When Lev Zaytsev walked through the doors, the receptionist gripped the stock of a shotgun underneath the counter. It was a well-practised motion.
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.
This wasn’t that sort of casino.
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.
“We don’t serve Nabi-wannabes,” said the receptionist. His grip on the stock tightened.
Nabi-what? Sensing his confusion, the receptionist pointed to his face.
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.”
“No Nabis welcome. Go look for trouble somewhere else.”
Lev reached behind and laid a wad of bills on the bench, neatly stacked.
“I already said we won’t serve you. I’m not exchanging those.”
“For your troubles.”
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?”
No matter where, money still talks. Lev turned away. “I’m not playing. I need to borrow your backroom.”
“Backroom? Sir, that’s for staff only. Sir?”
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.
Lev threw it open.
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.
“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.
“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.”
The man said nothing, only sat there unmoving. Probably unconscious.
The woman greeted Lev. “Hey. You’re a new face. What’s your name?”
Lev shook his head.
“Alright, I can work with that.” She pulled a beer from a mini-fridge under the table. “Can I help you?”
“A hundred thousand.”
“A hundred thousand dollars,” he clarified.
“Ah.” She sipped her drink. “More business.”
“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.”
“Missing people is the police’s job.”
“They won’t go anywhere near the case.”
“Jesus.” She picked up the photo. “Which gang did he piss off?”
“I just need information. Anything helps.”
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–”
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.
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.
“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.”
“You can find someone else to clean up.”
“Clean up? I can’t drive right after I have a beer.”
“I...er….” What was he supposed to say to that? “You barely drank anything.”
“I’m not risking my license,” she said. She offered him a handshake and a smile. “Call me Astri.”
“So who actually is Sehyun Seok?”
Behind her, Lev glanced up. “Does it matter?”
“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.”
“He wasn’t a serial killer,” said Lev, without a hint of sarcasm.
“Are you sure?”
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?”
“He must’ve done something.”
“He did nothing wrong!” Lev spoke as if he was the one being accused.
“Kid,” she said. “You wouldn’t come to me if he was just an average guy.”
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.”
“Gangs and Warlords.”
“Criminals,” Lev corrected.
Astri laughed. “Like me?”
“Sounds like a good guy.” She turned to him. “I don’t mean that sarcastically. I’m sorry if I sounded sarcastic.”
Lev didn't give her any assurance and only stared until she turned back to the road awkwardly.
“Would he be okay knowing you hired me?” she asked.
“He’d understand,” said Lev. “He always does.”
“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?”
Lev fell silent at that. He looked to the horizon, where their destination grew closer. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t have any memories of him or something?”
“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.
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.”
They rode quietly after that until they reached the auction.
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.
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.
“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?”
“Are all the gangs here?”
“All the ones that matter.”
“You weren’t 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.”
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.
“Forty-five thousand! Forty-five thousand, can we go any higher?!”
A Warlord raised his hand.
“We have fifty thousand!” cried the auctioneer. “Mr Scarecrow for fifty thousand! Do we have any higher bids?!”
The man who presumably lost the bid scowled and shook his head.
“Going once, going twice!” The auctioneer threw up his hand. “And sold for fifty thousand! Congratulations to Mr Scarecrow!”
“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.”
Lev watched an assistant carry off a briefcase that stood on a pedestal onstage. “Who’s the auctioneer?”
“Khan. Veragreen’s Warlord.”
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.
Another assistant brought in the next item: a birdcage. Within was a burgundy songbird, a slick yellow feather curved out from its head.
A Crested Burschfinch, Lev recalled. Only around four hundred left in the world. Less than a tenth of that in the wild.
Khan took to the microphone and went off again.
“Why is he wearing a mask?” Lev questioned. It made the Warlord’s voice sound scratchy and jagged.
“Good question, I don’t know why anybody would possibly wear a mask.”
Lev rolled his eyes at her jest, not that she could see it.
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.
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.
The cheers were scattered. Some in the crowd hesitated to react and others hollered as usual.
“Starting bid is four thousand,” said Khan
A hand went up. “Five thousand!”
“Six thousand!” shouted another.
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.
A new voice joined the fray. “Twenty thousand!”
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.
“Twenty thousand!” Khan repeated. “Going once, going twice...and sold!“
Several Warlords scowled, like hungry wolves that lost their lunch.
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.
After the girl was led off the stage, Khan gestured for his audience to quiet. His assistant returned with something cylindrical, covered with cloth.
“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.”
Murmurs of agreement and nostalgia spread through the gangs.
“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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
A hollow sound escaped Lev.
“Bid starts at one million,” said Khan.
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.
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.
“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.”
They chanted. Khan! Khan! Khan!
Lev took a step towards the stage.
“No no no.” Astri moved to block his path. “You can’t go up there, that’s suicide– ”
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.
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.
“Pierce!” Khan backed away. His soldiers started leading him offstage and into the audience. “Take care of him!”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pierce stumbled, falling back. Lev smirked, took one step forward, and thrust his weapon. This was it.
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.
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.
Pierce summoned each rod back to him, save for the one in Lev. They floated around him, ready. “Stand down.”
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.
He lifted the other knee and pushing against the earth, willed himself up. Despite his legs threatening to topple, Lev gripped his knife.
“I said stand down,” Pierce repeated. His rods edged closer. “I don’t want to kill you if I don’t have to.”
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.
Pierce readied another rod. “This is your final warning.”
Lev heaved his head back to meet Pierce’s eyes. Pierce shook his head. With that, Lev drew in a final breath and charged.
A third rod dug into his guts. It did nothing to halt his momentum.
Then a fifth.
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.His last view was the soil around him blossoming red. Sehyun, Lev whispered. His lips never forgot the shape of that name.