It had been a long time since Vynn last felt fear. Most of the time, it was because he was doped up on something. Other times because there was no one to fear. Yet, standing there in the back office of Corsac Casino, Vynn could not help but feel uneasy.
“Where’s Astri?” The King’s voice was a terrible thing. There was a panic that Vynn had never heard from him.
It was only when he opened his mouth to speak, that Vynn realised he was shaking.
“You heard me, Vynn.” Quill stood from his seat. “Where is Astri?”
It was Priscilla who answered, tucked into a ball on the couch, the Black Lion lying next to her. She squeezed herself tighter. “He left her.”
Quill’s eyes darted to him.
Vynn stuck his hands into his pockets. “She was fighting Khan. You’re lucky I managed to convince Poseidon to back off.”
“I paid you for three lives,” Quill stated. “More than enough for each.”
“You paid for mine, too. If I went further, I’d be dead. And so would the girl and the masked man. Just Poseidon or Khan alone? I could have done it, but not both.”
The King approached him, step by step until he was up in his face. Quill stood as he always did: slightly slouched, eyes a little droopy, but his words fell in a cold rush. “Never come back here again.”
Vynn forced himself to joke. “You gonna flip a coin or something?”
“The coin is a formality,” he said, walking back to his desk. “A mercy. One that you may not get next time I see you.”
Quill twisted the dial of his vault until it opened. He reached inside and took its contents to his desk: a black suitcase, rimmed with intricate patterns of gold. Vynn recognised it immediately, as would any of the Crowns.
“I thought it was broken,” said Vynn, raising his eyebrows.
“It is.” Quill zipped up his jacket and gripped the suitcase, ready to leave. “But it’ll do.”
Astri thumbed another shell into her shotgun and cocked it. That was all she had time for. Khan’s pipe came swinging down and she rolled out of the way. It cracked the pavement where she had stood.
Astri swung the muzzle towards him and fired. Her arms flung up from the recoil. The blast caught him square in the chest, sending him tumbling back.
Don’t come back, she begged, pumping her shotgun. Not again.
Khan twitched on the ground, lifting himself with only his legs as his arms flailed, limp. Even just standing there, his body swayed drunkenly, never still. His head dangled loose on his neck, swivelling in whichever direction his body moved.
Then it snapped up. The scratched paint of his eyes stared back, unblinking. He rested his smoking pipe, a thin and straight stretch of metal as long as a staff, on his shoulder. The metal was cracked at several points, revealing a pulpy red underlayer, like muscles that have outgrown skin.
Astri shot again but Khan was ready for it: his body bent in an impossible arch and the lead flew past. He pounced for her. Astri gripped her shotgun by the muzzle; it was too late to reload so she swung it like a wrench, clashing it against Khan’s pipe.
The shotgun snapped in two as it met the Cerafex and Astri stepped back, narrowly avoiding the rest of Khan’s swing. She dived forward, dodging the returning whistle of a second swing. Leaping back up, she struck his unprotected chest. Then his stomach. Then his neck. Her leg whipped up and she swerved her body, slamming her heel into the side of his head.
He was hurt, she knew it, but he didn’t even flinch. His jaw clenched: a smile. The next moment, he was in the air, a kick arcing at her. Almost casually, Astri caught his leg and clenched it tight. That was her move– did he think she wouldn’t know how to counter it?
Khan twisted. The muscles of his leg wrung like a wet rag, bones snapping. His body spun around it and his other leg came back, whipping her across the face. She let go. Without stopping, he drew the pipe back and slammed it into her head, wetting her hair red.
Astri pulled back and raised her arms into a guard stance, still dazed. Her gauntlet stopped Khan’s next swing but the one after jutted her in the chest. One after another, his pipe swayed back and forth, refusing her even the shortest moment of respite. His leg was bleeding through his pants, the flesh likely mangled underneath, and yet he moved like nothing happened, shifting his weight on and off it without care.
“Help!” It was a shrill cry. Priscilla’s. “Please!”
Astri glanced at the shop. The moment her eyes left him, Khan’s pipe bashed in her nose. There was a crack of bone and blood erupted out freely. The metallic taste lingered as she dodged the next hit.
Astri clenched her gauntlet, summoning the droning hum. She didn’t need to unleash the Cerafex, only remind him of the threat.
It worked: Khan dashed away, laughing to himself, his mirth hollow and hoarse.
Immediately, Astri bolted for the shop. Please be alive, she prayed. Just hold on.
Her vision shone orange and Astri whirled back. Bits of fire slithered out of Khan’s mouth as he cackled. His lips touched the mouthpiece and he breathed deep, the crimson metal of his Cerafex writhing. Khan pulled out the pipe and grinned. Then, he exhaled.
Smoke and flame spewed out, merging in a symphony of scorching heat. In moments, the inferno was large enough that it bathed the entire street with orange light.
It came at her fast. Run. No, the flames would reach the shop if she moved. Astri drew her gauntlet back and held, waiting for the charge to build. The ball of fire towered over her like a tsunami, the air scalding her skin. When the flames fell around her, Astri launched the Cerafex.
The blast carved a hole through the flames, extinguishing most of the attack. Astri covered herself. The remnants of the fire washed over her, searing her clothes and burning her skin. She barely felt the burns, the pain in her arm drowning it out.
Astri forced herself to keep both arms up, maintaining her stance. More pain broke across her muscles as she moved them, but she made no sound, pressing her jaw tight to keep herself silent. She would not show weakness. Not to him.
“How was that for a change?” asked Khan. His mask, a sickening red amongst the grey and black smoke, stuck out. “Even I can learn a few new tricks.”
She closed one eye that was starting to swollen. “If this is about me, leave the Black Lion and the girl.”
“Oh, this is about both of you. I want to take care of one thing right before another. Just like Erik used to. Not that you would remember him”
“I remember him every day.”
“And you still ran away.”
“I’m sorry.” The words caught in her throat. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“So you did nothing.”
“Save your excuses.” Khan stuck something at the end of his pipe. Black grass. He sucked in another breath from the pipe and spat smoke, rolling and thick. Within seconds, it clouded the streets, blacking out the lamps.
Astri edged back, glimpsing around. She could barely see her hand in front of her face and even through her broken nose, the ash was pungent. She cupped her ear and waited for some sort of noise instead.
A sharp pain rushed to her stomach, silent. Before the pain had a chance to dull, more snapped at her head. Blindly, she scrambled to find her footing. She jerked her head around and swung wide: only smoke.
No, there was something else. A shimmering light, red and yellow. Astri veered left, narrowly escaping another plume of fire, leaving only a few strands of singed hair. Darkness returned as quickly as it had left, like the ocean filling a gap.
Astri walked forward carefully. There was a slight breeze and the pipe caught her in the neck. Her fist shot out but again, nothing. He was gone.
Think. He wasn’t wearing thermal goggles or anything. Probably no radar either.
Astri took one step this time, bracing herself. The attack came just as she thought it would. Metal hammered at her back and her spine pulsed. She could have dodged it– she knew it was coming. No, she reminded herself, stifling a cry. Take the punishment. Wait for your chance.
Astri lowered to the ground and touched around for rocks. A piece of debris came under her palm, then another. She tossed the first forward, hoping the sound resembled her footsteps. She waited before throwing the second, a little further than the first.
Something hard clanged against the ground, missing its phantom target.
There! Astri shot her leg out and spun, pivoting on her heel. Her boot burst past the smoke, gathering speed and crashed hard into flesh. She kept going, twisting her torso all the way as she brought her kick to a perfect arc, dragging Khan by the neck and slamming him into the pavement. She heard the asphalt shatter.
Astri kicked low, hitting Khan again, before running back in the shop’s direction. She leapt out through the edge of the smoke, landing right in front of the storefront. Somebody was already there, waiting for her.
A bearded man, perhaps the second tallest she had ever seen. He loomed over her, smelling of the ocean, and his Cerafex trident dripping wet. It wasn’t the impure sort of Cerafex you’d usually find amongst the Crowns. No, this was military-grade.
“Astri of Vulpes,” said Poseidon. He looked just as the rumours said he would. “I request a duel.”
“The Black Lion and the Marinton girl,” she spat, heart dropping. “What did you do?”
“I have done nothing.” Poseidon twirled his trident. “The Black Lion took the girl and ran.”
Astri’s shoulders dropped with a relieved gasp. They were safe.
Khan arrived out of the smoke. “And you didn’t chase them?!”
“I didn’t see a need.”
“Because I paid you good money! I’d call that a need!”
Poseidon approached the Warlord, his shadow eclipsing him. His voice was like an abyss. “Don’t raise your tone at me, Khan. Sometimes our interests align, sometimes it will not. That is the way of things.”
Astri pushed off her toes and took off. Without pause, she sprinted down the street, crossing much of it before either of the men had a chance to react. She was the fastest amongst the Crowns if nothing else. Who cared if it was cowardly? Her mission was done and Khan already made his choice.
She swerved into an alleyway and sprung up at the wall, stabbing the claws of her gauntlet into the brick. Even with only one gauntlet remaining, she scaled the building in seconds, heaving herself up through torn muscles. From rooftop to rooftop, she kept running, not sparing one look behind.
This was her element, she thought. The wind, the motion.
She stopped. A trident lodged itself into the ground in front of her, stuck deep into the concrete. Behind her, Poseidon just came to a halt. They stood behind a giant neon sign and the puddles reflected its dim blue light.
“Fight me,” he called out.
“Stay away.” Astri tugged at the trident. It took two hands to loosen it. “I don’t want any more trouble.”
“I’ve already let one fight elude me. You will not be the second.”
Astri blinked and Poseidon had closed the distance. Her neck craned, his fist shooting past. She spun the trident and snapped it up under her arm, grazing his cheek. Droplets of water mixed with his blood.
When she thrust it, his hand snatched the weapon’s neck and held it still. With one hand, he halted her advance. She released the trident and ducked under its prongs as he lanced them at her. With one hand, Poseidon snapped it back, then thrust again. She blocked it with her gauntlet but the impact still sent her back.
Astri regained her footing, cursing under her breath. His raw strength was easily triple Khan’s.
Poseidon twirled the trident around one palm, throwing it up into the air only to catch it on his other. He rested its speartips on the ground, waiting for Astri to orientate herself before readying it again.
She swung at his head, a feint. She gambled on her unarmoured fist that made for his liver. Poseidon slid around it and when she changed course for his throat, reeled in his trident to parry.
The trident flashed and he blurred. She raised her gauntlet again, Cerafex against Cerafex, the three prongs grinding along its length until their edges split her shoulder.
Poseidon pulled back, still only using one hand. Yet, he wielded the polearm with the same dexterity one would a knife, despite being several times as long and heavy.
Astri clutched her shoulder, her fingers damp. “Why only one arm?”
“It’s a handicap.” He brushed a hand through his hair. Water dripped down his face. At least, she thought it was water; she wasn’t strong enough to make him sweat.
“Alright, you’re just showing off at this point.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you. I only wanted to make this fight fair.”
He pointed at her arm. “It’s hurt. You’re probably in a lot of pain. So, it’s only fair I fight with a handicap if you are.”
“That’s still just showing off. It’s a privilege to be able to hold back in a battle.”
Astri hopped from one foot to the other, disguising it as practising her footwork. In truth, she was listening to the noises it made. Hollow. The roof lacked support.
Damn. She’d have to use Honeybadger again. She breathed deeply, readying herself for more torture, and charged her Cerafex.
“I don’t see it as showing off,” said Poseidon. “What’s the point if there’s no honour in a fight?”
The hum was building. She faked a laugh. “Is it because I’m a woman?"
That of all things left him flustered. “No no, not at all, I– ”
Astri pounded the ground and the whole building shook. A web of cracks spilled across the entire rooftop, eating away at the concrete until they grew into fissures. Finally, it all came tumbling down. The centre crumbled first and the rest followed quickly. Poseidon slipped back. The piece underneath him dropped.
Astri turned. Her toes felt the ledge and she launched herself into the air. Poseidon shouted something, drowned out by the crashing building. The wind ran through her clothes and she braced herself to land on the next rooftop over.
Then something pierced her abdomen, and all momentum vanished. For a brief instant, it was a sweet serenity. No pain or thought, only the growing sensation of gravity.
When Astri opened her eyes, she was on the ground. The pain came soon after. She bit down on her fist, yet the scream was still deafening.
Sky and earth whirled around her and the pulse-beat of blood drummed in her ears. Something– she needed something to latch onto. Anything, just to pull herself back to the world. Little by little, her focus returned. She could see lanterns hanging overhead, colouring the night sky. Was there a festival nearby?
Her stomach was burning. She tried to cover it and where she felt muscle, there was also metal: three speartips stuck out from her abdomen and behind her, the shaft.
No, no, no. She struggled to grip her fingers around the trident. Her limbs were frozen, unresponsive to her pleas. Even if they weren’t, she didn’t have the strength to pull it out. She could only lay there, watching two shadows cast over her. The taller one leaned down, and the weapon was ripped out of her. The blades cut at her insides as they left, but she was too tired to even scream. She tried to press on the wound, determined to stop her guts from spilling.
“Astraea,” someone said.
Astraea. That was familiar. She tried to say the word, sound it in from her lips. The syllables came off her tongue in silence. It took her a second to remember that was her name. She wrestled her head up as much as she could. The man’s face was carved in with scars, parts of it gnarled and wrinkled. A brand was seared over one eye, leaving it blackened and with no eyebrow.
“Can you hear me, Astraea?” he said.
Astri opened her mouth, gurgling in blood.
He reached for her and cupped her cheek in his hand. “Do you remember our wedding?”
Of course she remembered. Even now, when she closed her eyes, she saw it. She saw gold plated rings and cheap champagne. Sunlight scattered through her old dress. The last leaf of Autumn. She would remember forever, in life and in death.
“Was it all just a dream?” he asked.
Tears flooded down her neck. She coughed out more blood and saliva, but no matter how hard she tried, words would not come to her.
Khan sighed, pulling out his pistol. Their eyes met one last time before he fired.