Ian took a sip from a hip flask as he surveyed the streets so eager to kill him. He forced a gulp and replaced the flask. It wasn’t whiskey: he’d filled the flask with a cocktail of alchemical miracles that sharpened his reactions and warded off the evils of the Quarantine Zone. Plus there was a little whiskey, since the potion itself went down like corpse wax.
The lurching rush of alchemically enhanced senses put sweat on his brow. He held a teacup under the waterfall of information and pulled back a single drink.
The stench of rot ebbed back and forth in intensity below him: corpses were moving in the sewer.
Not a pleasant thought, but they weren’t in his way.
Water was condensing on his skin. It felt like frozen rivers. Verminous skitters echoed through every nearby wall and crevice.
He heard the distinctive clicks of dice hitting stone. He isolated some murmurs in the distance. A gang was waiting in the alley, and nobody friendly was out this late. He’d have to pass by them, and he could only assume they’d kill him for the cargo that was pulsing warmly in his satchel.
Another corpse was nearby. This smell was weaker, fresher, and still. Just a poor fool meeting their end in a bad part of town.
Black wings folded as they settled on rooftops, barely visible through night and fog. Crows were gathering around the corpse stench. If the murder grew large enough they’d feast on the living as well as the dead. He needed to move soon.
Ian considered his next move. Given the layout of the alleys, he needed to move past those thugs to reach his buyer in time.
At this point, a less experienced man would probably slip his gun into a visible spot, expecting the thugs to steer clear of dangerous prey. He knew a gun would only convince them he had something worth stealing. The fight would break out, and he’d be outnumbered. He heard water-ripe flesh tear apart as a crow bit into the poor fool.
Ian opened his satchel and removed his charge: a bloated mockery of a heart, hanging by a netted sling. Its four chambers were stitched awkwardly together, clearly bits of different creatures. He wasn’t a doctor of any sorts, but several of the protruding valves and discolored bits gave him an instinctual chill. Somewhere deep he knew how a heart ought to be and this was not it.
He slung the netted heart over his shoulder. A custom stitchjob is valuable, but only to a man who works in such artisanal horrors. There was a decent chance none of these men knew what he had or where they could sell it. In such a case, most wouldn’t chance tangling with a potential Resurrectionist.
If one of them did recognize the heart… well that wouldn’t be ideal.
A curious crow came near the heart. He snapped out his arm and whipped it to death with the butt of his pistol. By the time it hit the ground, he was shuffling through the alley.
His senses, still enhanced, were torturing him. The smell of dead flesh would be bad enough, but the necrotic fluid in his cargo was a special treat. If ammonia could die, it would smell like necrotic fluid. As bad as it was, he tried to focus on it. He wanted the overwhelming ugliness of the smell to push out his fear while he shuffled past the alley thugs.
It didn’t work. He was all-too aware of the sickly wetness of the cobblestones beneath him, the flapping wings of crows above him, and the sight of the gangers around him.
He saw them cringe unpleasantly while he walked by. This was expected. He wouldn’t flinch. His hand drifted carefully near his revolver.
“You smell’na sick, dumb movah,” one of the toughs chided him. He was the biggest of the group. His greasy red hair and mutton chops crept out from under a surprisingly clean brown bowler. Together, they framed scar-split freckles and generally crushed in features. Ian pegged him for Irish, although his accent was more of an untraceable street pidgin. Creasing his nose unpleasantly, he stepped forward and drew a sleeve over a tatooed tree-trunk of an arm. “I think’na need so’ cleanin up…”
Ian reached for his gun but managed to stop himself. An arm was across the Irishman’s chest, holding him back and silencing him.
The arm’s owner was the living mirror of the Irishman: thin, delicate, and calm. The few features visible beneath thick glasses, a high collar, and a wide-brimmed black hat were unscarred and well-kept. Ian fixed his eyes on the man, fearing the deference his fellows gave him.
“Excuse me, sir.” The Black Hat’s voice was high and lyrical. “Would you permit me to examine your item?”
This was not ideal. Ian rotated his focus quickly between Black Hat, the tightly-coiled Irishman, and two more toughs of equal menace. His enhanced senses were already failing: he could no longer measure their heartbeats past the distractions of necrotic fluid and his own fear.
If he let Black Hat hold the heart, he’d be a broken pulp in moments. Outnumbered and probably outgunned, Ian reacted harshly.
He ran a hand into a belt pouch and cupped a handful of dust. He swung his hand in a wide arc and scattered it into the air in front of him. The mixture, from which his potions were diluted, was strong enough in its powdered state to flood the surroundings with unstable bursts of enhanced sensation. If someone wasn’t used to the sensation, it would be hideously disorienting.
Ian himself could barely think, but he had enough tolerance to the drugs to hold it slightly together.
Dashing through the fog of a thousand whispering townsfolk and flapping crows, he finally staggered into an empty alley. Hearing footsteps behind him, he leapt onto a nearby ledge and started climbing.
The hodgepodge architecture of native Malifaux offered a plethora of handholds if you were willing to grip harsh stone. Pulling up on a particularly sharp bit of marble, Ian hurled himself over the ledge of a building and onto a flat rooftop. He huddled close to the ledge and tried to stay silent.
After a few minutes, he heard heavy footsteps below him. He heard men ask about where to go.
Finally, the steps scattered in different directions, all heading away. If he just waited a little longer, then he’d be free.
Keeping still, he heard a crow land nearby. He didn’t risk shooing it. Another found its way to the rooftop. Several more. Finally, one landed on him, claws digging painfully into his shoulder. He tried to keep his calm, but when it tried to peck the heart, he had no choice but to swing wide and hurl it away. The crows rose in a black cloud of flaps and caws.
Buffeted and scratched, Ian struggled to right himself. He was hunched over the heart, protecting it above his own skin. When the cloud finally broke, his eyes fixed on two figures: Black Hat and the Irishman, standing on the far end of the roof.
Without hesitation, he drew his revolver and planted a bullet in the Irishman’s heart. The brute tumbled to his knees, and then slumped to his side. Ian kept his gun trained on the large man, heartbeats shattering his ears.
This was wrong. The shot was clean, but the Irishman went down too quickly… he went from alive to an inert corpse the moment the bullet hit. Realizations crept over him. He noticed that the wound had drawn no blood. From the hole in his chest, something else was leaking… sawdust?
The yellowish grains filtered out of the wound and caked on the moist rooftop. In an instant Ian changed up his aim and fired a shot at Black Hat. The bullet let out a spraw of wooden fibers, but Black Hat’s stance was unmoved. Four more shots, his entire load. More holes and more sawdust, but Black Hat only smiled pleasantly. Ian fell to his knees, desperate and dying.
A trembling crack broke him from his stunned state. Turning to the Irishman, whose bowler had fallen off, he could see bits of his head being pushed up and pressed aside. In moments, a crow emerged from the inside of the corpse’s head as though breaking out of an egg.
“...th-the hell are you?” Ian sputtered out. He struggled to maintain focus on Black Hat through his collapsing mind.
“The tragedy of this all,” the Black Hat answered, extending an arm, “is that we would have let you go. All we wanted was a little taste of your item. Just a snack.” In his hand, there was a crow with a broken neck. The curious crow Ian had cracked with his revolver.
“What the hell are you?” Ian yelled, terror overwhelming him. Around him, he could see an ocean of black feathers flooding the rooftop. Trembling, he threw the heart forward, scattering a few of the crows. “Take it, take a taste. Take it all!”
Black Hat smiled. “No, not anymore. No taste. No snack.” The crows began to rumble. “Now, we feast.”
In moments, they were upon him. Another poor fool met his end in a bad part of town.