Walking into the tavern, Azalea was greeted by the familiar sound of a high-pitched cackle. She looked over to see the green-haired girl seated at her usual corner, giggling over several vials of questionable substance. Shaking her head, she walked towards the counter, placing her contract card onto the countertop.
Greenbird turned toward her, acknowledging her with a nod. He placed a pouch of 'tallics on top of the card, then slid a different contract card onto the counter alongside it.
"I have something else for you. One of the gangs is causing some trouble. They keep triggering the tavern's defenses, and I'm getting fuckin' tired of getting their blood off the walls. I'll give you ten silvers for their leader's head." With a sigh, Greenbird waved her off, already dismissing her to attend to the busy tavern.
Weaving through the crowded tables, she slipped past the guards at the door, keeping a close eye on a nearby group of mercenaries. Once she was clear, Azalea ducked into an alleyway, withdrawing the contract card from her pocket. Flipping it over, she found a single mechanical arm sketched onto the front, a skull nestled just above its elbow.
Arms Dealers. It made sense. She'd had run-ins with a couple of its members on the streets, they were exactly the kind to throw themselves at the tavern. Fucking cults.
At the very least, members of the Arms Dealers weren't hard to identify. Surveying the area around the Tavern provided a number of possible targets, and the visible difference in the quality and complexity of their fake arms made it easy to identify their role within the gang.
Choosing a man with a plain, immobile copper arm, she slipped a sleeping draught into his whiskey and waited until he was snoring in his makeshift bed. All things considered, it was a little too easy to kidnap him and tie him to a rooftop.
The man glared up at her from underneath his mop of greasy, curly brown hair. He spat at her, laughing wildly while the remaining drool dripped down his chin. Even with several fingers missing, he refused to speak. A few minutes later, when she'd finished disposing of his corpse in the water, she inspected the slowly sinking corpse with a frown.
Azalea was going to have to go about this the hard way.
Over the years, Azalea had 'befriended' a number of contacts across the Pits, ranging from merchants and squeakers to mercenaries and alchemists. Having such a wide variety of contacts meant that she could gather a variety of information. A merchant, a mercenary and a drunkard could all give her completely different intel on a target.
However, when she visited a few of her contacts, not one of them had any information to give. While they'd heard of the Arms Dealers, or seen them around, nobody could actually provide anything beyond that.
Azalea made her way to one of her most reliable contacts, who lived in a small shack on the outskirts of the Maw. As an information trader, he was usually more reliable than anyone else she called on for intel, and was also willing to accept jobs from her when the target was a little more difficult to find. It was just a pity it had taken as long as it did to meet him - she could have used his experience when she was first starting out as a merc.
Knocking on the front door of his shack, Azalea waited, listening as sounds within abruptly turned into silence. When it came to security, he was almost as careful as she was. Usually, it took him a minute or two to check that it was her, and that she'd come alone. Perfectly on time, she heard the clunk of deadbolts sliding back against the doorframe.
The door opened just enough for him to peer around the corner, one hazel eye peeking out at her.
"Azalea! Didn't expect you for another couple months yet." Opening the door proper, Barton waved her in, brushing back his greying hair with a grin. "Not that I'm not happy t' see ya, 'course."
As she entered, she glanced around the room, noting the new shelves.
"Yeah, yeah, needed some more space, y'know? Gotta keep notes." For some reason, the man insisted on 'keeping notes', though they only ever seemed to consist of rough sketches of people's faces. At best, they were barely recognisable. At worst, they looked like he'd coughed river water onto the paper and set fire to it. "Y' want some whiskey? 'S Blackjack's."
Of course it was. He never bought anything else. In answer, Azalea retracted a detached metal thumb from her pocket, handing it to him along with the contract card.
"Ah. This is from one o' those Arms Dealers. Crazy sods." Barton paused, looking back and forth between the card, the thumb, and Azalea. "Ohhhhh, no. No, absolutely not." Azalea raised an eyebrow. "No, I mean it. Last time you got me involved with a fuckin' cult, I lost me ear and two fingers. They tried to boil me. Boil me, y' hear? I want nothing to do with those cultists."
Silently, she placed a pouch of 'tallics on the table.
"No. I'm not doing it. Have you seen half the weird shit that's been happening around here lately? I don't need this shit."
With an exaggerated blink, Azalea added a bottle of Blackjack's.
"No! I'm not fuckin' with cults, never again!"
"'S not a cult."
"They chop off their own fuckin' arms, only cultists are that dumb."
Azalea took a seat, staring at him pointedly.
"You're really fuckin' bustin' my balls here. I want to retire, y' know. Wanna go up to Metrix, find me a nice robot and settle down. Can't do that if I'm missin' my damn head." When she continued to stare at him, he gave a long, exaggerated groan, flapping a hand at her. "Alright! Alright. Fuck, 'zalea, what is it with you and them cultists."
Barton reached for the bottle of Blackjack's, popping the cork and taking a long swig. With a sigh, he slammed the bottle back onto the table.
"Right. Whatd'ya need? Full shebang? You goin' for the arms o' the operation? The head? Blackmail? Maybe some connections?"
Azalea lifted her hand, slowly dragging her thumb in a line across her throat.
"You're goin' straight for the head, huh? Alright. Let me see what I can do." Shaking his head, he took another swig of the whiskey, sighing heavily. "Fuckin' cults."
She started by employing some squeakers, sending them to tail groups of Arms Dealers and report back. That done, Azalea began with the second step of her investigation. Alongside their own prosthetic arms, the Arms Dealers had earned a reputation for replacing the limbs of those that crossed them. Rival gang members, traitors, double-agents, and anyone who failed to pay their dues on time often disappeared, resurfacing several days later with tiny, doll-like arms.
Azalea found that many of them refused to talk to her, fearing further retribution if they crossed the gang a second time. However, two of them were willing to talk. One could confirm that the Arms Dealers had multiple warehouses and secret hideouts around the Pits, but had never visited any of them. The other was a previous member of the gang, but had never heard of a secret base, or the name of the gang's leader.
Facing that dead end, she resigned herself to commencing step three. With every member of the Arms Dealers possessing a prosthetic arm, she was willing to bet the gang needed a lot of biomancy supplies - something that few others in the Pits had need for. It was all too easy to get the information she needed out of the merchants, tracking the shipments across the Pits.
Kneeling on the edge of the rooftop, Azalea looked down on the warehouse below. It was heavily guarded by Arms Dealers, each man carrying at least two weapons. Working around to the closest point of the building, she propelled herself forward, landing lightly on the roof of the warehouse.
This close to the guards, Azalea ducked down, keeping a careful eye on the proceedings below. Through the glass, she could see shelves lining the warehouse from wall to wall, all filled with steamtech weaponry. Taking note of the layout, she crept her way down to the edge of the roof, gazing at the guards below.
"Yeah, gotta be there 'fore dawn. The Harvester wants us ready with th' goods."
"Better start now, then."
The Harvester. Azalea frowned, watching the two guards as they turned and walked inside. Better follow them.
She watched silently from above as they worked to pack the crates full of supplies. One by one, they took them down to the waterfront, shoving them into a boat sitting nearby. Yet when the time came for them to travel, instead of coasting along the perimeter of the Maw, they travelled straight to the edge of the cavern.
They're going to the tunnels. Cursing under her breath, Azalea sank back against the metal, hands clenched into tight fists. There's no way I can follow them, there aren't any other boats near here.
I've just wasted three and a half weeks on finding out the leaders' fuckin' name. Shoving her bow back into its position on her back, she stalked to the edge of the roof, throwing herself in the direction of Barton's hut. Hopefully, he'd have some kind of information for her by now.
Except, when she caught sight of the area where his little hut sat, she immediately came to a halt. The front door was missing, ripped off its hinges, heavy footprints dug into the soil in front of his house. One of the glass panes had been broken, and she could smell the faint scent of smoke in the air.
After carefully scouting the area, Azalea made her way toward the hut, sending an arrow flying through the broken windowpane. When all remained still, she slowly entered through the front door. The tiny living area had been completely trashed. Barton's bed, his chests and shelves had been upturned, their contents scattered about the room. Blood covered the walls in streaks and splashes, as if it had been deliberately thrown around.
In the centre of it all sat Barton, or what remained of him. His corpse was perched on a chair, his removed limbs lying nearby. In their place, the humerus bones had been sharpened to thin points, his eyeballs skewered onto the ends. His legs were replaced by sticks of dynamite, his detached head pinned to the wall behind him. They'd left his eye sockets empty, the trails of muscle left dangling down his face.
His skin hung off him in tatters, revealing the dark glisten of muscle underneath. In some places, the bones burst through, the points of his ribcage piercing through his abdomen. It looked like at some point, his stomach had ruptured - in addition to the sharp, acrid scent of bile in the air, she could see it coating what remained of his clothes.
Shit. Jaw clenched, Azalea stepped closer, ignoring the pungent smell to the air around the corpse. Emptying his pockets, she found three coppers, four lockpicks and a piece of flint, tucking them into one of her pouches. The rest of the clutter she left, looking around the room to check for anything else she could use.
Fuck, Barton was a rare find. I don't know how long it'll be before I find another information trader like that. Her hands curled into fists, eyes narrowed to dark slits. Useless.
Armed with no leads, no clues, her contracts in hiding or dead, and her only information to date the Harvester's name, her hand was forced. Azalea pulled the contract card from her pocket, clenching it in her fist. There's still one thing I can do.
Greenbird stood at the bar, his face set into a deep frown as he looked over the tavern. Most of the tables were empty, his mercenaries having long since made themselves scarce, along with most of the tavern's usual patrons.
The Blackjack's Tavern was one of the best established contract grounds in the Pits, and no other mercenary group could possibly hope to compete. As a result, Greenbird had lived through multiple attempted coups, maintaining control of the tavern through a well-established instinct for when things were about to take a turn for the worse... and an empty tavern always meant that trouble was brewing.
With a long-suffering sigh, Greenbird ushered over one of his staff, gesturing to the door.
"Hog, get Moray and Jackdaw from outside. Cobbs, you gather the mercs. As many as possible." While Hog nodded, running to the entrance, silence followed Greenbird's command. "Cobbs."
Greenbird turned just in time to see the man in question collapse to the floor, snoring loudly. He bent down, feeling the man's pulse with two fingers.
"Fuck." Listening carefully, he heard the sound of a body hitting the floor outside; a sure sign that Hog had succumbed to the sleeping draught as well. Gathering his skirts in one hand, Greenbird turned and crossed the room, one hand on the gun at his side.
Just as he reached the back door, it opened, revealing three men standing between Greenbird and his escape route. The tallest of the three stood with a careless swagger, lips stretched into a grin. Dressed in his pinstripe suit, his greasy hair slicked back, he could have almost been mistaken for a citizen of Metrix, if the facial scarring and burns marks on his one good arm hadn't given him away. With a nod, he gestured to the men standing either side of him, their guns pointed directly at Greenbird's head.
"Drop y' weapon, birdy."
Reluctantly, Greenbird dropped his gun, gaze fixed on the apparent leader of the group. Behind him, he could hear the rest of the group enter the tavern, their footsteps echoing in the now-empty room. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that all of them were also bearing prosthetic arms and steamtech weapons.
"Planning on doin' a runner, were ya?" The man laughed, shaking his head. "Nah, that ain't gonna fly. You're staying right here."
"I take it you're in charge of these half-wits," Greenbird drawled, chuckling darkly. "I don't remember inviting you into my tavern.
"My tavern," the man corrected, gesturing to the room around him as he stepped closer. "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm known 'round these parts as the Harvester. Head of the Arms Dealers, and now, owner of the Blackjack's Tavern."
"You? The Blackjack's Tavern?" Greenbird laughed. "No fuckin' way. You couldn't hold this place down for five damn minutes before it fell apart. You ain't takin' this place from me."
"And how're you planning to stop me? Your mercs are long gone, we got past your defenses, and we've blocked off your escape route. I know you don't have any tricks left up your sleeves." The Harvester paused, looking at Greenbird thoughtfully. "You know, I've made arms before, but I don't think I've ever made someone a wing. Been thinkin' 'bout it a lot, actually. What d'ya think? Wood, or copper?"
The Harvester's obnoxious laughter filled the tavern, shoulders shaking, face slowly beginning to turn red. Greenbird watched silently, eyes narrowed, lip curling into an expression of distaste. Yet as he watched, he noticed a brief, faint flash of light, the signature gleam of an arrowhead flashing in the shadows. Raising an eyebrow, he took a quick look around the room.
With a sigh, the Harvester wiped away a non-existent tear, flapping a hand in Greenbird's direction.
"Get him out of here. I want him strung from the rooftop."
Just as one of the men placed a hand on Greenbird's shoulder, he froze, making a strange wheezing sound. Greenbird glanced down to see an arrow embedded in the man's chest, piercing his lung. With a gasp, the man fell to his knees, one hand wrapped around the end of the arrow as blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth.
As the woman on the right went to step toward him, an arrow struck her, piercing the soft flesh just behind her temple. Blood oozed down the side of her face, rapidly staining her skin a dark shade of crimson. A moment later, another arrow pierced her throat, her eyelids twitching as she collapsed to the ground.
With a shout, the Arms Dealers leapt into action, backs to one another as they looked to the shadows, trying to find their attacker. The Harvester shouted orders, ducking behind the counter. Yet even as he tried to corral his men, another two fell, shot down before they could draw a breath to shout.
Greenbird slowly began to back away from the chaos, watching as the Arms Dealers began firing randomly, spattering the tavern walls with bullets. A lit arrow streaked through the room, a trail of orange light, striking one of the men and instantly lighting him on fire. His screaming filled the room, blocking out the sound of two more arrows finding their mark.
Azalea's face flashed in the lantern light as she kicked open the tavern door, pulling back her bowstring and loosing another three arrows in quick succession. The man closest to her gurgled as he dropped to the ground, blood trickling down the lines of the wooden floor. Another arrow struck through one man's eye, piercing through the socket, his one good eye rolling back into his head as he fell.
As the remaining Arms Dealer turned on his heel, aiming his steam rifle in her direction, Azalea had already loaded another arrow into her bow, taking aim. The arrowhead easily pierced his chest, a sharp whistle escaping the man as it perforated his lung. With a wheeze, he collapsed to his knees, clutching at the arrow as he tried to breathe. Closing the space between them, Azalea grabbed the man by the hair, pulling him up to his knees. A silver dagger flashed in the light as she slit his throat, dropping him unceremoniously.
Finally, the Harvester was the only one left, his gun held aloft as he ducked out from behind the counter. The instant he appeared, before he had time to react, the thwack of a bowstring sounded as an arrow pierced his skull. This one was slightly thicker than the others, the fletching longer and wider. As the Harvester stood there, frozen, his skull suddenly detonated, sending chunks of brain matter, blood and skull fragments flying across the room.
Greenbird slowly raised one hand to wipe the blood splatter from his face, his expression thunderous. There was a strip of skin dangling from his bodice, the Harvester's hair still attached to the piece of scalp. Pinching the hair between the tips of his fingers, he flung it one side, expression twisting into a look of disgust.
Azalea slowly crossed the remaining distance, the clack of her boots near-silent against the wooden tavern floors. Side-stepping a smoking corpse, she stared silently at Greenbird, her grey eyes sharp as she raised a single eyebrow questioningly.
"Using me as fuckin' bait? Really?" He scoffed, gesturing to the tavern around him. "My tavern is a fuckin' mess. My patrons've all been scared off, most o' me mercs are long gone. Do you have any-"
Azalea remained silent, extending a hand towards Greenbird, the contract card held between two fingers. The tavern owner shot her a death glare as he made toward the bar, cursing all the while.
"Tavern's neutral ground. They shouldn't have been here. Shouldn't have known about half the shit they knew." He looked over to meet Azalea's deadpan gaze, his expression dour. "How'd they get that information?"
She shrugged in response.
"There," he spat, tossing a pouch of 'tallics across the counter. "There's your coin. Now get these bodies the hell out of my tavern."
Story by Nicola Price.
Featuring illustrations by Daniel Jiménez.