes.”Bookmark here

“Sounds like a good guy.” She turned to him. “I don’t mean that sarcastically. I’m sorry if I sounded sarcastic.”Bookmark here

Lev didn't give her any assurance and only stared until she turned back to the road awkwardly. Bookmark here

“Would he be okay knowing you hired me?” she asked.Bookmark here

“He’d understand,” said Lev. “He always does.”Bookmark here

“Actually, that does remind me.” Astri took a hand off the handlebar to tap her chin as if to punctuate her curiosity. “Why are you looking for him? Who’s he to you?”Bookmark here

Lev fell silent at that. He looked to the horizon, where their destination grew closer. “I don’t know.”Bookmark here

“You don’t have any memories of him or something?”Bookmark here

“I have nothing but memories.” His mind was brimming with them, years and years worth. They came to him in vignettes of senses, not words: the scent of fresh-opened books and the sound of broken guitar strings. He remembered how he spoke, how he walked. There was nothing he could forget.Bookmark here

Lev tensed up at the thoughts, and Astri must have felt it on her back. Immediately, she said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”Bookmark here

They rode quietly after that until they reached the auction.Bookmark here

Lev heard the auction before he saw it, the roaring rock music and the clatter of beer cans. Crowds gathered around, inside, and on top of scattered train carts that circled a makeshift stage. Tracks ran throughout the area as if they were pavement. It was the remnants of an abandoned trainyard, jury-rigged into some kind of festival. Bookmark here

Driving closer to the carts, it was clear they were grouped by colour, or at least the sort of graffiti they carried. Every gang had a unique style, whether it would be the symbol or typography. No two gangs would share even the same shade of a colour. He had never seen so many gathered in one place– especially one without a fight. There would not be a single Warlord missing.Bookmark here

“Look at that,” said Astri. She brought the bike to a stop near the edge of the grounds, kicking out its stand. “Do I deliver on my promises or what?”Bookmark here

“Are all the gangs here?”Bookmark here

“All the ones that matter.”Bookmark here

“You weren’t here.”Bookmark here

She took her hands off the bike and waited to see if it would fall. It didn’t. “Not really my thing. And my boss had me stay at the den.”Bookmark here

Lev glimpsed a cart decorated with the same shade of purple as the bandanna Astri had around her arm. He shifted his attention to the stage, where the auctioneer was pointing wildly at the crowd. Bookmark here

“Forty-five thousand! Forty-five thousand, can we go any higher?!” Bookmark here

A Warlord raised his hand.Bookmark here

“We have fifty thousand!” cried the auctioneer. “Mr Scarecrow for fifty thousand! Do we have any higher bids?!”Bookmark here

The man who presumably lost the bid scowled and shook his head.Bookmark here

“Going once, going twice!” The auctioneer threw up his hand. “And sold for fifty thousand! Congratulations to Mr Scarecrow!”Bookmark here

“Every year, one of the Seven Crowns hosts the auction,” Astri explained. “The tradition has been around since before I ever joined the business. Looks like it's the Veragreen gang holding it this year.”Bookmark here

Lev watched an assistant carry off a briefcase that stood on a pedestal onstage. “Who’s the auctioneer?”Bookmark here

“Khan. Veragreen’s Warlord.”Bookmark here

He was a ghost of a man, deathly thin but stood tall. He wore a crimson mask with crude brushstrokes of white where the eyes and mouth should be. Bookmark here

Another assistant brought in the next item: a birdcage. Within was a burgundy songbird, a slick yellow feather curved out from its head.Bookmark here

A Crested Burschfinch, Lev recalled. Only around four hundred left in the world. Less than a tenth of that in the wild.Bookmark here

Khan took to the microphone and went off again.Bookmark here

“Why is he wearing a mask?” Lev questioned. It made the Warlord’s voice sound scratchy and jagged. Bookmark here

“Good question, I don’t know why anybody would possibly wear a mask.”Bookmark here

Lev rolled his eyes at her jest, not that she could see it. Bookmark here

Over the hour, different prizes came and left the pedestal: rare animals, pieces of art, and a lot of weapons. After every item was revealed, the crowd would go wild, and yet every Warlord who bid could be heard effortlessly, their voices puncturing the noise. They were different to the gangsters that followed them, not by physique, but how they carried themselves. They were the kings of the Underworld, and each of them knew it. Bookmark here

Near the end of the hour, the assistant removed the previous item and in its place stood a girl. She was beautiful, her skin a light brown, her hair black and cut at the shoulders. One cheek was bruised and raw, obvious despite the heavy makeup. Her hands were bound.Bookmark here

The cheers were scattered. Some in the crowd hesitated to react and others hollered as usual.Bookmark here

“Starting bid is four thousand,” said KhanBookmark here

A hand went up. “Five thousand!”Bookmark here

“Six thousand!” shouted another.Bookmark here

Lev averted his eyes. It did little good. The numbers continued to climb with or without him. He steeled himself, for he still needed his nerves and he had come too far.Bookmark here

A new voice joined the fray. “Twenty thousand!”Bookmark here

Lev pivoted on his heel. An olive-skinned woman with purple stripes in her hair, sat cross-legged atop a train cart, one hand raised. She smirked. A group of women stood around her cart, unfazed by the heads turning at them. Bookmark here

“Twenty thousand!” Khan repeated. “Going once, going twice...and sold!“Bookmark here

Several Warlords scowled, like hungry wolves that lost their lunch.Bookmark here

Lev’s gaze lingered on them longer than it should have. Witnessing the anger and despair across their expressions, even for a moment, was the most joy Lev felt in months.Bookmark here

After the girl was led off the stage, Khan gestured for his audience to quiet. His assistant returned with something cylindrical, covered with cloth.Bookmark here

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a surprise addition to this auction that’s not in the catalogue,” he announced. “For years, we were kings of this city. We did what we wanted when we wanted. The lawyers couldn’t touch us. The pigs couldn’t touch us.”Bookmark here

Murmurs of agreement and nostalgia spread through the gangs.Bookmark here

“And then suddenly, out of nowhere, we’re begging for coins on the streets. What the hell happened? What made our balls drop off so damn fast? Him. The damn boogieman. He who has broken every Warlord.” Khan held up a clenched fist, relishing in his theatrics. “He who brought the Seven Crowns to their feet. Nabi.”Bookmark here

At the sound of that name, a chorus of boos echoed through the air. Lev could feel their anger all around him. Khan stirred that rage, brought it all to the surface, and now they were all rallying to his words.Bookmark here

He raised his voice to match the growing commotion. “I’m gonna bet there’s not a single person here who wasn’t hurt by Nabi in one way or another! In that sense, we’re all brothers and sisters! So, for my dearest brothers and sisters, I have done the impossible! I have brought you Christmas!”Bookmark here

Khan ripped off the cloth, revealing a glass capsule underneath, filled with a murky liquid. At second glance, there was a silhouette within the liquid, barely visible through the swamp green. He shook the capsule, and the silhouette pressed against the glass. Bookmark here

It was a hand, deathly pale and severed at the forearm. A sharp bit of bone stuck out where the cut was, intertwined with flakey red tubes that appeared shrivelled despite being soaked in liquid. From under the skin, veins were bulging out.Bookmark here

Even through the glass and chemicals, a butterfly tattoo was clearly visible on the forearm, coloured a blue so deep it was unmistakable from any distance. Bookmark here

A hollow sound escaped Lev.Bookmark here

“Bid starts at one million,” said Khan.Bookmark here

Lev’s eardrums pulsed: at first he thought it was his heartbeat but it grew louder by the moment until he understood that it was cheering. The crowd roared like never before. Those who sat leapt up, fists in the air. The bids spiked to impossible numbers and just kept going. Many were willing to give up their life savings for this trophy.Bookmark here

Lev yanked at his hair, nails digging deep into his scalp. He clawed for the knife in his jacket, strands of his jet-black hair still between his fingers.Bookmark here

“Hey, are you okay?” Astri reached out to touch his shoulder. He slapped her hand away. Then, her eyes went wide, realisation dawning on her. “That’s Sehyun.”Bookmark here

They chanted. Khan! Khan! Khan!Bookmark here

Lev took a step towards the stage.Bookmark here

“No no no.” Astri moved to block his path. “You can’t go up there, that’s suicide– ”Bookmark here

She was too late. Lev ripped through the crowd, blade clamped tight, and leapt. Dropping before Khan, Lev swung feral but cleaved only air. His second slash struck metal where he had hoped to find flesh.Bookmark here

A man sprung from behind Khan to bar his way, pushing a steel rod against Lev’s knife. His face and ears were encrusted full of silver studs. They clinked as he moved, as if he wore armour.Bookmark here

“Pierce!” Khan backed away. His soldiers started leading him offstage and into the audience. “Take care of him!”Bookmark here

“Get out of my way!” Lev forced the man– Pierce– back. He dashed after Khan, and Pierce threw his rod like a javelin. It struck the dirt where Lev’s foot was about to land, stopping him in his tracks.Bookmark here

The crowd swarmed in to block the path Khan ran through, filling it like water. They had formed a vague ring around the two of them. Their arena.Bookmark here

A circle of the same metal rods were jammed into the ground near Pierce. He raised a hand, and the rods started to move. They shuddered at first, then wrenched themselves from the soil, as if by unseen fingers. Pierce let them dangle in the air, straightening them before he brought down his hand. They flew. Bookmark here

Lev dodged to his left. Three rods rammed into the spot he had stood, the rest already changing trajectories to chase him. They reached him mere moments after he touched the ground. There was no time to dodge again. He took out a second knife and with both, struck at the first rod that arrived. Each one hit like a truck, sapping a portion of his strength as he knocked them into the earth. The last split the skin of his shoulder. The cut was wide but not deep.Bookmark here

Pierce flicked his fingers and every pole came back to life. Like before, the invisible tug started weak. It would take them a second to be free from the ground. That was plenty of time. Bookmark here

Lev gained speed, closing the distance to Pierce. His enemy had only one rod spare: the one in his hand. Pierce brought it down, just like Lev expected. Lev lifted one knife to block. It crashed hard onto his blade, but it did not go further. Now, he had a knife spare and Pierce had nothing. Bookmark here

Pierce stumbled, falling back. Lev smirked, took one step forward, and thrust his weapon. This was it. Bookmark here

Dust sprung loose and metal jetted upwards, digging into Lev’s chest. It broke the skin and muscle, but no deeper. All momentum escaped him and he fell to his knees. He clutched his chest, heaving air. Every breath hurt. Bookmark here

Lev looked at Pierce. Those feet never stumbled and he was never empty of rods. There had been a final one, hidden in the dirt, waiting like a landmine for Lev to cross it.Bookmark here

Pierce summoned each rod back to him, save for the one in Lev. They floated around him, ready. “Stand down.”Bookmark here

Lev lifted one knee. The world spun around him. The crowd was loud. Were they clapping? Laughing? He caught Astri squashed within them, trying to push her way through, her voice lost amongst theirs.Bookmark here

He lifted the other knee and pushing against the earth, willed himself up. Despite his legs threatening to topple, Lev gripped his knife. Bookmark here

“I said stand down,” Pierce repeated. His rods edged closer. “I don’t want to kill you if I don’t have to.”Bookmark here

Lev moved one foot forward, and another rod shot into him. He staggered back, blood spilling from his stomach like ink, but he did not fall. Like the first, this strike did not penetrate the muscle. Bookmark here

Pierce readied another rod. “This is your final warning.”Bookmark here

Lev heaved his head back to meet Pierce’s eyes. Pierce shook his head. With that, Lev drew in a final breath and charged.Bookmark here

A third rod dug into his guts. It did nothing to halt his momentum. Bookmark here

A fourth.Bookmark here

Then a fifth.Bookmark here

It was only when the sixth skewered his torso, meeting air at his back, that he stopped. Even then, Lev held on for seconds before he finally dropped.Bookmark here

His last view was the soil around him blossoming red. Sehyun, Lev whispered. His lips never forgot the shape of that name.
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UnCrowned


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