Chapter 2:

The ghosts gave no applause.


With calloused fingers, Lev Zaytsev drew his bow and played his heart out for an empty hall. The room lit up with music, the hours he spent practising evident in the precision of his notes. Each one was its own little symphony, carrying its own tempo but still seamlessly bleeding into the others, merging into something greater. Something beautiful.Bookmark here

It was a sorrowful piece, not fitting for such a grand place but rather the ghosts that resided there. When Lev made the final note, hand and bow raised high with a flick of his wrist, the ghosts gave no applause. All except for one. Bookmark here

“Bravo!’ Sehyun cried, whistling and clapping wildly. His sleeves were pulled back and his arm was marked with a blue butterfly tattoo. “One more! Give us another!”Bookmark here

“It’s just you,” said Lev.Bookmark here

“Makes no difference. C’mon, play some more.”Bookmark here

“No.” He laid his cello back into its case. Bookmark here

“Why not?”Bookmark here

“I hate that piece.”Bookmark here

“But it sounds awesome.”Bookmark here

“That...that’s not the point.” Lev furrowed his brow. “Look, let’s forget about it. It’s your turn.”Bookmark here

Sehyun opened his mouth, intent on pressing further. Bookmark here

Please. I don’t want to talk about it, Lev thought.Bookmark here

And like that, as if he could read thoughts, Sehyun said no more. He only nodded and bent over his guitar. His fingers touched the strings, and all of Lev’s irritation vanished. His music was warm, like a homely fireplace– sweet as morning dew and subtle as water. It had a weight to it, something solid enough to grasp, with the texture of snow. His hair, highlighted with the same blue as his tattoo, hung over his eyes while he played.Bookmark here

Watching him, Lev could not help but smile.Bookmark here

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Lev awoke clutching his chest, gasping wildly. There was no music, only the rushing of blood to his ears. His face was foamy with cold sweat. Every instinct screamed at him to run as he writhed in the bedsheets. Bookmark here

“Hey, you’re alright, you’re okay.” A hand clasped his. “Listen to my voice. Deep breaths.”Bookmark here

He drew in air between clenched teeth, held it, and the world fell silent. Little by little, he returned to himself. Where was he? What happened? He searched his memories: the cheering, the arm, and that red mask with a crude smile smudged in white. Khan.Bookmark here

“How do you feel?” He found Astri by him. “Other than a lot of hurting.”Bookmark here

“I’m going to kill him.” Lev tried to sit up.Bookmark here

“Alright, maybe jumping the gun a bit there.” She guided him back down. “You almost died at the auction. You have no idea how hard it was getting you out of there.”Bookmark here

“I’m fine.” The room had no windows or any decorations at all. “What’s the time? How long have I been out?”Bookmark here

Astri counted on her fingers. “It’s four in the morning right now, so twenty hours.”Bookmark here

“Twenty.”Bookmark here

“I’m not great with numbers. Let me count again.”Bookmark here

“No, you’re right,” he said. His head was pounding. “I’m just...dazed.”Bookmark here

“Better than being dead, that’s for sure.” Astri laid his belongings on the bed for him. “Get dressed. We’re not safe here.”Bookmark here

He checked the pile: jacket, knives, mask. Mask. His mask. Lev touched his face, feeling skin. Immediately, he covered himself. Bookmark here

Astri raised an eyebrow. “Don’t bother. I have no idea who you are.”Bookmark here

“Seriously?”Bookmark here

She shrugged. “Am I supposed to?”Bookmark here

Was she lying? It doesn’t matter, there was no time. I have to trust her on that, he thought, donning the lion mask.Bookmark here

“Soon as you’re done, we’re leaving,” said Astri. She faced away to give him privacy. “Veragreen’s still after us and right now, we’re in No Man’s Land. There’s nothing protecting us. We have to get over to my gang’s turf. Until then, we can’t let our guard down.”Bookmark here

Lev lifted his shirt, thick with blood. Four scars stretched across his entire abdomen, pink and raw. Judging by their location, the rods should have demolished his liver and stomach, killing him within minutes. It was a miracle he was still alive.Bookmark here

It didn’t feel like a miracle.Bookmark here

“Who was the man defending Khan?” He put on his jacket. “The one with magnetism powers. Pierce.”Bookmark here

“Khan’s personal bodyguard. Follows him around like a puppy.”Bookmark here

“So Veragreen has a Metahuman.”Bookmark here

“All of the Crowns have Metas.”Bookmark here

“Are you a Meta?”Bookmark here

Astri laughed. “That’d make my life a lot easier.”Bookmark here

Once he finished getting dressed, she outstretched her hand to him. He shook his head. I don’t need help. Lev inhaled deeply, readying himself. He gripped the bars by the bed and heaved. Bookmark here

Pain ran through him, but he endured. Pushing through, Lev pressed his feet against the cold tile floor. “I’m ready.”Bookmark here

“Alright.” Astri squeezed the doorknob. She didn’t turn it, instead pulling a confused face. She signalled him to wait and pressed her ear to the wood. They stayed like that for a long time, during which Lev didn’t move an inch. Her eyes went wide and suddenly he found himself tackled to the floor.Bookmark here

Bullets tore through the door as if it was fabric. More holes spread along the wall, showering the two of them with bits of plaster. Bookmark here

“Give me your knife!” Astri demanded.Bookmark here

He hesitated. His whole body tensed with the shock of hitting the ground. Bookmark here

“Now!”Bookmark here

He passed it to her. A man walked in just as the bullet fire quieted and before he could even speak, the blade had left Astri’s fingers. It stuck deep in his forehead; he dropped like a stone. Bookmark here

The man wore a light green bandanna over the lower half of his face. He was dressed for war. Astri plucked the knife from his head and passed it to Lev.Bookmark here

A second Veragreen soldier ran in, raising his rifle. Astri stole a pistol from the first man and aimed. The second man fell too. Bookmark here

“C’mon, get up!” Astri forced her arm around his, dragging him towards the door. Two men entered. Astri shot twice: two men dead.Bookmark here

They ran out into a hallway. She guided him left and as they walked, reached into her bag. Around the corner, more soldiers awaited them, dressed in similar manners. Bookmark here

“Stay back,” said Astri, still fumbling for somethingBookmark here

The soldiers pointed their guns at her. “You’re outnumbered here,” said one of them.Bookmark here

“I wasn’t talking to you.” She unsheathed her hand, now armoured with a black gauntlet that stretched up to her elbow. Spine-like protrusions ran down it, waving and fidgeting as her muscles tensed and relaxed. The metal itself had a golden veined pattern and pulsated gently. Bookmark here

She drew her arm back, a gentle hum singing from it, and released her pent-up force into the floor. Bookmark here

Cracks burst across the tiles and the world shook. Half of the soldiers were flung to the ground; the others struggled to maintain their balance. Astri zipped between them, spinning from one soldier to the next. Her limbs seemed to move on their own accord, separate from her body. She swept the legs under one man, making him collapse onto another. She got on top of him and beat his face until he was unconscious.Bookmark here

Voices scrambled down the hallway. “They’re here!”Bookmark here

Lev whirled around. More men came running.Bookmark here

Astri dodged a punch. “Can you handle them?”Bookmark here

Lev wiped his knife clean on his glove. “Better than you could.”Bookmark here

He held the blade between his fingers and threw. It snapped into one man’s gun just as he raised it, knocking it from his hand. In the time it took him to pick it up, Lev was already there. Lev kicked the man’s knee. When he stumbled, Lev grabbed him by the side of his head and threw it against the wall with all his strength. However painful it was for the man, it was twice as much for Lev. Bookmark here

Ignore the pain. Bookmark here

By the time the soldier’s body fell limp, the other two had taken his place. Lev dived for one of the men, tackling him to the ground. Even as the man fell, Lev flipped a knife from its sheath in his belt. His hand snapped and the blade was in his foe’s shoulder. The man screamed.Bookmark here

The second soldier tried to strike Lev with the butt of his gun. Too slow. Pulling the blade out of the first man, Lev dug it into the second’s thigh, ducking away from his attack in the process. Bookmark here

Lev let that man drop to one knee and returned his attention to the first. Lev kicked away the gun he was reaching for, then pummeled the soldier in the face. His nose cracked and his face turned purple. Another punch and the man was unconscious. Bookmark here

The remaining soldier was on his knee– he needed a moment longer to catch his breath. That moment never came. Lev kicked him in the back of his head and once he hit the floor, Lev stomped hard enough that he went limp. Bookmark here

“Over here!” Astri waved at him. He followed her, careful not to trip over the half a dozen bodies she left in her wake.Bookmark here

The ‘hospital’ was more akin to a reworked pharmacy, with its walls stacked high with pills. The air was sweet with medicine but heavy with the metallic scent of blood. Gurneys were being wheeled around; medics were pushing their patients into side rooms to escape the battle.Bookmark here

It seemed gunshot wounds were noticeably more common here.Bookmark here

“This isn’t a hospital, is it?” asked Lev.Bookmark here

Astri kept moving. “Police can get you at a hospital.”Bookmark here

“And the gangs can’t?”Bookmark here

“There’s a ceasefire here. This was supposed to be a sanctuary.”Bookmark here

They stopped at the top of the stairwell. More soldiers. Amongst them, there was the familiar clinking sound. Scissors, cans, bits and pieces of medical instruments around the facility all began to move. They rattled against each other, marking one man’s arrival.Bookmark here

“Doesn’t look like a sanctuary to me,” said Lev.Bookmark here

A flock of rods rose above the soldiers. Pierce made his way in front of the men. “Astri.”Bookmark here

“Pierce,” she replied. Instinctively, she put an arm over Lev. Bookmark here

“The man in the lion mask. Leave him. You don’t have a stake in this.”Bookmark here

“I’m sorry Pierce,” said Astri, shaking her head. “I really am.”Bookmark here

“Does Quill know about this? Is this his choice?”Bookmark here

“It’s mine.”Bookmark here

“Think about it, Astri,” Pierce took a step forward. Lev readied both his knives. “That man tried to kill Khan in front of hundreds. Think about what kind of message you’re sending. What kind of message Vulpes is sending. You’re risking war between two Crowns. It’s selfish.”Bookmark here

Lev watched Astri’s arm tense. The veins of her gauntlet pulsated more strongly now. Amongst the racket of the clanking metal, the gentle hum was difficult to hear for Lev, let alone Pierce across the room. She held up three fingers behind her. Then two. Bookmark here

“I’m not arguing with you there, Pierce. I am acting selfishly. But isn’t everyone kinda selfish in one way or another? There’s only one real difference between me and them.”Bookmark here

One finger. Bookmark here

None. Bookmark here

Astri struck the floor. This time, she used her hand like a shovel and heaved upwards, spraying dust everywhere. Instantly, the room was clouded and they were invisible. Bookmark here

She sprinted towards one end of the room with Lev right after her. Patients and doctors screamed as gunfire was unleashed, spraying randomly through the smokescreen. Bookmark here

“I accept my sin!” Astri shot the wall with her fist. Lev almost toppled from the shock. She punched again and this time it was enough, blowing a hole to the outside. Cold air blew in, dispersing much of the dust around the two.Bookmark here

A few rods stabbed into the ground behind them.Bookmark here

They didn’t seem that high up. They weren’t that high up. That didn’t stop Lev from crashing into a half-tumbled roll as he met the pavement. Nothing was broken, but Lev had to clench his jaw to stop himself from crying out, his wounds threatening to reopen.Bookmark here

Astri pulled the motorcycle up and he managed to get on. The bike awoke with a deep roar. Bookmark here

More rods came after him. Lev held on tight as Astri swerved to avoid them, throwing him from side to side and rubbing skid marks on the asphalt. She pressed on the gas, leaving a short trail of rods in the ground behind them like footprints. Bookmark here

Lev looked over his shoulder to take a final glimpse at Pierce. He was shouting something- probably profane- at them. However, his eyes brimmed with a deep fire, not from passion or rage. Lev recognised that fire. They spoke more than his words did: coward.Bookmark here

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His body felt heavy leaning against Astri’s back. His breathing was laboured and came in explosive pants. It was as if someone had placed burning coal over his belly as he recalled the sensation of metal tearing through his insides, sinews and nerves snapping apart.Bookmark here

The buildings they passed began to blur into long streaks of grey and brown. The street lights became blobs of yellow and the sky nothing more than a black sheet and a pale crest.Bookmark here

He looked at his hands. There were marks of red where his nails had dug into his palms. Images of Sehyun's arm kept flashing through his mind. They were beckoning him. Reminding him. Good. It was torture to remember, but he would never forgive himself if he forgot.Bookmark here

With that, his vision focused and his breathing stabled. His body flowed with newfound warmth against the cold.Bookmark here

“Stop,” said Lev, barely a whisper. “Stop the bike.”Bookmark here

“We don’t have time for a pee break.” Her hair blew wildly in the wind. “We have to get out of this turf.”Bookmark here

“Stop, or I’ll jump off.”Bookmark here

Astri turned to check if he was lucid. She sighed. They rolled into an alleyway and came to a stop.Bookmark here

She pulled her goggles up to her forehead. It also functioned as her hairband. “Alright, hurry up. I don’t want you to get piss on my bike.”Bookmark here

“I’m not leaving,” he said. Bookmark here

What?” She made no effort to hide her shock.Bookmark here

“I’m going to fight him. I won’t run away.”Bookmark here

“No offence kid, but Pierce isn’t in the same league as foot soldiers. I don’t even trust you to stay conscious.”Bookmark here

“Being a Meta changes nothing.”Bookmark here

“You’ll die.”Bookmark here

“I’ll win.”Bookmark here

A curt shake of her head. “You’re letting pride get in the way.”Bookmark here

“I’m doing this for Sehyun.”Bookmark here

“Vengeance then.”Bookmark here

“It’s not vengeance!” Lev snapped. “Sehyun is alive.”Bookmark here

He repeated it under his breath. Sehyun is alive. He let it echo in his mind and each time he heard it, it became a little more believable; made a little more sense.Bookmark here

Astri’s face was still. Completely still. “You’re in denial.”Bookmark here

“I’m being logical. Think about it. Why would they just have Sehyun’s arm? Why not the rest of him? Because that's all they have. He must’ve escaped after, or maybe they’ve captured him.”Bookmark here

“Or maybe he’s at the bottom of a river.”Bookmark here

“Shut up.” Lev jabbed his finger at her. “Don’t speak of him like that until you’ve cared for him as much as I have! He was Nabi, right? He fought the Seven Crowns and came out on top. He was strong. The strongest.”Bookmark here

He looked away. “Pierce is right. You don’t have a stake in this.”Bookmark here

Her shoulders rose and fell on a long sigh. When she spoke, at last, her voice was low and defeated. “I knew a guy. I’m not going to pretend he was perfect, because he wasn’t. He was blunt and he could never just let himself be vulnerable, but he was good. You could tell he genuinely cared about people. None of that charity boy scout crap. He was real.”Bookmark here

She rubbed her eyes. “He never knew his parents. He only had his brother. I don’t think they were related but as far back as he could remember, Erik was the only one who cared about him. So, when Erik passed, something just...broke. He couldn’t move forward anymore: only circle around the same old wounds. I couldn’t do anything for him then, but I want to do something now. That’s my stake in this.”Bookmark here

Their gazes met under the streetlamp. Lev’s emerald eyes were searching hers. He could see her reluctance giving away, inch by inch. Bookmark here

“I won’t back down, Astri.” It was the first time he said her name. “I am going to fight Pierce. You can’t stop me. Even if you drag me away, I will be back. This is my choice.”Bookmark here

“You sound just like him, y’know.” Astri searched the back of her motorcycle, fumbling to put something on. “I think you’re being a damn idiot but you’re right: I can’t stop you.”Bookmark here

Astri walked back out into the light, stretching her hands out. On her right arm, she had donned a gauntlet of the same design as her left. They sang as she moved them through the air and made a powerful metallic crash when she put her fists together. Bookmark here

“Let’s go find that bastard.”Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.