Chapter 7:

Inside the gauntlet, his blood mixed with hers.

UnCrowned


Lev held one of Astri’s bloodied Cerafex. “I really hope you have a plan.”Bookmark here

The van spun left. Lev’s body slammed against the door as they steered into an alleyway, barely wide enough for the vehicle. Garbage bags ripped past them, sending a rain of trash into the air.Bookmark here

“I have a plan.” Astri glanced back. “Find an exit that isn’t blocked.”Bookmark here

“You make that sound easy.”Bookmark here

They broke back onto the road, three riders just seconds behind them. Bookmark here

Astri’s arms were tense, fingers firmly gripping the steering wheel. One still wore the Cerafex gauntlet. The other was bare, skin and flesh mangled as if it was gnawed on. The wounds were still fresh and dripping with blood. Bookmark here

“How’s Trent street?” said Astri.Bookmark here

“No good. They’ve blocked that one too.” Quill’s voice came from the phone in the cupholder. “I think 34th street is open. Keep down this road and take a right at the roundabout.”Bookmark here

Astri was about to reply when a car cut them off, rushing out from a side street. A soldier in the front seat shot at them with a machine gun. The bullets came in a spray. Bookmark here

Lev ducked and grabbed Priscilla, forcing her head down. The windscreen shattered; Priscilla screamed as glass scattered over their backs. Bookmark here

Astri cursed and broke left, down another alleyway. Bookmark here

“Change of plans, Quill,” said Astri. Her head jerked between directions as she spoke. “I have to get to 27th street first, then 34th.”Bookmark here

“27th? You can’t get over from where you are.”Bookmark here

“Kid,” said Astri. Lev turned to her. “We’re splitting the Cerafex. One each.”Bookmark here

Lev stuck his hand into the gauntlet. He made a fist, and the armour tightened around him. It seemed to shrink, wrapping around his muscles until it was bound tight. The insides were wet. Lev tried to ignore it.Bookmark here

Only one motorcycle of the three followed them into the alleyway. Bullets came from behind, shattering the back window. He could hear them whizzing past his ear, some passing through the empty windscreen and others embedding themselves into the dashboard. Bookmark here

Down the alleyway, Lev could just make out a large shape in the distance, barely lit by the headlights: a wall. They were driving into a dead end. Bookmark here

“Astri!” he shouted.Bookmark here

“You have to destroy it!” Bookmark here

“How?!”Bookmark here

“It’s like holding in a shit!"Bookmark here

“Excuse me?!”Bookmark here

“Push, and it’ll push back!” she explained. “Find the balance!”Bookmark here

More bullet fire rained past them, striking the oncoming wall. They were close enough to see the shrapnel burst off it.Bookmark here

He didn’t think. Lev flexed his arm and drew up the gauntlet, clenching hard. The Cerafex clenched back, humming wildly. He understood what Astri meant: it was a balancing act. Force the gauntlet too much and it wouldn’t activate. Force it too little, and it would shut around his arm. The gauntlet was a gaping jaw and his arm the wrench that held it open. He needed to find the sweet spot. Bookmark here

Lev reached over the dashboard and aimed straight. Then, he let go. Bookmark here

There was a loud crack and dust blew out, engulfing the entire van. Lev squeezed his eyes shut as they rammed into where the wall should be. Astri sped up. They skidded through the churning grime, pebbles scattering under their wheels, and slid out onto the street on the other side unharmed. Bookmark here

The van came to a halt, sending Lev and Priscilla jolting against their seatbelts. Lev breathed a sigh of relief; he half-expected the wall to still be there. Bookmark here

Astri swung her pistol back. The rider that was behind them plunged out of the dust and just as he looked at them, she pulled the trigger. His tire burst from underneath him and his body went rolling. Bookmark here

Lev bent over, a sudden pain lashing up his arm. He had to hold it still to keep it from spasming. Bookmark here

“Kid!” Astri reached over. “Are you okay?”Bookmark here

“Keep driving!” The words came out a groan. His arm was being eaten alive, a thousand insects biting down from skin to bone. Is this what Astri goes through every time? Inside the gauntlet, his blood mixed with hers. Bookmark here

Two more motorcycles came out of the alleyway, nearly brushing up to the van before Astri stepped on the pedals. For a moment, the riders were close enough to be caught clear in the taillights. They wore green helmets, painted over with huge cartoon eyes and toothy smiles. It reminded Lev of the head of a mascot costume, except the paint of their eyes were dripping, leaving streaks of black tears that soaked the surrounding metal a dark green. Those eyes stared, dead and unblinking; their smile frozen. Bookmark here

Priscilla flicked her head back. “Why are they wearing frog masks?”Bookmark here

“They’re called Rippers. I’d call it a cute gimmick if it didn’t scare the living shit out of me.” Astri was sweating. “Princess?”Bookmark here

“Yes?” Priscilla barely stuttered it out. Bookmark here

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

A wide grin. “Are you serious?”Bookmark here

Astri took her hands off and pulled up her rifle. Priscilla bent over, reaching her slightly too small arms for the steering wheel, a harsh giggle escaping her mouth. It was like an early Christmas present. Bookmark here

“Don’t make this into a habit,” said Lev, the pain in his arm dulling. “If you’re not going to drive, don’t get in the driver’s seat.”Bookmark here

Astri drew back the bolt and let an empty shell fall. “Keep your eyes on the road, princess!”Bookmark here

Astri lowered her window and stuck her head and rifle out. She peered through the scope and squeezed. The echo of the gunshot came first, followed by sparks flying off one of the bikes. Her first bullet had only grazed one of the Rippers. She pulled back the bolt and shot again, the second bullet lodging into the asphalt as her target moved away. The Ripper gave her the middle finger while the other pulled a sword from his back. He tapped it against the road, sparks flying out from behind like fireworks. Bookmark here

“Bastards,” Astri muttered. “Quill! Is there anything coming up?”Bookmark here

“A pick-up truck at the oncoming intersection. It’s got three Veragreens inside.”Bookmark here

Lev had his other hand on the steering wheel, making sure Priscilla didn't crash the van. “Are you sure you can hit those bikers? You’ve missed twice already.”Bookmark here

“Nope,” said Astri. She faced the front, repositioning her rifle. Bookmark here

As they broke into the intersection, speeding forward, a truck charged at them from the side. Astri took her third shot and the driver slumped back, a hole between their eyes. Not a second later, Astri shot again. Her fourth bullet pierced clean through the truck’s tire, sending it swerving out of control, smashing into a traffic light. Bookmark here

Lev wrenched down Priscilla’s arm, veering the van around the truck as it spun into the middle of the intersection. The Rippers weren’t so fast. The crash rang through the air, an upwards explosion of metal and fire following a split second after. Bookmark here

Astri lowered her gun. “Three down.”Bookmark here

“Jesus Christ,” said Lev. Bookmark here

“I know you tried to kill me ten minutes ago,” said Priscilla, eyes glistening. Astri took back the wheel. “But I think you’re, like, my hero.”Bookmark here

“We’re not out of the woods yet.” Lev checked if anyone was behind them. “We have to get to 34th street.”Bookmark here

“It’s close,” said Astri. “And it’s part of the Dreadskin turf. Not even Khan’s crazy enough to try and start a fight there. We just have to cross, and then–”Bookmark here

Lev saw it before she did. A car appeared from behind the corner, a soldier kneeling on its roof. He aimed something at them: an RPG. A warning had barely left Lev’s lips when the soldier fired.Bookmark here

Astri spun the wheel. Lev felt the van leave the ground and the world tumbled. One moment, he was upside down in the air and the next, he laid on the van door. Bookmark here

His vision swam in the dark, lit only by flashes of flickering yellow. He felt numb. How long was he out? It couldn’t have been more than a minute or so. Bookmark here

Suddenly, Priscilla was shaking him. Lev coughed, rolling over, and pushed himself up. She was saying something, her eyes wide with panic. His ears rang and he squinted, trying to read her lips. The words sounded muffled. “...bastard! Son of a bitch! Get the hell up!”Bookmark here

“You don’t shake someone in a car accident,” Lev mumbled. “They might have a broken neck.”Bookmark here

“I’ll give you a broken neck if you don’t start moving!”Bookmark here

Lev got to his feet, bracing himself on the seats. The entire van was on its side, the glove box thrown open, bits of paper strewn about. He looked up. Astri had already climbed out the other rear door above them.Bookmark here

She reached her arm down. “Take my hand!”Bookmark here

Lev helped Priscilla up first, letting her onto his shoulders. After Astri pulled her up, it was Lev’s turn. He leapt up and caught Astri’s hand. He kicked off the steering wheel, and she helped pull him the rest of the way. Bookmark here

Clumps of fire littered the streets, their smoke rendering his vision a grey and red haze. Lev blinked. Through the smoke, Rippers were gathering up in front of the van. He couldn’t tell how many; the smoke was too thick and the night too dark. In the brief moments when they managed to catch his eye, the flames reflected off the plastic eyes of their masks, each a different twisted parody of a cartoon animal. Their mouths were open wide, suspended eternally in mirth. Bookmark here

One Ripper, wearing the head of a cartoon dog, began to tap his metal bat against the ground. The others followed, creating a beat of metal scraping against rock, like war drums before a battle. Bookmark here

“Astri,” said Lev.Bookmark here

“Give me the other gauntlet.” Astri cocked her rifle. “When I give you the word, run. Take the princess with you.”Bookmark here

“Not a chance. You don’t get to play the hero.”Bookmark here

“Don’t let pride get in the way again, kid,” she said. “You didn’t bust your ass for the girl just for her to die here, did you?”Bookmark here

“And what about you?”Bookmark here

“I should’ve died a long time ago. This was long overdue.”Bookmark here

“Lady,” said Priscilla. “Can you get any more badass?”Bookmark here

“And can you get any dumber?” Lev added. “Smell the air.”Bookmark here

Both of them sniffed. Bookmark here

“Gasoline.” Astri lost her serious expression. “You have a plan.”Bookmark here

Lev held up her Cerafex, still on his arm. They met gazes- a silent understanding. Astri nodded. Lev grabbed Priscilla and leapt off the van, away from the Rippers, feet pounding the concrete as they sprinted for one of the abandoned storefronts. Bookmark here

This is far enough. He swung around, readying the gauntlet. Astri was right behind him, the Rippers giving chase without delay. Bookmark here

Astri dived for the pavement, spun back, and raised her rifle. She unloaded two shots. One bullet struck the van’s leaking fuel hole, forming sparks against the metal. Lev braced.Bookmark here

He smashed his fist into the ground and let go. Air burst outwards from where he struck, slicing the column of fire that came their way. The flames diverged around them like water, splitting into two streams. Lev flinched at the heat against his face. The gauntlet’s shockwave dispelled most of the explosion, but a few stray embers seared through his jacket.Bookmark here

None of the Rippers were caught in the flame either, but most were knocked down, either from the explosion or the Cerafex.Bookmark here

He checked Astri and Priscilla: both unharmed. Through the smoke, the three of them disappeared down a narrow road, retreating through the slums and the shadows. Bookmark here

                                                                                ❖
Bookmark here

When they finally stopped running, they stood in front of an abandoned store, its windows nailed in with wood. At least, Lev thought it was wood. They were covered entirely in faded posters for rallies and missing people. Only the door remained free of them. Bookmark here

“Why are we here?” Lev asked, his hand around Priscilla’s. One poster read ‘new district, opening soon.’ It was dated five years ago. Bookmark here

Astri fished around in her pocket, pulling out a small rusty key. “Vulpes keeps stashes throughout the city. We hide here and hold out for reinforcements.”Bookmark here

Despite the outer appearance, the inside of the store felt homely. It was less of a shop and more of a small lived-in apartment. A bomb shelter of sorts. It had a kitchen, a small living room, and even toilets. The paint on the walls was peeling though, and the room smelt of mould, but it was shelter from the Rippers and that was enough. Bookmark here

Astri made her way to the pantry, plucking a bottle off the shelf. With her thumb, she spun off the lid and raised it to her mouth.Bookmark here

Lev snatched it away. “Use a cup.”Bookmark here

“I just want a sip.”Bookmark here

“That’s no excuse for acting like an animal.” He took a glass from the table and cleaned it with his handkerchief. Some of the stains remained, no matter how hard he scrubbed at them. Eventually, he gave up, handing it back.Bookmark here

Lev leaned on the table. “Are you sure you want to be drinking right now?” Bookmark here

“Most people would rather die drunk,” replied Astri, emptying the glass.Bookmark here

“We’re not dying.”Bookmark here

“Never hurts.”Bookmark here

“Give me a glass,” said Priscilla. “I want to die drunk too.”Bookmark here

“Hey hey, now we’re talking!” Astri filled the cup and passed it to Priscilla.Bookmark here

“She’s a minor, Astri.” Lev rubbed his temple. Bookmark here

“Fine, fine. I’ll just give her a little sip then. It’ll warm her up.”Bookmark here

She glanced back at Priscilla. The cup was empty. Bookmark here

“I said a sip!” Astri wrangled the glass away. Bookmark here

Priscilla put a hand to her mouth, face scrunched up. She dry-heaved. “Oh god, it burns!”Bookmark here

“Go puke it up, right now! Toilet’s that way.”Bookmark here

They watched Priscilla run for the bathroom, throwing the door open. Retching noises followed. Bookmark here

Astri collapsed onto the sofa, laughing. “Kids these days can’t handle their booze.”Bookmark here

“You’re the one who gave it to her,” said Lev.Bookmark here

“I was younger than her when I had my first drink. Beer was cheaper than water back then, so I didn’t have much of a choice.”Bookmark here

“You said you were living on the streets. How did you earn money?”Bookmark here

“Begged, mostly,” she recalled. “Stole sometimes, but I got my ass beat more often than not. Wasn’t great long term, so I joined a gang.”Bookmark here

“Was that Vulpes?”Bookmark here

“Vulpes only came around recently. The gang was called ‘Zenith.’ It was a tight-knit bunch. Actually, that’s where I met Quill. He was a trainee in my squad when I became captain.” Bookmark here

It was hard for Lev to imagine Quill at such a low rank. Knowing what little he did about the king, he seemed born for leadership. He must’ve been hard to keep on a leash too, even for Astri. Bookmark here

“Can I ask you something?” she said.Bookmark here

He gave her a curt nod.Bookmark here

“You asked me who forgives me when I do cruel things.” Astri took a sip. “So what about you? Who forgives you?”Bookmark here

“Sehyun does,” said Lev immediately. Bookmark here

Astri nodded, smiling. “I think for me, it’s Quill. And Arc. And Dibs. And MP.” She rattled off more names, most of which were foreign to him. She looked to the bathroom. A hunched over Priscilla scooted out, clutching her stomach. “But maybe some things are unforgivable.”Bookmark here

Lev closed his eyes. “She’s fine. A little alcohol at that age builds tolerance.”Bookmark here

Astri laughed. It was forced. Bookmark here

There was a sound at the door. Three knocks, a pause between each. All three of them froze. They had been found. Bookmark here

Astri’s eyes dashed to Lev. She pointed at a cabinet in the kitchen and Lev rushed to it. Inside, he found a propane tank connected to the stovetop by a thin red tube. He glanced up; there was a lighter on the countertop. Lev yanked out the tank, gas spewing from the detached tube.Bookmark here

Astri was in the fridge. The shelves had been taken out to make space for a set of guns, and a med-kit next to boxes of ammo were laid out underneath. She pulled out a shotgun and moved beside the door. Bookmark here

Lev joined her, tank in hand. Priscilla cowered at the back of the room. They held their breaths, waiting. Bookmark here

More knocking. There was a voice, muffled through both wood and metal. “Astraea.”Bookmark here

Lev’s fingers crushed into the tank. Images of the auction flashed through his eyes. A familiar burn returned to his stomach. Bookmark here

“I just want to talk, Astraea,” the voice said. “Surely I deserve that much from you.”Bookmark here

Astri looked even more disturbed than him. Her eyes were wide and her pupils were shrunk, her jaw clenched tight. Bookmark here

“Astraea.” There was a long pause. The voice dimmed as if its owner was walking away. “That’s a shame.”Bookmark here

The door shattered. Lev pulled the gauntlet to his chest. There was a flash of metal and he was thrown across the room, crashing into the wall. Bookmark here

Astri shouted something, her words lost in his daze. He tried to push himself off the wall but was anchored back, a metallic pole pinning him into the brick. No, not a pole– a trident. One prong was stuck in the wall. The middle one would have pierced him had the gauntlet not blocked it. Bookmark here

Lev ripped it out. The trident was wet and throbbed gently like a heart in his hand. Bookmark here

He scanned the room. Astri was aiming her shotgun at a familiar figure, the sound of bullets ripping through the air. The man’s shadow cast wide on the road outside, limbs stretched over the pavement like snakes, mangled and thin. Bookmark here

“Khan!” Heaving himself up, Lev charged. Barely a step in, the trident pulled him back and he almost tripped. Another hand was on the shaft. The hand tugged, and the trident was thrust out of Lev’s grip, returning to its owner: a man in a black flight jacket, colour long since faded from the leather. His beard was scruffy and his hair a dirty blonde; both were completely drenched. Bookmark here

The man twirled the trident. His limbs blurred and the next moment, Lev found himself vomiting blood. He held his chest as it burnt like hot coal. Every breath he took hurt. More blood crept up his throat and he clutched his mouth. Red dripped out from between his fingers. Bookmark here

The man was still, the butt of his trident raised. It was one hit. One hit, and he was paralysed, struggling to even breathe. Who the hell was he? He didn’t wear Veragreen colours, nor the Ripper’s mask. A mercenary, then. Bookmark here

Lev glanced at Khan. Both he and Astri were outside now, fighting on the road. Lev’s eyes bounced back to the man in front of him. Bookmark here

Don’t stand still, keep moving. Lev dived down, past the mercenary, and grabbed the propane tank he had dropped. He heaved it up and swung. He considered throwing the lighter too, but Priscilla was still in the room. The explosion would catch her as well.Bookmark here

It didn’t matter anyway. The mercenary spun his trident and whacked the tank away. It was a casual motion, like swatting flies. To him, the metal tank of gas was no heavier than a tennis ball. Bookmark here

The trident snapped into a new position, prongs up. Water droplets from its length sprayed out as it moved.Bookmark here

Fear consumed Lev. The pain in his chest echoed and without thinking, he had backed away. He had never felt this from anyone else. Not even Pierce. He had never felt this hopeless. Bookmark here

The mercenary charged, too fast for Lev to even see. Lev gripped his knife and swung wildly in the man’s direction. He tried to aim at the dashes of movement but caught only air. Bookmark here

“Behind you!” He heard Priscilla scream.Bookmark here

He didn’t bother turning. It would be too late. Something hard slammed into the back of his head, a wetness trickling down his neck. Was it water or blood? He would never know. Bookmark here

Lev Zaytsev fell, and the world went dark.Bookmark here

                                                                                ❖
Bookmark here

“Behind you!” She was too late. The man smacked Lev in the back of the head and he dropped to the ground. Bookmark here

Priscilla backed away, pressing tight into her little corner of the room. She gasped for air. She wasn’t even fighting, yet somehow she felt more breathless than she ever had before.Bookmark here

There was nothing she could do. Priscilla looked at Astri outside, desperate. “Help!” Priscilla screamed at her. “Please!”Bookmark here

Even if Astri had heard her cries, the gangster with the red mask gave her no chance to get to Lev. He pressed her further and further down the road, swinging at her in short spasms of movement. She was too focused on surviving each second to notice Priscilla. Bookmark here

Priscilla looked back to Lev, still motionless on the floor. His foe raised the trident high, ready to spear it into Lev’s heart. Bookmark here

Her father’s words echoed in her mind. Ungrateful bitch. Even after hearing it a million times, it still stung. Bookmark here

Without thinking, her body moved. She squeezed the razor blade between her fingers, hands outstretched, and charged, screaming at the top of her lungs. Bookmark here

Stupid, she thought, even before the shaft of the trident pummeled into her. What good did she think she was going to do? Bookmark here

Priscilla dropped to her knees. She saw the flash of the trident again, this time coming at her with the sharp end. She waited for the blades to carve her flesh; she already knew what it would feel like.Bookmark here

But the pain never came. Bookmark here

A rapier extended in front of her, catching the trident between its prongs. Priscilla turned back, peeking behind her. The gangster standing there had black eyes that held no light. He pushed the trident-wielder back with a harsh clang. He wasn’t afraid. No, he was smiling.Bookmark here

“You’ve already won, Poseidon,” said Vynn. Bookmark here

“Why are you here?” Poseidon’s voice was deep. “Your job’s done.”Bookmark here

“I got a new job. If you can believe it, the king himself just paid me to deliver his packages.”Bookmark here

“I thought you were working for Khan.”Bookmark here

“As a rental.” Vynn picked up Lev and tossed him over his shoulder. Poseidon only watched. “I’m just doing a side-gig if you get me. And between you and me, don’t tell Khan I’m doing this, okay?”Bookmark here

“I don’t care about Khan or the politics of the Crowns.” Poseidon flicked his trident from one hand to the other and pointed it to Vynn. “You’re one of Brontes’ best. Fight me.”Bookmark here

“Next time, mate, when I’m off work. I promise.” Vynn grabbed Priscilla’s hand. “For now, have a go at Astri. She’s every bit as good as me.”Bookmark here

Poseidon paused, considering his suggestion. Then, he turned away, walking outside towards Astri. He readied his trident. Bookmark here

“That’s that,” said Vynn, looking at Priscilla. “Shall we get going?” Bookmark here

He began to pull her away. Priscilla tugged back. “Wait, Astri– you have to help her!”Bookmark here

“Sorry, princess.” His grip was tight around her wrist. As hard as she flailed and fought, he wouldn’t budge. “That’s beyond my paygrade.”Bookmark here

Priscilla kicked and screamed as she was dragged away, helpless. She gazed at the road one last time, watching Astri’s blue hair blur in the distance. Bookmark here

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