Chapter 5:

A fortress of scaffolds and concrete.

UnCrowned


The moon hung bright and full above the Veragreen warehouse. There was the distant hum of music from somewhere in the city and the air carried the subtle scent of sea salt. It was a beautiful night. So beautiful that Lev almost forgot the Soviet sniper rifle Astri carried.Bookmark here

“You want a cookie?” she asked.Bookmark here

Astri shook the tin box at him, still warm with the smell of baked goods. “I made too much. Arc loves them, but even she couldn’t eat this many.”Bookmark here

They were camped out here– a place someone envisioned would become an apartment complex. Like most of the buildings in the Projects, it went nowhere. All that remained of the dream was a fortress of scaffolds and concrete.Bookmark here

Lev popped another painkiller. “Do you know how to use that thing?”Bookmark here

“It’s a family recipe. I promise they’re as good as anything you’d find in a bakery.”Bookmark here

“I meant the gun.”Bookmark here

“Ah.” A cookie hung between her teeth as she pulled up the leg of her pants. There was a vulture tattoo perched on her calf, its neck twisted into a mangled spring. It looked like something out of an old black and white cartoon. “Here.”Bookmark here

“Am I supposed to know what that means?”Bookmark here

“It means I’m a trained sniper.” She stripped off her jacket. Her bare arms, thick with muscle, held another tattoo: a four-fingered fist. “You’ll never guess what this one means.”Bookmark here

“You can punch well.”Bookmark here

“I can punch really well,” said Astri. “I’m in the Clarkson Cage’s hall of fame.”Bookmark here

One by one, she listed off her tattoos like boy scout badges. This meant she was good with a gun, that meant she spent time in juvie. Bookmark here

Her finger landed on a vaguely ball-shaped image, made entirely from intestines. “This means I’ve earned a Cerafex.”Bookmark here

She saw his confusion and gestured her arm at him. “My gauntlet.”Bookmark here

The way it pulsated reminded him of Pierce’s mace. “Is that what Pierce used?”Bookmark here

“Talos,” she said. “Yea. They’re experimental tech. Mostly from Marinton Industries.”Bookmark here

“So that’s why Quill accepted the deal. To get more of them.”Bookmark here

“Not the full reason, but more or less. The more Cerafex, the stronger the gang.”Bookmark here

Lev nodded. He pointed to another tattoo: a four-pointed crown, inked in crimson. “What about that one?”Bookmark here

“Ah. This one.” Astri was quiet as she ran her fingers over it. “It says I’ve killed one of the King’s men.”Bookmark here

“Vulpes?”Bookmark here

“No. The ones before us. It happened a long time ago.”Bookmark here

He watched her, deep in recollection; the memories, woven like cloth, began to untangle. Her smile was softer now, more melancholic.Bookmark here

“Do you regret it?” he asked.Bookmark here

“I think it’s dumb to regret. What happens is what happens.”Bookmark here

“But do you think about it often?”Bookmark here

“Every day. In one way or another.” The words came to her easily and they felt comfortable from her lips. She was used to thinking about this.Bookmark here

What would you say Nabi did? Pierce’s voice rang in his head. He killed dozens for every one that deserved it.Bookmark here

“You’ve done terrible things.” He spoke it half like a question.Bookmark here

“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.”Bookmark here

“Sehyun took me camping once,” Lev started. The memory came flooding back to him. He could see the lush mountainside and hear the crushed leaves underfoot. “That night, he shot a rabbit for dinner. I was younger then and as he skinned the rabbit, I told him I thought it was cruel. That rabbit had a life. Why did we have to kill it?”Bookmark here

“He said that doing cruel things is just part of living,” he continued. “The rabbit doesn’t forgive us, but we can find forgiveness in a lot of different ways. Sehyun said he finds forgiveness in doing good and helping people.”Bookmark here

“So who forgives you?” Lev asked.Bookmark here

Astri peered out the window at the warehouse. It was less of a window and more of a rectangular hole in the wall. She returned to him. “Who said I need to be forgiven?”Bookmark here

Lev was about to reply when Astri’s hands blurred. She spun around, rifle aimed into the darkness.Bookmark here

“Get up kid,” she said. “Something’s there.”Bookmark here

Lev stood, unsheathing his weapons. He couldn’t see nor hear anything, but he trusted Astri. They waited in silence, her finger on the trigger and his around the knife, ready to throw it. Eyes stared back at them. Bookmark here

Then, the creature stepped out. A cat, its fur camouflaged in the shadows. They had waited for an army, only to find a kitten.Bookmark here

Astri lowered the gun, sighing. “I got all worked up for nothing.” Bookmark here

She reached her hand out. “Here, kitty kitty.”Bookmark here

The cat came closer, meowing as if it understood them. There was something attached to its neck and as it approached the moonlight from the window, light reflected back. Bookmark here

Lens. A camera.Bookmark here

“Astri!” The knife left his fingers, landing near the cat. It hissed and returned to the dark. “They know we’re here!”Bookmark here

Astri slid her rifle over the window sill. She fired. Down below, wheels screeched against pavement and metal hit metal. She drew the weapon back. “Shit, they’re running!”Bookmark here

Lev raced downstairs. He heard her fire twice more, then her rapid footsteps as she followed him. On the first floor, they got on the motorcycle. He grabbed her waist as she revved the engine.Bookmark here

They lurched out, zipping down a side street. Lev whipped his head around. There. A black van, just disappearing around the corner.Bookmark here

“Astri-”Bookmark here

“I know!” She pumped on the throttle and they sped up. Instead of the corner, she took a sharp left, into an alleyway. Bits of trash flew up in their faces as they rode.Bookmark here

“Where are you going?!” he yelled. “The van went the other way!”Bookmark here

“It’s a shortcut!” Bookmark here

They burst out onto a main road, just missing the van. Lev held tight, Astri’s rifle pressed against his chest. The wind was pulling at his hair, trying to rip it from his scalp.Bookmark here

“Bust a tyre!” she shouted.Bookmark here

“The wind’s too strong!”Bookmark here

“Use my pistol!”Bookmark here

“No!” They hit a bump and he jolted. “The van will swerve and crash!”Bookmark here

“That’s what we want!”Bookmark here

“If she goes, she goes quietly!”Bookmark here

Astri muttered something, too low to hear over the wind. Cursing, probably.Bookmark here

The van had turned another corner.Bookmark here

Astri leaned forward. They were even faster now, the street lamps turning into scribbles of yellow. The wind rose to a howl. As they came up to the corner, she thrust the handlebar. Without slowing, they turned.Bookmark here

He felt the bike tilt and squeezed Astri tight. They went almost parallel to the road, his loose jacket just touching the ground. Lev’s heart dropped. The bike was falling. Bookmark here

Astri threw back one arm and brought it down on the asphalt. Pebbles shot up, clinking against the metal of the motorcycle. He felt the recoil; a hurricane crashing into them, throwing them off the ground and back upright. They wobbled for a few seconds but by the time they stabilised, the corner was past them and the van was within reach.Bookmark here

Astri drove them closer. They were an arm’s length away now.Bookmark here

“I need you to take the wheel!” she yelled.Bookmark here

“What?!” Lev felt her straighten. He bent back to avoid the barrel of her rifle hitting his face. “Wait, I can’t drive a motor-”Bookmark here

She freed her hands and in one swift motion, jumped onto her seat and pushed off it. She lunged. Lev rushed for the handlebars and they struggled in his grasp, flailing like a live fish. The vehicle buckled under him, zig-zagging along the road as he tried to control it. Bookmark here

Astri was on the back of the van, pressed tight against the door. With a single punch, she tore through it, scrunching the metal in her fist. Half the door came flying off. Bookmark here

Lev wrenched the handlebar. The motorcycle skidded aside, just barely avoiding the debris as it soared past. “Watch it!”Bookmark here

“Sorry!” Bookmark here

Astri stepped into the van. Inside, a figure separated from the shadows of the vehicle. From Lev’s angle, most of the man was wrapped in darkness, but his silhouette loomed wide. He was waiting for her.Bookmark here

Immediately, she clenched her arm and the gauntlet hummed. “You’re the last person I expected here.”Bookmark here

They drove past a streetlamp and the shadows vanished. For a moment, he stood illuminated– his delicate features clear to the world. All except for his eyes. His eyes were a void, black as tar. They reflected no light.Bookmark here

“Vynn,” said Astri coldly. She never sounded so serious. “Get out of my way.”Bookmark here

He smiled, turning his baseball cap backwards.Bookmark here

There was a blur of blue flying past. Lev jerked his head back. Astri and Vynn were tumbling on the street, already growing small in the distance. What just happened?Bookmark here

Lev prepared to turn the bike back, but he saw her, hand outstretched. His last glimpse of Astri was with her finger pointed at the van. Bookmark here

“Go!” she shouted. It was just a faint echo when the word reached him.Bookmark here

To hell with it. Lev clutched the throttle. He tried to remember how she did it. How her limbs moved. Her motion through the air- the swiftness and grace of it all. He tried to remember every detail as he copied them.Bookmark here

Squatting unsteadily on the seat, he launched himself, the leather beneath his feet becoming air. His body felt slow. Vulnerable, as the wind gushed past him. Somehow, his hand caught on the remaining door, swinging wildly at its hinge. He leveraged it and flung himself into the van. Bookmark here

A sledgehammer jutted at his face. His body ducked instinctively, his mind a second behind. The hammer came so close, he could smell its metallic odour. Hopefully, it was only rust. Bookmark here

The assailant who swung it was young. Not young enough to be wearing that knitted dinosaur hat, but too young to be killing anyone. She swung again and Lev craned back. Momentum pushed the hammer into the wall of the van, scarring it with a huge dent.Bookmark here

Before she could pull it back, Lev sprang forward, his fist flashing out. It connected with her cheek. She wobbled, off-balance, and her weapon did the rest, anchoring her down. He kicked her in the stomach, ending the fight. Bookmark here

In the van, there was someone bound, almost hidden in the corner. She was blindfolded and gagged, with her arms behind her, likely tied. She remained motionless. Priscilla.Bookmark here

She can wait. Lev stepped forward and drew a blade to the driver’s neck. “Stop the van!”Bookmark here

Panicked eyes dashed to his, then back to the wheel.Bookmark here

“I said stop the van!”Bookmark here

The driver stomped hard and the world whirled. The van went dead, tires screeching, and Lev barely caught himself between the seats. A millisecond too slow and he would have crashed into the window. He found his hand empty, his knife dropped in the chaos.Bookmark here

By the time he got his footing, the driver wasn’t in his seat and the door hung open. He glanced back at Priscilla. This whole time, amidst the struggle, she hadn’t moved or even made a sound. She was so still, he thought she might be dead already. Bookmark here

For somebody kidnapped for days, she seemed healthy. No signs of bruises or cuts and her shoulder-length hair was well maintained. Bookmark here

She tipped her head up. If she didn’t have the blindfold on, she would’ve been staring right at her assassin.Bookmark here

Lev curled his finger around the knife on his belt, feeling the ridges of its handle against his palm. He could imagine it in her heart, her body turning cold.Bookmark here

No, he thought, taking his hand off. This is Astri’s job.Bookmark here

                                                                                ❖
Bookmark here

It was getting harder and harder to raise her fists, let alone throw them. It felt like Honeybadger was gnawing on her arm, growing hungrier the longer she kept it on. Using the Cerafex’s ability only made it worse. A few more times today and her arms would probably be crushed.Bookmark here

Vynn stood en-garde, whistling at her. Every time they met gazes, she could feel his eyes searching hers. That dark void seemed endless. “Tired already?”Bookmark here

“I don’t even know why you’re here.” She spat on the ground. There was blood mixed with her spit. “Aren’t you with Brontes?”Bookmark here

“Khan rented me out.”Bookmark here

“And Zek agreed to that?”Bookmark here

He ran a finger over the rim of his baseball cap. “Interest was high. Quill’s not the only one who can do business.”Bookmark here

Astri stood forward and swung at him, again and again. Each time, he parried the blows with his rapier, his feet moving swiftly from one position to another, as if he was dancing to his own silent rhythm. One foot here, another foot there, on and on the dance went.Bookmark here

Yet, when Vynn attacked, his jabs were quick. If Astri even blinked, she would miss the strike and the blade would connect. She realised this too late. Vynn had already stabbed her four times. Each time, the wound was shallow but enough to draw blood. Enough to hurt.Bookmark here

Worse yet, Vynn always kept his distance. For each step Astri took, he would take two back, always careful to use his weapon’s reach to his advantage. Bookmark here

Astri leapt in, fist raised. Vynn stepped back, as she expected him to. She dropped, directing her punch to the ground. Honeybadger activated, and the road split like a ravine. With her hand still in the ground, Astri gripped tight and heaved, flinging up a slab of stone as big as she was. With all her strength, she directed it at him.Bookmark here

Vynn’s eyes shifted from her to the stone. That was his mistake. She dashed around the stone, crossing the space between them. At last, Astri was within range.Bookmark here

She threw out a half punch with her left arm. Vynn turned his rapier towards it, realising too late that it was a feint. With her right arm, she touched his chest, unobstructed. Her Honeybadger fired.Bookmark here

Vynn blew back, force ripping into him. He flew across the road and crashed into an empty storefront. Where the punch landed, his clothes were completely torn, revealing flesh bruised purple. His breathing was hollow like air blowing through a cardboard tube and came in explosive pants. Bookmark here

Astri clenched her arm. Pain spiked through it, a million teeth biting down at once. She kept her face still.Bookmark here

“Not gonna lie,” said Vynn, half his body smothered in cereal boxes. “I think I just fell in love with you.”Bookmark here

“Don’t get up.” She kept her words short. Any longer and a gasp of pain would inevitably slip through. “Turn around. Go back to Brontes.”Bookmark here

Vynn patted his hair, blood dribbling down the sides of his mouth. His hat was missing. “It’s either the blue hair or the mean right hook.”Bookmark here

Neither of them moved; time seemed to stand still. Bookmark here

“Are you actually not getting up?” asked Astri.Bookmark here

“Nah.”Bookmark here

“I know you can take more. A lot more. You haven’t even used your Cerafex yet.”Bookmark here

“What’s the point? My job here’s done,” said Vynn. He dug out his cap from beneath the boxes and slapped it on. He looked almost comfortable lying there. “Go bring the princess home. The lassie’s gonna grow up a real looker. I’d hate for all that beauty to be wasted.”Bookmark here

Astri was too tired to thank him, so she only nodded. Bookmark here

“Wait.” She froze. “What do you mean your job’s done?”Bookmark here

“Khan only hired me to take you two on a bit of a chase.”Bookmark here

Chase. Her eyes went wide. How could she be so stupid? She was so distracted following the van, she didn’t even notice they were on Veragreen turf. Bookmark here

“I’m surprised you didn’t realise sooner. It was pretty obvious,” said Vynn. “This is a trap, dipshit.”Bookmark here

Bookmarked
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