Pierce’s hand reached for him, his face bright despite the clouded sky. The hole between his eyes, blood streaking down and colouring him scarlet. His mouth was open and his final words still rang in the air: “I’m here.”
Khan buried his face in the body, Pierce’s hand growing cold in his. He cradled him tightly, and for a moment, there was only a tangle of limbs and two dead hearts.
“What do you think gives you power?” asked Quill. His expression held nothing: no guilt of sin or joy of vengeance, only a firm confidence in his actions. “The fact that you’re a Crown? That you’ve beaten Nabi? If Nabi’s defeat is the only reason you’re not dead yet, then it means nothing.”
Arc leapt down from the mountain of scrap, a sniper rifle slung over one shoulder. She glared at him as if she wanted to rip her blade along his neck, her lips frozen in a snarl. Had Quill not hooked a hand around her wrist like a leash, she might’ve done it.
“I didn’t get where I am now by sucking the cock of every person who threatened me,” Quill continued. “You’ve screwed up, Khan. You mess with the kingdom, you deal with the king. Consider this your declaration of war.”
He turned away, dragging Arc behind him. Khan could have done something then; his instincts screamed to take his pistol and shoot, but his hands would not leave Pierce.
That time will come, he thought. Rage would arrive swiftly after the shock had faded, but for now, Khan only wanted to sink wordlessly in Pierce’s embrace. He wanted to feel that last echo of his warmth and that final melody of his breath.
“I’m here,” Khan answered. “I’m right here.”
Like that, Pierce died in his arms, and all things soft and beautiful died with him.
That gash in his chest would kill him, but hope seldom dies with despair. The last soldier limped past his comrades’ corpses, past the burning shops, onwards to his final salvation: the payphone at the street corner. If he could just get to it, he could call for backup and somebody will come. Help would come. His king would not abandon him, he must have thought.
His body fell against the glass wall and blood smeared it opaque. One hand reached for the phone whilst the other gripped his wound, his finger leaving the number keys wet with crimson.
“Come on,” the soldier mumbled, waiting. “Please, come on.”
Seconds past. Finally, his eyes lit up and his face turned bright. His emotions were straightforward and raw, bursting to the surface like a child’s, no longer hidden by discipline and prudence. “King, it’s Khan! He’s burnt down the arcade. Yes, it’s all gone. Please, you have to send reinforcements.”
Those were the last words he would ever say. The phone ruptured in a ball of fire and soon him with it. Skin turned to soot and flesh to ash, muscle melting from the bone like a well-made Sunday roast.
Khan drew in a mouthful of the night air, cool against his burning throat as he watched the phone booth burn. It reminded him of bygone days when Veragreen was still just getting started, and in the midst of his daydream, he could almost hear Pierce again in the wind.
“Sir,” he would say, too serious for his own good. “This turf is clear.”
And Khan would smile under his mask.
He rested his pipe on the pavement and took a lighter to the cigarette between his teeth. Its grey smoke quickly faded amongst the thick black fumes of the phonebooth. That was enough for one night; it was time to go home.
Only after getting back to the hideout did he realise that he was sheathed from neck to ankle in cuts and bruises, a trail of dripping footprints following him. One of his men offered to bring him a towel, but Khan said nothing. Another pleaded him to rest, a third offered food, yet he only stayed quiet and pushed past towards his room, shutting the door before anyone else could distract him.
He went straight to his bed, where Pierce was waiting for him, and cradled the corpse gently. He had not eaten or slept since that day and his already thin physique only grew worse. His ribs were starting to show underneath his damp shirt; the bags under his eyes dark like ink.
“I’m back,” Khan whispered, taking his mask off. “I burned down another of the Fox’s dens. Soon, he’ll have nothing left.”
He pressed Pierce’s cold hands to his scarred forehead. There was bandaging where the bullet was and seeing him lying there, Khan could pretend he was only sleeping.
“Your advisors are going apeshit, mate.”
Khan made no effort to turn to the voice, fixing his gaze on Pierce. He closed his eyes. “Please let me dream a little longer.”
Vynn made a noise halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “Word on the street was that you were bloody insane. I didn’t realise that meant necrophilia.”
Khan squeezed his eyes tighter, hoping that if he could ignore Vynn, he’d go away.
“Honestly I thought the creepy clown mask and random laughing was like, a gimmick. Like Quill with the coin. Turns out you’re actually just messed up in the head.”
Vynn waited for a reply and when it was clear he wasn’t getting one, said, “I can get you a fresher corpse to shag.”
“Leave!” Khan screamed, his voice filling the room in an instant. The sound was hardly human. “You have your damn money, so either go out there and kill the Fox or go back to Brontes, whichever gets you out of here faster!”
That seemed to make Vynn straighten himself. “That’s the thing. I haven’t gotten my paycheck this week.”
“Talk to the treasurer. She’ll get you the cash.”’
“I have. That’s why I’m here. You’re running dry, Khan. You’re making the King’s bleed sure, but he’s making you bleed faster. Plus, hiring me and Poseidon?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“It’s my business when I can’t afford rent.”
Khan was silent at that, still keeping his back to him and still desperate for a few more quiet hours in his fantasy.
Vynn’s eyes moved from the warlord to his guard. “He’s going to start smelling soon.”
“I don’t care.”
“Another week and he’ll be a sack of water and bones.”
“I don’t care!”
“Khan.” He spoke it with a sudden softness. “You can’t keep him there forever. Give him a funeral. You still have a whole life ahead of you.”
“I can’t,” said Khan, throat tightening. “I can’t let him go.”
“Veragreen needs you. You can’t lead them like this.”
“I could care less.”
“Then do it to find peace.”
“I don’t need peace.”
“I didn’t mean you.” Vynn moved closer. “What do you think he’ll say if he saw you like this? How is he going to find peace if you’re desecrating his corpse? Let him rest, Khan. It’s right for the dead to rest. That’s the first step. Only afterwards, can you start trying to be okay again.”
His words struck Khan like a cold knife, and something within him broke further. If his tear ducts weren’t charred and singed, perhaps he would have cried then, leaving Pierce’s chest slippery under the droplets. “How am I supposed to ever feel okay after this?”
“If we knew the answer, the world would be a much kinder place, wouldn’t it?”
“Then how do you make yourself feel okay?”
Vynn shrugged. “I’ve never needed to. I’ve never lost anyone or anything important to me.”
“Suppose you did. What would you do then?”
Vynn tipped his head back and thought about it. Khan heard him pick up Quill’s chip on the desk and spin it idly against the fine wood. After a bit of deliberation, he clicked open the door, the chip still spinning.
“Hookers and cocaine,” he said, leaving.
Once the doors closed, Khan slumped next to Pierce and tried his best to rest. The corpse was frigid to the touch, an uncomfortable sensation that kept him awake. Laying there in an imitation of sleep, he thought about staying here for eternity, letting the years come and go until the building around them crumbled to the soil and their bodies shrunk to bones.
It’d be nice, he thought. Letting the moss and weeds grow over them, their skulls as flower beds and rotting flesh for fertiliser. Like that, Khan descended into a fitful and fragile slumber, limbs twitching and jerking in a soon-to-be forgotten nightmare.
Later that night, after a few short hours of hard-earned sleep, he gathered what remained of his men. Most of them had left Veragreen, some fearing the King’s wrath and others lusting for his bribes. Only the most loyal remained, not including Vynn and Poseidon.
“Take Pierce’s body,” Khan ordered. “Build him a pyre outside and carry him to it.”
For most, Mist Town didn’t seem the sort of place to hold a funeral. As was its namesake, the territory was constantly doused in a thin haze, making it difficult to ever glimpse beyond several paces in front of one’s self. Even the sun’s rays could rarely penetrate through, leaving everything in perpetual dusk. Yet, Mist Town was the heart of Veragreen’s turf, and their chemical plant, the key to the Madrid trade and also their hideout, was the heart of Mist Town. For Veragreen and especially Pierce, this was home.
Khan watched as his soldiers placed him on the pyre and covered him with a tarp. They looked to their warlord as if waiting for him to say something. He considered giving a speech, but ultimately said nothing. It wasn’t how Pierce remembered him.
Khan approached and removed a canister from the end of his Cerafex pipe. He cracked it on the branches, letting the flammable liquid inside spill over the body and wood.
That’s the first step, Vynn’s words echoed. Only afterwards, can you start trying to be okay again.
Khan lit a cigarette and thrust it between the logs. The liquid took the spark immediately and flames shot up the wood like rats, leaping from branch to branch. Finally, they reached Pierce, cladding him in wisps of orange and tendrils of smoke. The flame rose brighter and brighter, and for a moment, all of Mist Town shone clear.
“I will never be okay again,” Khan told himself over the crackling logs. He could smell the odour of burning flesh and all he could think of was it being Quill’s. “After I put a knife through the King’s heart, I will be dead too.”
There was no point collecting the ashes. The wind carried them in its stride, scattering them throughout the city. Eventually, they would merge with the asphalt and pavement, the dirt and the mud, the blood and the heartbeats. Eventually, Pierce would become the city itself.
Once the fire died out and the mist returned, Khan led his men back to the chemical plant and into the armoury, guns and ammo lining the walls.
“Take whatever you want,” he declared. “I want to see all the walls empty. I want to see each of you armed to the teeth.”
Khan breathed deeply, letting that fury return to him. It was the last thing he could hold onto, so visceral to him he could feel its weight in his fingers “Tonight, we attack Corsac Casino! We will rip the King from his throne!”
His soldiers cheered, plucking weapons freely. The night came alive with the locking and loading of automatic rifles and the hubbub of men readying for war, half excitement and half nervousness.
Vynn clicked a second rapier to his belt, its Ceraflex blade a distinct blue. “How do you feel?”
“Tired,” said Khan, clipping on a bulletproof vest. “You’re staying?”
“Your credit lasts for just a couple days longer. I’m just doing some generous customer service.”
Khan gave a small chuckle; it was a familiar motion. A comfortable one. “We still have some leftover Madrid. Why don’t you take some as a tip?”
“Bloody hell, yes! Now we’re talking!”
“I never took you as a junkie.”
The Warlord offered him a cigarette. “You don’t look like one.”
“And what does a junkie look like?” said Vynn, taking a stick.
“Pale skin, I guess. Bloodshot eyes, yellow teeth.”
Vynn showed off his spotless white teeth as he stuck the cigarette between them. “Can’t get the ladies without some pearly whites now can I?”
Khan glanced over at the armoury. Some of his men were distributing grenades. “I envy someone who knows exactly what makes them happy. To know why you should get out of bed every morning.
“Vengeance, from your look of things.”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“Is masochism the new trend?” asked Vynn. “Everyone’s got a hard-on for torturing themselves. Life is bad enough as is without making up excuses to suffer. What's wrong with some self-indulgence?”
Vynn leaned in as Khan raised a lighter for him.
“You know this stuff will kill you right?” said Vynn.
“I’m counting on it.” Khan’s eyes moved to Poseidon in the corner of the room, cleaning his trident alone with a rag. “Was he always like this?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Weren’t you two in the SAS together?”
“I was just a piece of shit in reconnaissance. Even in recon, I was only there for a year or two.”
“But you knew of him.”
“Course I knew of him,” Vynn snorted. “He didn’t just wake up one day and decide to name himself Poseidon. It’s what we called him after what happened in Somalia. He’s probably the most well-regarded combat diver in the army’s history. Fifty-seven operations across eight years with fifty-six of them successful, half of those he pulled off almost single-handedly. Almost makes you wonder why he quit to come work here as a hired gun.”
“Same reason everyone comes here.” Khan turned. Two soldiers were walking down the hallway, dragging someone behind them.
Vynn smiled. “City of dreams, huh?”
The soldiers stopped in front of them and threw a man to the ground. He had a hood over his head to hide his face, but that had long since become his signature style.
“A bit barbaric if I do say so myself.” He got to his knees. “I was coming along quietly.”
“Vein,” Khan greeted.
“Salutations. It’s been a while.”
“We found him rummaging around in the back,” said one of the soldiers. “We don’t think he tampered with anything though.”
“Did he carry any weapons?”
“He had a cell phone, but nothing else.” The soldier cocked his head. “Actually, he did have a lot of loose tea leaves in his pockets though.”
Vein’s cheeks coloured. “Rather embarrassing of me, I must admit.”
“Did Quill send you here to spy?” asked Khan. “No, you’re about the slowest member of Vulpes.”
“Incredibly hurtful, but alas, incredibly true.”
Khan knelt until he was at eye-level with his prisoner. “I can resort to torture if I have to.”
“No no, it doesn’t have to come to that.” Vein shook his head. “I’m here as a message-bearer of sorts. Not a spy. I come as a xìanzhì.”
“Oh pardon me, I’m mixing up my words again. Ablenkung? Fûngs̀ān? No, not those either.”
While Vein mumbled, Khan took his phone that one of the soldiers had confiscated. It was a flip phone, plain and undecorated. An old model, yet Vein had kept it in pristine conditions. It was a cheap phone as well, lacking most functions beyond receiving and sending calls. Too cheap. Disposable.
“Everybody get down!” Khan dived to the floor, hands over his head. Vynn copied.
“Ah yes.” Vein clicked his fingers. “I’m a distraction.”
Khan felt the quake before he heard the roar. A heartbeat later, the dim room flashed black, then orange-yellow. There was an itch on his arms and when he opened his eyes, he found that the tongues of fire had lashed them. He was so used to the sensation of burning, he barely felt it.
Most of the armoury was gone, eaten up by a great ball of flame. Red shapes toppled towards him and it took him a second to realise they were his own soldiers, veiled by fire. Their hands reached out to him, whether in despair or hope, he would never know.
A lazy crimson finger streaked across the walls, sparking the Veragreen flags that hung there. Unlike his men, the fabric burned quickly.
“Khan!” Vynn whacked him with his jacket to douse the flames. “C’mon, they’re here!”
Near the other end of the room, there was a section of the wall that had fallen, allowing the nighttime breeze to seep in. From there, several silhouettes approached, black against the dancing flames.
He recognised the first silhouette; the bumps in its beanie morphed into a crown through the flames. The king raised his suitcase high, clicking a button on its handle to open it. With his other hand, he drew out a sword broken halfway down its blade, leaving a jagged, chipped point. The flames parted slightly and in those brief glimpses, Khan could see that the blade was ivory white, with the rough texture of sharkskin. It wore every chip and crack proudly, a mosaic to the thousand battles it had fought.
Khan could recognise that sword from anywhere. He knew it from just the shrill sound it made as it moved through the air or by the strange way it pulsated. Hell, a few of those cracks were from him.
Readying his own Cerafex, Khan loaded it with a new canister. He tested it with a quick breath and flashes of fire flew from his lips.
With that, he charged. Vynn unsheathed both rapiers and joined him.