The voice on the other side was raspy through the metal. “Did you get him?”
Pierce peered down the building. Flashing red and blue lights surrounded the sanctuary and more could be seen in the distance. For years, the sanctuary had been the go-to place for injured soldiers. It was one of few places this side of Minerva that had a permanent ceasefire and now, Pierce had broken it.
He took the phone to one ear. “The Black Lion escaped,” he reported.
On the other end, there was the shattering of glass. Another cup to replace, Pierce thought.
Khan’s voice returned, monotone. “You had two squads.”
“He had help.”
There was silence. The Warlord was speaking through clenched teeth. “Astraea. She’s back?”
“Yes. I don’t know when though.”
“Did she look healthy?”
“She took down ten men by herself, sir. I think she’s doing fine.”
“Quill’s going to have a hell of a time explaining why his enforcer is sheltering a Nabi-fanboy,” said Khan. “But knowing Astraea, she was acting alone.”
He typed something on his keyboard. “I’m sending you four more squads. Do you think that’s enough?”
“I can’t say,” said Pierce. “It’s been a long time since anyone saw Astri fight. Even if we manage to find them, I can’t promise I’d win.”
“I don’t need you to win. If you feel even the slightest hint of danger, run. I will not be losing my lieutenant.”
Pierce closed his eyes. “I know, sir.”
Khan gave Pierce his usual lecture: he was to always keep a spare rod close. He must keep his distance when fighting. He cannot underestimate Astri.
“In close quarters, few can match her,” Khan explained. “In speed, even fewer. She’ll pretend to be falling back, only to suddenly appear right in front of you. If you think you can outrun her, you cannot. Her gauntlets too. Never fight her on shaky ground. Are you understanding me?”
Pierce nodded along after each piece of advice, knowing that Khan couldn’t see it. It was habit. “Yes, sir.”
“You better be understanding me. Oh, and I’ll have someone bring Talos to you. We can’t take any chances.”
“Remember, Pierce,” he said. “You’re worth more to me alive.”
With that, the line was dropped. As Pierce walked back to his soldiers, he made sure to cover his mouth, hiding the twitching corners of his lips.
Lev rummaged through the supplies Astri brought him, checking them against his mental list.
Some food, painkillers, compass. He held up the most important one. A road flare.
“Veragreen is the newest of the Seven Crowns,” Astri told him. “They get most of their cash from the drug business. Their newest drug, this pink stuff called Madrid, is the hottest thing on the streets right now.”
“They have to be working with another gang to distribute it,” Lev deduced. He tied the road flare to his belt, next to his knives. “Otherwise they don’t have enough manpower to get it throughout the city.”
“Yeah. They work with the Xanthus Riders. Another Crown gang. Veragreen brings the drugs and Xanthus brings the cars. It makes good money.”
“And now with what happened at the auctions, they’ll be moving up the ladder fast.” Astri peaked out through a hole in the concrete. “They’re here.”
Lev swallowed a pill and stood. The two of them had chosen a location best suited to countering Pierce. They were in what used to be a three-story parking garage designed for a shopping mall, both long abandoned. Thick concrete pillars divided the floor into spaces for vehicles. Deeper in, the rows of pillars seemed to go on endlessly– far more than what it could possibly hold. It was like someone could sprint in one direction for hours, yet still feel that they were in the same spot as they started, staring at the same pillars with the same cracks.
All of that was an illusion, of course. A trick of the mind, like a demented maze of mirrors.
“This is your last chance to back out,” said Astri. “There’s no shame in admitting you’re out of your depth."
“I could say the same for you.”
“I’m staying as long as you are.” She turned away, vanishing into the darkness of the stairway. “Good luck, kid.”
Lev stretched, savouring the sweetness of privacy. The pain, too, was now mostly blunted.
When he closed his eyes, all he could see was Khan. That mask. He imagined pummelling it: the metal cracking, the red shards flying off, the satisfaction of fist meeting flesh underneath.
Even if his knuckles bled, he would not stop. His skin could be ripped from his muscle and his muscle ripped off his bone and still, he would not stop.
Footsteps shook him out of his reverie. When Lev opened his eyes, the Veragreen lieutenant stood ready.
“Where’s Astri?” Pierce moved closer. More soldiers were gathering behind him.
Lev stepped into the moonlight that shone through cracks on the wall. He rolled his neck around, making no effort to reply.
“Search the other floors,” Pierce ordered his men. “I’ll be right down.”
The soldiers returned down the stairway, leaving the two of them alone.
“You had the chance to run away,” said Pierce. “Why did you come back?”
“I can’t let some jackass-punk think he actually won against me.”
“I did win.”
“I’m not dead yet, am I?”
Pierce carried two suitcases. He opened one, letting the familiar rods expand and float into the air. “You had another chance at life. Returning means you’ve wasted it.”
Lev unsheathed his knives, shifting his stance. “There are some things that are worth more than living.”
“On that, we agree.”
The two men stared each other down. Lev smirked, gesturing with his fingers. Come at me.
Pierce indulged him. Two rods came flashing. Lev leapt behind a pillar and the rods rooted themselves in its concrete, unable to break through. Pierce tried to retract them but they were embedded too deeply. By the time he gave up, the Black Lion was nowhere to be seen.
Lev hid behind a different pillar now. He peeked out; Pierce was inching his way forward, his head jerking in every direction. He gripped his remaining suitcase tightly as he walked.
“Why Nabi?” Pierce called out. It echoed through the maze. “Why someone who has caused so much suffering?”
Pierce passed him. Lev stepped out and swung. Pierce ordered his rods to block; instead, they clinked against the side of a pillar, far too long to move freely through this forest of columns.
Lev’s knife had no such weakness. He slid past the stuck rods, within range of his foe, and the blade met him at his chest. His vest gashed open, bleeding across his stomach, and for a second Lev was relieved. No, he told himself. The wound was too shallow.
“You wouldn’t understand!” Lev shouted back.
Pierce flicked his hand. Another rod bent itself at the shaft, avoiding a pillar. Lev edged away just in time for it to only cut his jacket.
Returning to the shadows, Lev pressed himself up against a column. He covered the mouth of his mask, hoping to muffle his rapid breathing. His heartbeat was so loud, he feared Pierce could hear it.
He checked his compass. In the dark, his eyes would play tricks on him. The shadows may move and the shapes may morph, but the arrow would always point true. For as long as Pierce used his magnetism, the arrow would not lie.
Lev waited for the arrow to steady. “You and Khan are nothing but criminals! You only murder and steal and think for yourselves!”
He snuck to another pillar and peered around. “You wouldn’t know what it means to care for someone else!”
He saw Pierce toss his suitcase to the ground, pressing on it with his heel until it sprung open. He dug one foot in, kicked up, and caught the item inside with a smooth swirl.
It was shaped like a silver mace, adorned with a pulsating streak of orange that went from tip to shaft. It reminded him of Astri’s gauntlets.
Pierce tugged the mace back slowly, arms strained. He brought it down and there was a snap– the mace’s head shot out, stretching until it hit a pillar halfway across the building. He drew it back, then sent it off in a different direction, wielding it like a whip. A whip thicker than a man’s arm.
After a few more swings, Pierce’s strategy was clear: he was burning down the haystack to find the needle.
The next shot was coming for Lev’s pillar. He leapt out of the way as the concrete exploded, showering him with stone shards. If that’s what it did to concrete, Lev hated to imagine what it could do to flesh and bone.
But the mace didn’t stop. Pierce made a gesture and its neck swerved, routing back to catch its prey.
Lev bolted, but the viper gave chase, slithering around the columns. Pierce was close behind, still holding the tail in his hand.
Lev dived for the ground. The mace flew over him, unaware. He gripped his shoulder; the ground had torn at his skin and left it damp with blood.
Pierce held his weapon with both hands now. The contours of his muscles tensed, veins bulging as he swung. The mace’s body, stretched as far as it was, lashed sideways. It crashed through pillars after pillars, tearing through each like a torrent through paper. Every time Lev thought it would finally lose momentum, it continued.
Pierce pivoted around his heel, turning with the mace. Lev kept low and covered his head as rubble smothered him.
When Lev got up, bits of stone falling off him, the building hardly looked the same. Pierce’s mace had carved an empty space for them, devoid of any obstacles. No more pillars. No more hiding. The haystack was burnt, and soon so will the needle.
“Are we done?” Pierce asked. He took deep long breaths, an attempt to disguise how exhausted he actually was. His mace shrunk to its original size, bouncing back like a rubber band. He had to brace for its recoil, otherwise, it would have knocked him back. “Try and hide, and my Talos will reach you first.”
“Who said anything about hiding?” Lev tried to laugh, but it came out as a faint gasp. Pierce wasn’t the only one short of breath. “Even with a weapon like that, I think you’re just scared.”
Pierce sucked in a last lungful of air and shot his mace out again. Lev couldn’t go left, nor right. There was nowhere remaining, except–
Lev jumped, stuck his knives into the ceiling, and hung off them as the mace flew out underneath him. He felt himself starting to fall; the knives were already beginning to slip. They held on just long enough for Pierce to redirect the mace, sending it bolting back. Just before it could hit Lev, he pulled his knives out and dropped. The mace crashed into the floor above.
With so many pillars gone, there was little to support the ceiling and Pierce’s attack was the final clincher. Boulders dropped like rain. They sent up crowds of dust as they fell, blanketing everything.
Lev managed to escape the worst of the debris, slipping away just in time. Pierce, however, was caught, and though he could not see him through the smoke, Lev could hear metal slicing through stone.
He was not so naive to think that move ended Pierce. He reached behind and drew out the road flare.
The dust was settling. Pierce rested on his mace as if it was a walking stick. Cuts and bruises encrusted him, colouring him red and purple.
Pierce drew back the serpent just as Lev got into position. Both knew this would be the final clash. If the mace landed, it would break every bone in Lev’s body. If he dodged it, victory was his.
But Lev was slower now. His legs hurt to move and yet the mace was as fast as always.
Opportunity will always come to you, but not everyone can see it, Sehyun always said. That is what separates the great from the best.
What if opportunity doesn’t come? he once asked.
Lev brought the flare to his mouth and bit off the cap. Flames bloomed from it. After fighting in half-darkness, the light was almost blinding.
Then, Sehyun smiled. Make your own.
He ran. When he closed in, Pierce brought his mace down, its head whipping towards its target. Lev stabbed with the flare. Red streaked across the mace. He pushed harder and the red spread further– metal began to drip like melted wax. The mace was starting to thaw.
Pierce tried to pull it back, but it was too late. The entirety of its shaft plopped to the ground, viscous and spilt.
Panic set in. He lifted his hand to summon the rods. Lev stepped up first, switching the flare for his knife, and with one diagonal stroke, carved Pierce’s chest from stomach to shoulder. Pierce collapsed, blood spurting.
Lev, too, fell. The two men shared a wordless minute on the ground just catching their breaths. Their battle lasted for less than ten minutes, yet they had long forgotten the feel of the evening breeze.
Pierce’s voice was weak. “What did you do?”
“Your power is controlling magnetic fields. That’s how you control your rods,” Lev explained. “If you heat any metal high enough, they’ll eventually lose their magnetic properties.”
Lev craned his neck towards the stairwell where Astri was now standing. “The flare was more than sufficient for that.”
“Smart,” said Pierce, between coughs.
“Thank god you’re alive.” It was comforting to hear a voice even remotely familiar. Astri kneeled before them, her once blue hair smeared red. “Are you hurt?”
“I won. Like I said I would.” Lev lifted himself up. "You, on the other hand, are late."
"Give me a break, there were twenty of them." She looked at Pierce. “Is he going to…”
“Great: now what?”
“Isn’t that obvious? I make him talk.”
She crossed her arms. “While he’s bleeding out on the ground?”
“I’ll find another sanctuary.”
“And then what?” Her voice was sharp. She, too, was tired. “Do you have a place to keep him? Somewhere he can’t break out of? Do you know one place in the city that doesn’t have metal lying around nearby?”
Lev felt the redness rush to his cheeks. He scurried for a comeback, something poignant against her logic. There was nothing.
A ringing sounded, shrill and loud. It came from Pierce’s person, somewhere in his clothes. Lev glanced at her, and she to him, her eyes flashing a warning. She was shaking her head.
To her dismay, he reached into Pierce’s pocket, who had no strength left to resist. The phone was buzzing, but there was no number on the screen.
“You don’t want to answer it,” she whispered.
“I have to.”
Astri’s face was stiff with tension. She had done her part; there was nothing more she could say.
Lev answered the call on speaker.
“Pierce?” He was raspy, like someone with a sore throat. “Pierce, what happened?”
Lev clenched his jaw. It took all of his willpower to not lose himself then and there. If he spoke, the words would come tumbling out without end.
“Are you there? This prank isn’t funny.”
“Pierce? Pierce, please answer me, damn it.”
Lev opened his mouth. It doesn’t make sense.
“Are you okay?” Khan’s voice was raw and familiar. “Are you hurt? I’m sending more people, just stay put.”
“How,” Lev started. “How can you, a murderer, worry about one of your own. “
On the other end, a chair screeched against something solid. “What did you do to him?”
“How could you worry about one of your own,” he continued, words escaping him. “And not spare a thought for those you’ve hurt?”
“Pierce, don’t move, I’m coming. I will find you, I promise. I– ”
Lev blinked. The phone vanished from his palm. Astri’s hand blurred and the phone was shattered on the ground, halfway across the building. Yet, Khan’s words still echoed.
Astri picked Pierce off the concrete, he fell limp in her arms, his clothes staining more and more red. “Khan’s found us. We’re leaving. My boss can help with this, but we need to get to him first.”
Lev could not drag his mind off the phone. He was grey with dirt, his clothing torn, his hair filthy and wild. “I won.”
“I know,” said Astri, gently. “I know.”
Then why does it not feel like it?