It was widely believed that Vulpes would be the ones to slay Nabi. At least, before Khan managed the impossible. It was easy to see why. Of the current Crowns, they were the most feared; they held absolute dominion over the most profitable territories in Minerva and their current reign was said to be the longest in the underworld’s history. Above all, they had suffered the least casualties during Nabi’s rampage.
Vulpes, born of salt and conquest. Scions of betrayal. Every weapon a Cerafex, every man a king.
They also liked vinegar pies.
“I don’t know how he keeps doing it,” said MP, who was taller sitting down than Lev standing up. “But this is amazing.”
“Unequivocally bussin’,” Vein agreed. “A champion of the culinary arts.”
Arc had her mouth stuffed too full to speak. Not that she could either way. Every couple of forkfuls, she would glare at Lev, a streak of whipped cream on her cheek.
“Arc.” Vein washed down his pie with a sip of tea. His hood still covered his head, even while eating. “It’s rude to stare.”
He turned to Lev. “I apologise for her behaviour. I hope you’re not disturbed.”
“Not at all.” Lev kept his hands tight over the table.
“But you have yet to take a bite of the vinegar pie. I assure you, it is not poisoned.”
“I’m not worried about– “
“I’ve run out of my supply of ricin for this month,” explained Vein, eyes closed in the luxury of the pleasant tea scent. “So any poisoning could only occur starting next week.”
“Although, I believe pie to be the superior death over a knife to the throat. Would you not say so? The appeal of tasting blood in your mouth as you die is lost when compared to a flakey slice of sweet and sour.”
MP rested his fork on the plate, still half-chewing. He was a titan of a man, his tableware like children’s toys between his stocky fingers. Yet, the voice from his lips was gentle with a subtle drawl. “It ain’t polite to talk ‘bout poison at mealtimes.”
“Ah, you’re right.” Vein bowed. “My apologies, Black Lion. I see now how hypocritical it was of me to critique the gremlin’s manners when I so much lack them myself. I hope you find it within your heart to forgive me.”
Arc growled at him and the table jolted. Vein snapped his knee up, hunched in hurt. “Alright alright, I’m sorry. I should’ve said goblin.”
The table jolted again. This time Vein grabbed his other knee, sucking in air through clenched teeth.
MP sighed, massaging his forehead. “Stop it, you two. Arc, don’t be so violent all the time. And Vein, stop provokin’ her. I want to actually have more guests in the future.”
Vein apologised while Arc flashed a hand sign.
The Half-Giant gestured to Lev’s pastry. “You really should have a taste though. Vulpes is famous for its vinegar pie. Quill’s the second-best baker this side of Minerva.”
Second best? Lev was about to ask who number one was, but Arc’s twisting face said it all. He glanced down at the dessert, the night Astri offered him the cookies she had made slipping into his mind. Why did he refuse then? Was it just pride?
That might've been his last chance to taste her work. A biting realisation. His last chance and he barely considered it.
Lev picked up his fork. The pie certainly looked appetising, its puffy crust a fine shade of gold, patterned with a light snowing of powdered sugar and a more-than-generous helping of whipped cream. The pie easily gave way to the fork as it pressed down.
The first bite went down hard. As expected, it tasted strongly of vinegar, the overwhelming acidic taste spreading quickly over his tongue. There was a sweet aftertaste though, barely noticeable. It was enough to make him curious. The sickening sourness of his second bite burst with a sudden sweetness, coating the insides of his mouth like honey.
“How is it?” asked MP. “The first bite is always deceiving. It’s a bad flavour at the start but once you chew a bit more, the sweetness n’ sugar comes out. I know people rarely give it a second chance.”
Lev dusted off crumbs of crust from his lap. “It’s good.”
“Just wait until Astri gets better. Her vinegar pies are twice as delicious.”
Arc signed something and Vein’s cup made a harsh clink on its saucer.
“Don’t say something like that,” he said. “It’s unseemingly.”
“What did she say?” asked MP.
“That Astri won’t survive.”
Arc turned her head away before she could meet MP’s dejected gaze. His mouth opened and she flinched as if expecting stinging words. MP stiffened and tried again. “Sometimes we all need a little optimism. The world’s cruel enough as is. I know it sounds naive, but I have faith that she’ll be okay.”
Arc gestured, a flick, at Lev, his mask, his very presence. He didn’t need Vein to understand that.
She signed more and Vein translated, “He dragged us into his business. Astri was maimed cleaning up his mess. It should’ve been him.”
“We’re past this,” said MP.
“No, she’s right,” Lev admitted, pushing his plate forward. “The blame is mine.”
Arc stared bloodthirsty as he stood, pulling his chair back behind him.
“That’s part of why I’m here. To do my part in righting the wrong,” he continued. “But I’m tired of taking your shit. All you do is whine and moan. If you want to actually do something, anything, even beat me up, I’m right here.”
There was the shattering of plates and loud clang of silverware on wood. The pie splattered wide across the floor. Arc held one raised fist, sheathed white, the table quaking underneath her. She would’ve brought it down on him, had his knife not been at her throat first.
“You thought I wouldn’t hit back? Come on!” he challenged, pressing harder. “Who’s faster? Let’s find out!”
MP and Vein shouted, but their words were lost in a haze.
Lev was close enough to see Arc’s fogged breath fasten, her deep crimson eyes seemingly aflame. She bared her teeth, tapered like fangs, in a monstrous snarl. For a heartbeat, he caught a glimpse of the inside of her mouth. Most of her tongue was missing and what remained was a burnt lump; a facsimile of the organ.
The cold air around Arc suddenly blushed with a pleasant scent. The bulging veins of her neck relaxed and she slumped back to her seat.
“I leave for five minutes and everything goes to hell.” Quill carried a fresh pan of pie, smelling warm with sweetness.“What’s the deal this time?”
“Nobody got hurt,” said Lev, sitting down.
“Except the pie. You’re lucky I made a second tray.” Quill plopped the pan down and began to cut into it. “I didn’t want to make this a long meeting so let’s get started. Does everyone know each other?”
The King pointed to each member of the table in succession. “Arc, my enforcer. Vein, my specialist. MP, my Consigliere or advisor. I guess everyone knows the Black Lion already. Everyone else is either guarding Astri or defending castle, so this is all the manpower we can spare right now. Let’s move on.”
They watched him sit, one leg crossed smoothly over the other and arms cocked on each armrest. He lavished in the cheap chair as if it was a gilded throne, every seat regal under the King. “Khan’s at his weakest right now. He doesn’t have the soldiers nor the will to win this war. We take out the warlord and Veragreen crumbles.”
“I would’ve liked it if you came to me before you did what you did to Pierce,” said MP. “It was reckless.”
“I did what I thought was right at the time. And the gamble paid off; you’ve heard what Khan is like now. He spends most of his time shut off in his bedroom. Veragreen is falling apart.”
“But at what cost?”
“A faulty Dragunov and a single bullet.”
“I don’t mean this week or even next month. I meant in the long term.” MP leaned in. “The police are cracking down on the dens and now that Nabi’s gone, gangs are getting braver. What if Brontes rises again?”
Quill’s coin sunk in and out between his fingers. “I didn’t think you were this opposed to spilling blood.”
“I didn’t say don’t spill blood. Just the right ones.”
“MP, we can’t let what happened to Astri go. That isn’t politics anymore, it’s personal.”
Arc gave an approving nod.
The Half-Giant scratched at his dark unkempt beard. “I get it, but I still would’ve liked to talk about it. Anyhow, it is what it is. No point saying more on the matter.”
“Mist Town is not difficult to sneak into,” said Vein. “Especially with the lowered number of patrolling squads. The problem is…”
“Vynn and Poseidon,” the King finished. “Poseidon being by far the biggest threat. Not only is he ex-special forces, he was the cream of the crop.”
“And exactly what sort of combat expertise would we expect from a gentleman of that calibre?”
“The Black Lion’s the only one here who fought him.”
“By far the strongest person I’ve ever fought. I couldn’t even see him half the time.” Lev returned to those brief flashes of memory. The mercenary who wielded his colossal polearm with the same swiftness and elegance as a dagger, swinging it from one disciplined stance to another without pause, faster than Lev could blink. He had swatted away a tank full of propane gas as if it was a crumpled paper ball.
“How does he compare to Arc?” asked Quill. “Keeping your personal biases out, of course.”
Lev shook his head. “She’s not even close.”
Quill and MP shot each other concerned glances. Arc, on the other hand, flipped him off.
The King hid his coin within his closed fist. “How does Arc rank in Vulpes?”
“Fourth or fifth on a bad day,” said Vein. “Second or third on a good one.”
“We don’t need to kill Poseidon,” said MP. “The moment Khan’s out of the picture, he’d have no reason to fight. We only need to keep him occupied.”
“Given the Black Lion’s assessment, I’d imagine even that would be difficult.”
“Keeping Arc and Vein together is always a safe choice,” Quill proposed. “MP and I can match Khan and Vynn beat for beat.”
He met the Black Lion’s eyes. “Could you help with Poseidon? You’re the only one here with any sort of experience.”
“Does this interfere with our new deal?”
“Of course not.”
“Then I’m fine with that.”
Arc knocked on the table and everyone’s attention clung to her. She made a series of gestures.
“She says that he’s already lost to Poseidon once,” said Vein. “Having him there will just be a burden.”
“I’m not the same person as back then.” Lev’s voice was unfaltering.
Quill snapped his fingers. “Now, that’s a good attitude to have. But it’s not the only thing that’ll be different this time.”
The King reached behind his chair, pulling out a jet-black suitcase, streaked with patches of silver. It was old, but sturdy and well-built. There was a quizzical smile across his lips as he offered it to Lev. “I’ve made some adjustments for you.”
The sword's metal slipped under his fingers in a perfect fit. Was it custom-made? No, the Cerafex’s grip must have molded itself to Quill’s cast and over years, grew ridges and bumps to fit his hand. Or perhaps, it was the opposite way around: perhaps it was the King’s hands that grew to fit the Cerafex, the contours of his flesh bending to the metal since their adolescence. Either way, despite the broken blade, Quill held his sword with pride.
Vein had just returned, his jacket slightly singed but otherwise fine. “The plan went perfectly.”
“Good job.” Quill’s eyes went around the armoury, catching instantly on Khan. The Warlord met his stare and reloaded his Cerafex pipe, laughing as the flames grew around him. As his soldiers’ charred corpses continued to burn.
“Are we keeping to the plan?” asked Vein.
“Of course.” The King’s reply was firm. He turned back to his gang, his face orange in the light. “I’m not a big fan of speeches so I’m going to keep this short and sweet. When Astri wakes up, we’re all going to be there waiting for her. All of us. Not a single one missing. Do you understand?”
They all nodded. Lev, at the very back, made no motion.
“Good.” Quill lifted his shoulder to show the bandanna tied to it. Their gang colours. “We are purple and white. Vulpes. So don’t any of you shitheads dare die tonight.”
With that, the King and his advisor marched to war.
Arc opened Vein’s bag and helped him put his gear back on.
“Do not underestimate him.” Lev pulled both knives from their sheaths. “I repeat, do not underestimate him. Even with the plan we have, it could all go wrong in seconds.”
Vein strapped a bandolier over his chest. “I appreciate you feeling it necessary to repeat yourself, but I do understand warnings. When you spend years as a man amongst gods, you learn to always be cautious.”
Arc chucked him his grenade launcher and Vein loaded a mound into it. It was an archaic single-shot model, painted with a squid along the barrel. His jacket had a similar image stitched in the back.
“The goal is not to defeat the enemy,” he said. “Just to keep him occupied.”
Poseidon stood still in the half-burning armoury, remnants of Veragreen soldiers blackened around him. He lifted his trident high, stretching, before spinning it in a circle around himself. He continued twice over, like a strange ritual.
Finally, he breathed out and tensed his limbs into an offensive stance, polearm pointed outwards. “Arc of Vulpes. I request a duel.”
He examined her companions. “The Black Lion from last time and...Vein of Vulpes, was it? I didn’t think you were a fighter.”
“Officially, I am a chemist by trade,” said Vein. “Although I assist with whatever I can to help out.”
“Admirable. So, I guess it’s three on one?”
Arc held dual knives, both in a backhand grip. The ice around her hands bloomed outwards to encase the weapons, spreading over until they extended the blade’s length in a glass-like crescent. Lev stood next to her in a similar stance, and Vein behind the both of them.
“The plan,” Lev reminded.
“I know,” said Vein.
Poseidon arched back his trident. “Maybe this time it’ll be an even fight.”
And Arc was gone. At first, Lev looked forward, expecting her to have charged at the mercenary. Then, he glanced back. Arc struggled on the ground, the trident’s prongs barely caught between her knives. The floor around her was spread with a fresh web of cracks.
One moment Poseidon was across the room. The next, he was past them. He plucked his trident from Arc’s grasp and snapped its shaft back, smacking Vein from behind.
They haven’t even started the plan yet. Poseidon’s attention shifted to him. His polearm was military-grade Cerafex and the invincible mercenary made it sing. His first slash was low, taking all of Lev’s strength to parry it. His second knocked him on his ass. The third would’ve sunk into his heart had another pair of knives not intercepted it.
Somehow, Arc held off the man taller and heavier than her, matching him pound for pound in strength. Her face was strained with focus. Burden, it seemed to say.
Arc and Poseidon shoved at each other until Lev rolled away, and she heaved her weapons back, letting the trident stab into the concrete.
Lev stumbled away from the mercenary. “Do it now!”
Vein managed to stumble up on one knee and aim his launcher. The missile landed right below Poseidon with a burst of dense inky smoke, blanketing the entire room. Poseidon switched to a defensive pose, the shaft guarding his torso before everything was smothered in black.
Lev clicked a pair of night-vision goggles onto his mask and turned them on. Instantly, the darkness rolled away, revealing the world through a neon green haze. He saw Vein and Arc, both of them wearing the same goggles, as well as Poseidon still frozen in place, blind.
This time, Arc was the first to attack. She aimed for the head, but his shaft moved reflexively to protect it. She switched targets, leaving a deep gash on the mercenary’s shoulder. His trident jabbed after her, but in his sightless stupor, barely managed to cut her shirt.
Lev followed suit from a different direction, drawing another wound on Poseidon. Again, his rebounding swipe went wide and clumsy, only succeeding in cleaving off a strand of the Black Lion’s hair.
Like that, Lev and Arc took turns cutting away at the mercenary, each time changing the direction to keep him guessing. After a few attacks, Poseidon stood still, taking each strike as they came. Over the course of a minute, his flesh was painted in a hundred streaks of red, soaking his clothes wet and trident foamy.
It’s working, thought Lev. This was how they not only distract Poseidon, but beat him.
Arc leapt, knife raised. It had appeared like all the slashes before it, the blade puncturing the skin and muscle in a deep line, until the last motion. She slipped.
Arc crashed into the ground, skidding– the opportunity Poseidon was waiting for. In the darkness, he swept her knives out of reach. Then, his trident caught her thigh and three wounds blossomed when he dragged it out, her laboured breaths quickly turning to a scream.
Lev ran to help, only to hear audible splats. When he lifted his shoe, the sole was coaxed in red. He checked around the floor: puddles of blood all surrounding Poseidon. It would be impossible to get near him without making a sound. He wasn’t just taking their hits, he was planning his own counterattack.
Lev wouldn’t give him the opportunity. He crossed the puddles and charged. Immediately, Poseidon shifted his gaze, following those wet footsteps. He removed the trident resting on Arc’s chest and thrust it at his oncoming foe. Lev rooted himself and caught the prongs between his Cerafex fists, pushing with his legs to stop the momentum. The reforged metal crunched and the stab of pain made him grunt, yet Lev held on.
I can’t say she would’ve wanted you to have them, Quill had explained. But no one else in Vulpes is good with them. So for now at least, I think it’s an appropriate gift, isn’t it?
One gauntlet hummed with an old song as Lev drew it back, feeling the metal pulsate against his skin, churning his flesh within the metal. Poseidon’s eyes grew wide with recognition– it was too late. Lev released everything.
All the collected energy blasted off in a bolt of wind, the smoke emptying from the room. Poseidon’s grip went loose. His hair and clothes fluttered wildly and for a moment, he tumbled back before recollecting himself. He didn’t appear hurt, but that was never the goal. Lev held up the trident like a trophy.
Poseidon paid no mind and raised both fists. Weapon or not, he would fight, but he looked naked without his polearm.
Don’t let him rest. Lev pressed his knife blade between two fingers and threw it. Poseidon cocked his head casually and the projectile zipped past him. He raised an eyebrow at the Black Lion as if saying, really? That was it?
Lev clutched the trident with both hands. It’s not for you.
Behind Poseidon, Arc was in the air, one hand flashing. Her fingers grasped around his knife, imbuing it with her frost. In one clean motion from catching to wielding, she drove the blade towards the mercenary’s neck.
She wasn’t fast enough. The ice-point barely breathed against his skin before Poseidon pivoted around on his heel, catching Arc by her head. He thrust her into the ground. Concrete chips flew, and the ground split under the strength of his limbs. Through all that pain, she held tightly onto Lev’s knife even as Poseidon’s fingers tore at hers. It was only after smashing her head in that he managed to pry the weapon out. He used it to nail her palm. Another scream.
“Arc!” Vein raised his gun and fired. The round streaked ink as it flew. With just his arm, the mercenary knocked the grenade out of the air and it burst harmlessly from afar.
Poseidon dashed. Vein tried to back away; a useless motion, he already knew. The mercenary clutched Vein’s shoulders and pulled him into a raised knee. Air and spit spilled from his mouth.
Poseidon proceeded to dismantle him, flowing between punches and kicks like water. When he stopped, Vein dropped to his knees, then collapsed.
At last, Poseidon turned to Lev, his expression cold. He was the only one left.
“I’m going to need that trident back.”