The single word, spoken so calmly, so confidently, took Awnwyn by surprise. She blinked and leaned back. Raising a hand that she had to fight to keep from shaking, she brushed a lank tendril of dull gray hair out of her eyes. “What’d ya say?”
The green-eyed man on the other side of the table stared at her from behind a pair of brass and glass goggles. A fine dust coated the lenses. Awnwyn had to exert every bit of her willpower not to reach out and wipe the glass clean, to rub the collected powder across her gums right then and there.
“Said no,” he replied. “Don’t have any for ya. It’s all marked fer shipping—and ya know how the Dreamers feel ’bout any goin’ walk’bout.”
“But I need it,” she said, hearing the faint whine in her voice and hating herself for it. “I’m going on a job soon, you know that.”
“Yeah, but tha’s a sneak-and-peek—no need for ya t’be chasin’ the Pixie tonight.”
“Don’ know what I need,” she muttered, staring down at her clenched fist on the table. It would be so easy to reach out with that hand, grab this scrawny falook, and pound some sense into him till he gave it up. He had to have some somewhere. Just one hit.
That’s all she needed. Just one. Just to make everything come alive again, that’s all. Pixie made everything better somehow, more…real, if that made any sense. She couldn’t explain it, she just knew that’s what the mysterious powder did. Every time.
But even as the urge to punch her way to a hit rose inside her, Awnwyn tamped it down. Get caught beating the Grinder, and there’d be bang-all to pay with the Dreamers, the leaders of the Chasers. They didn’t like any sort of break in their schedule…and punished anyone who caused such a break most painfully indeed.
Right—only one thing t’do then. She pushed her stool back from the table and rose to her feet, looming over the smaller man. For a moment, she caught the fear that flashed across his features, even behind the goggles, though he hid it as best he could. For a moment, she reconsidered “persuading” him, but shook her head. If she couldn’t get what she wanted here, there were other ways, other places…and she knew them all. “I’m out.”
The Grinder relaxed a bit. “Y’know what t’do?”
She snorted, the question hair-close to insulting. “Jack the smugpack.”
Awnwyn took a deep breath. “Leave na trace…spill na blood.”
The Grinder grinned. “That’s our girl. Now go fetch that smugpack, an’ I’ll make sure you get enough of a cut that a cloud o’ pixies’ll carry you off to the high skies.”
“Damn right ya will,” she said over her shoulder as she headed for the door.
* * *
Cloaked in the night, her face masked by the painted red skull that she never went out into the streets without, Awnwyn led a pair of Chaser streetjacks toward the pier where their target was moored. The battered airship was a cobbled-together piece of flyjunk whose better days were long gone—or perhaps had never been in the first place. Its name, Gray Drake, was painted across the bow.
Right now, Awnwyn didn’t care about the condition of the ship or anything else save getting that smugpack. She was as tense as if she were going into battle, but this feeling was caused by the insistent dull gnawing in her brain, and the sparks that flashed through her muscles with each movement. The crash was coming, and if she didn’t stave it off soon, she’d be useless to the Chasers.
And the Chasers never kept useless things around for long.
With that thought sharpening her focus, she leaped across the short gap between the deck and dock, not even glancing down at the emptiness and clouds below. Rumour was if you fell off Gelspar, you’d die of old age before you hit the ground. Awnwyn had no desire to see if the alleyfire tale was true.
She hauled herself aboard, and looked back to see the other two scramble up after her. Her heavy axe was secure in its leather sheath across her back. No sense in drawing it yet, and if there was, then they’d already blown the sneakabout.
The airship was quiet as they crept across the creaking wooden and metal deck. It was supposed to be, since the fourth member of their crew was keeping the ship’s captain busy in a dockside tavern with a friendly game of Sail the Skies.
Reaching the hold hatch, Awnwyn unlocked it with a key that had been procured by yet another Chaser, and led one of the jacks into the ship’s dark, still belly. Stooping almost double in the cramped space, she waited a precious minute to let her eyes adjust, then headed for the bale of cloth bolts that contained her prize. She located the particular bolt indicating the location of the Pixie stash and reached inside it for the parcel that would let her to make her world right again.
Except…it wasn’t there.
The sweat on her face redoubling, Awnwyn reached deeper inside, plunging her entire arm into the bale and frantically feeling around. No burlap-wrapped package met her questing fingers. She poked around in other places on the huge cloth bundle, hoping it had just shifted, or the skin-rotted smugglers had merely misplaced it, but she came up empty each time.
“Wha’s the hold-up?” The streetjack watching the dock up on deck hissed.
“Still that tongue while ya still have it t’wag!” she hissed back. “Jeln, get over here!”
Putting him on one side, she took the other, and felt through every bolt of cloth in the bundle. There was nothing here. Jeln reported the same thing, rising terror widening his eyes as he realized what was happening.
Awnwyn realized it too. They’d been crossed. Either the smugpack had already been offloaded, or someone else had stolen it, or who knew what had happened to it, but it wasn’t here.
She glanced around wildly for another cloth bale, but the rest of the cargo hold was empty, with just a few dented crates in a haphazard pile in a corner. She stepped to them just in case, but a quick search revealed they didn’t contain her prize either. Wherever her smugpack was, it certainly wasn’t here.
“What’d’we do now?” Jeln whispered.
A myriad of options flashed through Awnwyn’s mind, but they all involved breaking the rules of the job—something she wasn’t about to do. Casting a last, despairing look around at the rough walls and pitted metal floor, she gritted her teeth and replied, “We walk.”
“But we don’ ha—”
She was on him in an instant, pinning him against the curved wall of the bulkhead. “I said we walk now!”
“R-right—right, we’re walkin’, we—we’re walkin’ right now, that’s fer true,” Jeln stammered, falling in line behind her as she headed back to the open hatch.
She climbed up, emerging into the cool dark with a grateful gasp of night air. The sentry streetjack, a lean man named Werd, stared at her with a puzzled frown. “Where is it?”
Awnwyn shook her head. “Not here.”
“Wha’d’ya mean it’s not here, stupe?” he said, walking over to peer into the hold. “It has ta be here, ya got me? We don’t leave till we find it!”
“Search all ya want—it’s not down there,” she replied, cracking her knuckles.
“Get back down there, ya brainless foo—” were the streetjack’s last words as Awnwyn reached out and grabbed both sides of his head in her massive hands. A hard twist broke his neck, and she let the body drop to the deck, stepping on his ankles to stop his feet from thudding against the boards as he twitched his last.
“Grab ’is feet,” she said as she picked him up under the shoulders. Jeln scrambled to comply, and together they hauled him to the railing and pitched him overboard, the body falling without a sound into the blackness below.
“Go,” she told Jeln as she trotted back and relocked the hatch. Then she ran across the deck, leaped over to the dock and walked away, her mind racing for a way to explain to the Grinder what had happened when she next saw him.
* * *
“What happened?” were the first words out of the Grinder’s mouth as Awnwyn sat down across from him.
She hadn’t slept in the twenty-four hours since her last hit of Pixie—and looked it. The buzz in her head had risen to a shrill whine that made her entire skull ache. She had made and discarded dozens of plans during the rest of the night, from hitting another stash house to make up for the missing smugpack to stepping off the edge of the slum and following Werd into the black. But in the end, she opted for the simplest route.
“It wasn’t there—we got crossed.”
“Funny—my insides at the Grants tell me they received the shipment from the Drake early this morning, delivered by that greasy stain of a captain himself. We weren’t crossed—you just didn’t recover the pack.”
Awnwyn leaned forward, her hands knotting into scarred fists on the table. “It. Wasn’t. There.”
The Grinder regarded her for a long minute. “What happened to Werd?”
She shrugged. “We split up after leavin’ the ship. Figured he’d be back by now.”
There would be no way to prove she’d had anything to do with his disappearance. Jeln wouldn’t say a word about what had gone down to anyone—she’d made sure of that. Werd would simply become another of the dozens or more that simply disappeared from Gelspar by any one of a hundred different ways each day.
“Well, nothin’ we can do about the smugpack, since it wasn’t s’posed to be ours in the first place,” the Grinder said with a tight grin. “Not like we can go runnin’ to the Guard ’bout it, eh?”
“Reckon not,” she said. “So, you think the captain pulled one over?”
“Don’t see anyone else who could’ve,” he replied. Then he took a small pouch out of a larger one on his belt and tossed it onto the table.
Awnwyn folded her arms, resisting the incredible urge to rip it open and hit up right there. “What’s this?”
“Advance on your next job,” the Grinder said.
She reached out a hand for it, pleased to note that it was steady as a rock. “What’s the job?”
“Round two with that hulk, the Gray Drake—although I guess it’s called the Gilded Drake now. Appears to have changed owners last night.” The Grinder slid a small leather case across the table. “Something’s brewin’ with that ship, and the word from the Dreamers is that the Council doesn’t want the serpent getting his fangs into it. It’s fixin’ to take off in the next day or so, and you’ll be followin’ it with this.”
Awnwyn picked up the case and opened it. Inside floated a small crystal shard, pointing back toward the docks. She looked up at the Grinder. “What happens when they reach their destination?”
“Simple—when you get there and have taken whatever they’re goin’ after, leave no one alive.”
Awnwyn’s smile was grim as she snatched the Pixie pouch and stood up. “By the time I’m done with ’em, it’ll be like the Gilded Drake never was at all.”
You can pilot the Gilded Drake and do battle with Awnwyn (a Chaser Doorcrasher) and Chaser Streetjacks in EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia, a standalone RPG adventure.
You can also add the Chaser Grinder to your Combat Encounters with our free DLC Foe Card.
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.