“Where do you think it all went wrong?” There was genuine curiosity in Quill’s voice. His jaw was unclenched, his muscles loose. Even his eyes appeared to feign boredom. “Was it Astri? Or was it Amber? Erik? Pierce?”
Each name came to him in bittersweet waves. They left him cold and shivering, despite the flame’s scorching kisses. Khan studied Quill in that red haze, a gentle evening wind sweeping through a stray lock of hair that stuck out underneath his beanie.
“Or perhaps it was always meant to be,” said Quill. “Maybe whatever happened, no matter who died and who lived, we would still be standing right here in the end.”
“Like destiny,” Khan answered.
“If it’s karma, no matter how tonight ends, we’ll be seeing each other again soon.”
Quill chuckled. “At least everyone else will be there too.”
For a moment, Khan indulged in that fantasy. Everyone, united once again, old woes just trivial accidents. That would be nice. A chance to start over.
“Can I have a smoke?” asked Quill.
Khan crossed the battlefield to offer him the pack. They each took one to their lips and lit them against the scattered embers, watching the cigarette smoke float up; drops of water in an ocean of gathering smog.
“Do you believe in destiny?” Khan drew another puff.
“What, that there’s a god?”
“Growing up, my family was never really religious.” Quill tapped some ash into the flames. Neither of them looked at each other as they smoked. “Personally? Never thought about it much. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Does it really matter?”
“If there isn’t a god, then was there ever any meaning to it all? Was there no reason for us coming into this world? No meaning to Erik’s suffering? To Pierce’s?”
“I think that’s fitting. In the end, after everything that happened, we were all just bits of dust floating in space.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Khan listened to the grunts and clash of steel on the other side of the room. Poseidon and Vynn were in the midst of war while the two Crowns conversed over cigarettes. “Maybe it is fitting.”
“It’s freeing in a way,” said Quill. “Knowing how petty and insignificant everything is.”
“I can’t forgive you.” The words broke free from Khan’s tongue, spilling over themselves. “Even now, I want to tear you apart limb for limb.”
As the world burned around them, the King and the Jester stood in reminiscence, and the ghosts that haunted them kept their silence.
“You know.” Quill dropped his cigarette to the floor. He lifted Salt Shaker. “I promised Astri I wouldn’t kill you.”
“Are you going to keep that promise?”
“Depends. Are you a betting man?”
“There’s no bet. No gamble, no wager.” Khan hurled his mask into the fire. Once, he had worn it to hide his disfigured face from the world. Now, brandishing his Cerafex, he knew there was no world to return to anymore. “You won’t live to see tomorrow. That much is absolute.”
Khan swung his pipe. Salt Shaker leapt up to meet it and metal rang on metal. Once his first slash was blocked, Khan made another, but this time Quill stepped aside, and his blow met the ground, bits of concrete flying out.
Khan’s pipe jabbed again. Quill took it between his sword’s crossguard, shoving it aside, and charged at him, his Cerafex flashing. The Warlord spun out of the way. His pipe thrust out. Quill sliced at it, Khan pulled back, then speared again.
Hard and quick the cuts came, from high and low, left and right, and each one the King either blocked or dodged. It took Khan a moment to remember that Salt Shaker had a broken blade. Quill wielded it with such finesse, it was easy to mistake it for a dagger rather than a snapped sword.
Khan sucked in from the mouthpiece. Quill scurried back, angling his sword close, readying to meet the flames. Only they didn’t come.
The Warlord dashed close and aimed for the shin. Quill’s blade, prepared to block a phantom strike, was too far away to block the real one. Khan’s pipe swept his leg, sending him scrambling for firm footing. In his brief stumble, the pipe’s rebounding swing struck him again across the head.
Khan jumped back and this time actually drew breath from the pipe, exhaling hellfire. It was a torrent of orange, bright as the sun. Quill, feet firm again, slashed downwards, the blade’s trailing wind cleaving the flames in two. Long blazing streamers curved away and faded, leaving red and yellow stains in his vision.
Another plume of fire and Quill did the same thing. This time, the flames parted like curtains, revealing Khan. His pipe shot out, catching Quill in the chest.
Inch by inch and step by step, Quill was pushed back. Even without being broken, Salt Shaker was already shorter than the pipe, giving Khan a more-than-substantial advantage on reach. Even if Quill did manage to get close, Khan could just spew fire to drag out their distance.
Quill ducked and the pipe crossed over him. In one clean motion, he shifted from the duck into a backflip, leaving through the armoury entrance. The connected room was a hall, a behemoth of steel and steam. Massive boilers and sealed vats towered over the two Crowns, connected to an intricate series of tubes and ducts that spanned from one end to the other. While the boilers and vats were stainless steel, the tubes were smothered in rust, periodically hissing with leaking fumes.
Khan sent the pipe-heel at Quill’s eyes so fast that he flinched back. He forked its shaft again between Salt Shaker’s crossguard and redirected the polearm’s momentum. The pipe flicked up, stabbing into a vat behind him.
Quill snatched the Cerafex’s neck, hooking it in place as he thrust his sword. Khan craned his neck as much as he could, but the blade’s edge marked his cheek in a shallow line.
Before Quill could try again, the Warlord heaved his weapon back. It had left a sizable hole in the vat and a silky-blue chemical slushed out, wetting the floor.
The King returned to a standard sword stance, both hands around the hilt. The top half of Salt Shaker’s blade was soaked in red, its grainy material turning like pulp.
How is there so much blood? Khan ran a finger down his cheek wound. It was a tiny slit, barely skin-deep, and yet the sword looked as if it had cut through a major artery.
Quill had a vulpine smile. The chemical was beginning to pool at his feet. He kicked at the puddle and a splatter of liquid went flying.
Shit. Khan edged back, squinting. Without functioning tear ducts, it’d be too hard to get the chemical out of his eye if it got in. He raised a palm, blocking most of his vision. His opponent took the opportunity, closing in and swinging. Cerafex screamed against Cerafex as the sword went sliding off the pipe, cutting through Khan’s bulletproof vest like paper.
The Warlord lashed wide and the King retreated. He felt his chest. Another shallow wound despite Salt Shaker, originally white, now coloured completely crimson.
The explanation became clear when he felt a sudden bout of light-headedness.
“So that’s why it’s so infamous,” said Khan. “It pulls the blood out. Just a few small cuts will cause major blood loss.”
“Bravo! Only a few people caught on that quickly, even after seeing it so many times.”
“If this is what Salt Shaker is now, I can’t imagine what it was like before Jet broke it.”
Khan slid out a spare canister from his belt and cracked it over the length of his pipe. An oil-like substance washed over the metal. He blew an ember’s kiss and the Cerafex took fire. Angling it close, the fire cast his face in a wine-red, painting the faint mirage of his mask back upon him.
Almost the entire pipe was aflame, from the heel to just above the mouthpiece, but Khan couldn’t feel the heat even as his bare fingers clenched around the burning shaft.
“Looks like I’m not the only one with a trick up their sleeve,” said Quill. The King blocked a cleave at his head, grimacing as the flame’s tongues beat against his face. He grunted and reeled away.
Khan gave him no respite. Hot on the Fox’s tail he followed, his weapon never still. Their Cerafex clashed and recoiled and clashed again, sparks flying from the pipe’s swirling flames.
The King tried to move right, only for Khan to block him with a swift sidestep, driving him back the other way.
“My whole life...” Khan twisted away from Quill’s counter slash. “...has been nothing but loss.”
He could see the white of Quill’s eyes. The King was being driven back, pushed into the narrow cleft between two boilers.
“No matter how far I run, no matter how much I hide.”
In one feral flurry, the Warlord sent Quill crashing, his back pressed against a wall.
“The universe always finds me!”
Khan’s sleeves were brushed by the flaming pipe and embers began to spread up the length of his arm, setting them ablaze. He beat down upon Quill’s upraised crossguard and hacked away once with a savage zeal. Flakes of Salt Shaker’s reddened metal fell like snow.
“Does it feel good to torture me?!”
“To make me suffer?”
“To strip me of my right to be happy?!”
The King gave a grating roar and raised his sword in both hands, a final moment of pride. He brought Salt Shaker down with all his strength.
The Warlord lifted his weapon to block. Sword grated on pipe–
“To make the monster cry?!”
–And Khan’s burning Cerafex snapped in two. Salt Shaker ploughed into flesh where neck meets shoulder. No blood erupted.
Khan’s heart shook, his limbs instantly knowing his next motion. They craved it, lusting and begging. His feet pivoted until his back blocked Quill’s vision, his fingers clamped tight around the sharpened fragment of the pipe; a serrated and red-hot piece of metal. He plunged it through his own torso.
It dug through muscle and organ, breaking air at his back, only to hit flesh again. Khan pushed it further. Tearing flesh had the same wet sound as squashing fruit. Quill tensed and a scream escaped him.
Once Khan could drive it in no deeper, he ripped it out in a clean stroke and their blood spilled across the floor in unison. The King dropped, shaking, breathing in explosive pants.
Khan pressed on one of the boilers for support. When his mouth opened, no words came out, only crimson that dripped down his chin and pooled upon the ground. He emptied himself, then spoke again. “Don’t be such a pussy, Quill. You won’t die from a wound like that.”
“Even if you could…” He inched towards the King, the fragment of his pipe still in hand “...I wouldn’t let you.”
His body was so heavy, it became a burden to lift his arms. “I want to savour it...I want it to be slow...so don’t you dare die on me.”
“Step away from him.” The words were sharp and cold, easily parting the humid air of the hall.
So you’ve come. Khan turned.
The Black Lion stood behind him, a gun in his hand. The armoury’s fire had begun to spread here, the flames casting him in a golden light. His eyes were sunken holes, gashed into his mask, and he stood taller than Khan had ever seen him. However, his hair was ruffled and damp with sweat, and his clothes shredded.
“Drop the gun, kid,” said Khan. “You’re not impressing anyone.”
“You think you can dodge a bullet in the state you’re in?”
“You’ve never killed anyone before.”
“You can be my first.”
“Everyone gets their hand on a gun and all of a sudden they think they’re Charles god-damn Whitman.” Khan put a hand over his stomach wound. “You’re no killer, so put that damn thing away before you hurt yourself.”
The Black Lion sneered. “Every killer starts somewhere.”
“Yeah, and sure as hell isn’t here. Sometimes you can just tell. I could feel it from Quill, I could feel it from Arc, I can’t feel shit from you.”
The mask withheld any expression, but the Lion’s fingers were straining themselves white.
“Now, where’s Poseidon?” Khan continued. “Did you run away from him?”
“MP took my place.”
“MP? But he was fighting– “
Vynn strode past and stopped beside the Black Lion. His hair was still slicked back and finely groomed.
So that’s how it is. The pieces fell into place in Khan’s mind like a finished mosaic. That familiar sense washed over him, though it hurt less than he’d thought. It might’ve been the blood loss or his self-inflicted wound. Maybe he just didn’t care as much as he had thought.
Defeat. In hindsight, it was such a small word.
“I’m sorry.” Vynn sounded genuine. As genuine as a man like him could be, anyway. “It was always meant to be.”
“Maybe I should’ve paid you more.”
“Maybe. It was a hard price to match.”
“Vynn, make sure Quill’s okay,” the Black Lion ordered. “And Khan: you know what I want.”
Khan stood idly, watching Vynn pick up the King’s barely unconscious body and carry him away. There was a puddle of red where he had laid; some of it must’ve been Khan’s too.
“What happened to Nabi?” His gun-hand was firm. “There’s more to your story. I know it.”
Nabi. Nabi. Nabi. It was like a metronome.
Khan was silent; time did not seem to move, only the spreading fire. When he did speak, the words tore themselves from his lips. “What did Pierce say?”
His face was like stone. “What?”
“What did Pierce say? When you kept him hostage. You must have talked to him.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Please.” He was surprised at how easily the emotion spilled from his throat. The deep desperation. Khan almost held it back, but the ache for him was stronger than any resentment or anger.
The Black Lion did not answer for a long while. At first, it was strange. He was always this enigma; the echo of Nabi’s existence, like a ghost returning to haunt those who took him. Now though, his voice was softer. Almost human.
“He said he wanted to be a fashion designer. He had magazine pages taped around his cell and he’d just sit there, admiring the dresses on them. Talked a lot about how much he loved them. How much he wanted to design one.”
Khan nodded. The memory came to him naturally, almost as if they were his. He could see Pierce lying there, sketching away with a charcoal pencil, wood all around him. Dim light from burnt bulbs, filtering through those empty spaces between the bars.
The lines of his jaw strong and his skin like silk. Concentration gathered in those blue eyes that saw only what was in front of them.
“Pierce talked about how you saved him. How he wanted to be like you.”
Khan could almost hear his voice in the crackling fire, that gentle warmth against his ear. His form was blazing yellow and his hair the wisps of smoke. Those brief glimpses of life, tiny passing moments, came and came, overflowing with nostalgia. They came and came until he had nothing left.
Nothing but memories.
“I didn’t kill Nabi.”
The Black Lion perked up.
“Men in black suits came. Met me in person and made a deal. They gave me Nabi’s arm and told me to make as much noise as possible. Really kick up the dust.
His gun shook but he managed to keep it from his voice. “Did they give you a name?”
“Eidolon Limited. That was the account that transferred the money to me.”
The Black Lion stared at him and without another word, he turned to leave.
“I knew you didn’t have it in you,” Khan called out.
“There’s no point. You’re just a pawn in a bigger game.”
“Excuses, kid. I’ve heard them before.”
The Lion stopped. “Just because I’ve spared you doesn’t mean Vulpes will. Quill will come for you. You have nothing left.”
“I wouldn’t say nothing,” Vynn cut in. “Zek wanted to extend an offer.”
The Lion gazed at him. “Stay out of this, we had a deal.”
“And I’m changing the deal. Vulpes is winning this war because of me: something I can take back whenever I want.” He looked at Khan. “Join Brontes. Veragreen is gone, and I know we can never replace it, but this can be the beginning of something new. A chance for things to get better, if only you’d let them.”
Khan could almost see it. For once though, he didn’t let it get beyond fantasy. “It might not be a popular thought, but not everyone wants to live. Lion, I hope you find Nabi. I really do. Take back from the world what it took from you.”
Khan felt a hysterical laughter burst from him as he raised his broken pipe. Even as his cheeks stung with spectral tears. There was everything. There was confusion, there was anger, there was grief, there was sorrow.
He impaled the pipe through his neck.
And there was relief.