This was just another night like any other. The Gray, also known as Zaun’s trademark toxic, chemical atmosphere, was at its highest. The machines continued their wailing as they were forced to work after too many years of decay and rust, and the nocturnal wind brought screams of terror and agony. I was used to this ambient, but the screams worried me; I'd do well to stay far away from them. There were far too many causes for someone to start screaming; monsters, mad doctors, assassinations, giant plague rat… Whatever that was, I just wanted to stay far away from it. I roamed the streets between steam golems -maintenance bots that cleaned the toxic waste day after day- and taverns made for those who were looking for cheap entertainment and beer that didn't taste like warm urine mixed with unpurified water.
One of the taverns offered some kind of entertainment with music –though it sounded more like a cat was being skinned alive- and from what I saw, the clientele wasn’t enjoying it. I recognized the telltale sounds of a fistfight, followed by two drunkards that rolled through the door, holding onto each other until they crashed against a wall while crushing a pair of rusted drums under tons of fat and muscle. The clientele arrived quickly to watch through the doors and broken windows, having fun without worrying about trivial things like stopping the fight or the fact that one of the fighters could die as a consequence. They were too busy making bets on their favorite drunkard.
“Ten Gears for the fatass!”
“Twenty five Gears for the billiard ball!”
“I raise fourty for the billiard ball, too! Come on, just finish him already!”
“Stop playing around, asshole! Get up and show them who’s the real boss here!“
I watched from afar, contemplating the scene that unfolded in front of me. The street was wide enough that I could walk around those two blobs of alcohol, but I didn’t want to risk the chance of being dragged into their stupid dispute. Going through another way implied walking back for another five minutes through the same narrow street until I could find a detour. Instead, I took a third option and continued my way above their heads. I glanced upon my right side, staring into a construction of bricks, metal and concrete. The building was small, around three stories high with a sloped roof covered in roof tiles. The windows were protected with iron bars, and the moss was slipping into the cracked sections of the exterior. Nobody noticed my presence as I climbed the façade, sneaking between hissing pipes and kicking away some loose bricks. Reaching the top, I looked around me, trying to find my way in this labyrinth of alleyways and unbalanced buildings; from my current position I could glimpse the green neon lights from the city, making their way through the chem fumes and polluted clouds.
The central levels were where I spent most of my time, as that’s where the Factorywood was located; you wouldn’t find another place in Zaun with such a high concentration of factories. The ratio was around one house every five factories, with enough space for taverns and other places with cheap entertainment for any tired worker. As you climbed up, the houses and buildings would give way to towers reaching towards the sky, great squares where you could buy anything and anyone for the right price, greenhouses to breathe fresh air without ever leaving the city, stone bridges covered in moss splashed by toxic materials and elevators full of uncomfortable passengers. For many Zaunites, these lights are the closest thing to a constellation. Reaching the surface was not an easy task, but it wasn’t impossible; most of its inhabitants are more willing to die choking with the Grey invading their lungs than reach for the surface in a quest for fresh air. As long as you had time to climb, or enough Gears to ride a hexdraulic elevator, you could always reach the cultivairs –isolated glasshouses with plants and tress, only available to the richest people of Zaun- for less polluted air, or Piltover, if you wanted to feel the true, pure oxygen filling your lungs.
I continued traveling over the rooftops, staying away from the eyes of strangers and anyone who would look outside through their windows or balconies as I jumped between gaps and paused from time to time in search of a new, invisible route. I didn’t care about being seen –the darkness was a good ally, and the grey clouds were too thick to discern anything beyond a blurry silhouette- but my audience didn’t enjoy the racketing on their roofs, or the way I knocked tables and chairs off their terraces as I tried to reach higher places. Every day I would find a new route, with new shortcuts and ways to shorten time from point A to point B. Jumping between two buildings was risky, as a single mistake or a weakened structure could prove harmful, and even fatal in some cases; I had countless injuries and broken bones to remind me of my old failures and mistakes.
At least I could consider myself lucky I was not part of those madmen of the Glorious Augmented; those people had replaced so many parts of their bodies with mechanical limbs and devices that they had more in common with those steam golems cleaning the streets tan a human being. The whole world saw them as a religion that helped those in need –the sick, the elderly and the dying- to keep living on in exchange of losing their “weak” flesh. But for me they were just a dangerous cult looking for people who could join them and brainwash them into mindless robots. It always started with a limb. Sometimes an arm lost in a chemical accident or an amputated leg after being rescued from the chem mines. After that, they would simply discard any vital organ or body part that they could; it wouldn’t be long before their last strips of flesh were throw into a bowl food for dogs just so they could feel superior to “the feeble creatures molded in flesh”.
I was at probably sixty feet from the ground when the pipe I used as a stepping stone for my next jump snapped under my weight. It was as if time stood still; I heard the crack, and the next second I was falling in the air. I watched as the blurred buildings rose at an alarming speed in front of me, while my brain tried to understand what was going on. My mind was blank, but my body instantly acted by holding on the first thing my hands could find; my fingers gripped around the mast of a neon sign displaying the name of a store specialized in metallic artifacts. The first I felt was a pull on my arms, and then the pain. My arms were hurt from the backlash, but nothing more; I was thankful to Janna that my arms hadn’t been ripped from my shoulders. I slowly pulled myself up, until I managed to rest my upper body on the sign before I managed to reposition myself in a crouching stance.
I’ve never been interested in those things, but this sign saved me from breaking my legs –or even worse; I made a mental note to visit this place later and buy something expensive, as a sign of gratitude. Assessing my situation, I looked at my surroundings; all I could do from my current position was to inch myself closer to the metallic tower from which the sign rested and climb up until I could reach a resting place. I found one spot right above me, under a walkway composed of steel beams and supports to hold the entire structure together. The metal wires and wooden planks creaked and complained under the weight of dozens of people in a hurry to reach their destinations; every person marched at a different pace while I sat there, trying to come up with a new route.
The city always changes shape in every level; especially the higher ones. From the lowest levels –the Sump Works and the Slums- all you can see is dirt, facades with washed away colors and people suffocating to death because of the high pollution levels. From my current position in the Factorywood, I could appreciate the architecture and the hidden beauty of the city. Sometimes I think that I’m the only one who can see beyond the surface, behind all the mad scientists and the metallic surfaces that keep us together between the cliff’s walls. I could spend hours watching the world unfold around me, but I had better things to do. I slowly ascended from the tower’s side, grabbing onto the rusted spikes, metallic ledges and twisted pipes the best I could until I joined the people on the walkway, hiding myself amongst them without anyone paying attention to my presence. I continued through this route for a long time before I managed to scurry away into a dark alley. From there I boosted myself above, jumping from wall to wall until I reached the top; this was the fastest route I knew for reaching Wanderer and Son’s Welders, one of many factories that acted as a hideout for the Spindlow, a gang of Chem Barons.
From outside, the placed looked like a normal welding workshop, with the kind of machinery used for fixing and creating all kind of stuff, but appearances could be deceiving. The building was huge, its size only comparable to the galleys of Bilgewater, one of the largest port cities of Valoran; the glass windows and domes were dyed in black, stopping me from getting a good look at the inside. The pipes surrounded the place from a distance, as if afraid of some unforeseen consequences if they ever touched it. I had good info about a giant lift on the back that lowered into the Sumps, where all the worst elements of this city lumped together in a never ending pile of shit and filth. The Chhem Barons turned the lower levels into their personal territory, where the long arm of the law couldn’t reach them. I had seen what they kept in their hideouts and the things they could do protected by our lack of law enforcement. Extortions, robbery, “protections”, slavery, unethical experiments… The list of atrocities they had under their name never ended. The people saw them as untouchable monsters that could do as they pleased without anybody having the balls to retaliate; I saw them as a challenge fit for me.
Remembering the first rule of the Sump - only marks go in through the front door- I opted to avoid the usual entrances. I checked my tools for the last time before starting the job; I needed everything ready if I didn’t want to end up dead. I looked into the countless pockets of my outfit; glass cutter, suction cups, rope, lockpicks… I had everything in their rightful place. I covered my face with a bandana, put on my hoodie and climbed on the side of the building, away from any potential onlookers until I reached the roof in complete silence. Before breaking and entering, I had to make sure I knew what would wait for me inside; I pressed a suction cup against the glass and proceeded to cut a small hole with the glass cutter to see through. The glass made a low screech as I scratched the surface, sketching a badly done circle wide enough to peek inside, but not too big to be seen by any thugs that happened to look up. I took the glass piece off and left it on the ground, retrieving the suction cup for future uses. From this height I could see a pair of chem-punks inside guarding the place in what seemed to be one of the many machinery rooms.
They were just a bunch of Sump-rackers augmented with Hextech technology, with many tubes full of strange liquids running through their veins. This was rudimentary at best, but effective if you wanted to keep any noisy “client” like me outside of your business. With the element of surprise I could take one of them out, but the other one would react, and this would bring two consequences. The first one would be a fight, in which case I’d have to dodge all his attacks and disarm him somehow. The second option would be to call for help, in which case I would have a whole army of muscles coming straight for me. I chose to stay outside the range of their steel fists; with that strength they would break my back like a dry twig. I imagined the whole place was probably swarming with patrolling units, as any good Chem Baron would do to protect his business; I would have to find another way inside that wouldn’t bring too much attention towards my position. Walking around in the open was too risky, and there weren’t many places where I could hide.
Choosing the pacifist option I looked around for a crawl-hatch –a ventilation shaft- so I could get inside. One advantage Zaun had over the Uppside, also known as Piltover, is that our ventilation ducts were built with a lot of space to filter all the gas and manual cleaning. They were big enough for a grown man to be able to crawl inside them, but only a few dared, as they were really dangerous for any living beings with fully functioning lungs. The crawl-hatches were big enough for most people, yet somehow they never thought of increasing the security inside them. Then again, the most important thing was to know the best time for breaking inside one of these; if you were stupid enough to try this during working hours in a lab or a techmaturgy factory, you’d be dead in a matter of seconds. After a short search, I finally found an opening. The metallic grill keeping people out was as effective as a cardboard door; the grill was old, rusted, and I didn’t even have to unscrew it. A few pulls were all I needed to break the screws keeping it in place.
The duct had a small drop of five feet; a very trivial height for me, as I had crashed from higher places and lived to tell the tale. Pressing my whole body against the metallic walls, I slid myself slowly until I reached the bottom before I could crawl through the vents. With the whole place closed down and all the machinery turned off, I had no risk of suffocating in a cloud of toxic compounds; the accumulated dust over God knows how many years was another story. Moments like these made me glad I had covered my face with a piece of cloth, as it helped me breathe without coughing or sneezing. I crawled soundlessly without anybody noticing at a good pace; this was a skill that had taken me years of practice. Everyone’s used to the rattling and the noise of rats running around, but even the biggest Sump-suckers of Zaun recognized the telltale sound of a person causing a ruckus inside the ducts. Nobody cares about the noise if it’s a Viridian beetle; the real problem is when the noise resembles a party of drunken Crag-ducks with rocket launchers.
The countless grills in my way allowed me to take a peek at the layout and the patrolling guards, but I couldn’t find anything that piqued my interest. A bunch of scattered tools, unfinished gadgets, sleeping thugs and Gutter rats chewing on electrical wires… I was used to these scenes. The most “exciting” thing I saw were a bunch of guys playing poker. I didn’t know how much they were paid for this, but throwing Gears into the sewers would’ve been more useful. But on the bright side, the more stupid they were, the easier my job would be.
“Check,” said one of them as he threw a bunch of Gears on the table.
“Raise? Come on! You’re bluffing!”
“No, I’m not bluffing. A bluffing is one of those cliff things. I know the difference!”
“I think you should have asked them to augment your brain, not your muscles.”
“Please… You can’t augment what never existed.”
“Fuck off! At least I went to a school, unlike you fucking street rats!”
It was pretty clear I wouldn’t get anything important from this conversation. If I wanted to find something valuable, I’d have to look for the office; they usually kept a safe with money, documents and other valuable stuff in them. I didn’t care about anything that wasn’t Gears, gold or jewelry, but luckily, I knew all kind of people who would buy anything as long as it was important or interesting enough. Finally, after many turns and twists, I reached my destination. Opening the duct’s grill from the inside was hard, but not impossible; it was a simple question of having the right tools and a good wrist. I used a screwdriver as a lever on the rusted grill, slowly prying it out from the screws that held it tightly; it wasn’t long before I finally cracked it open, squeaking weakly as it remained open. I hung from the duct and lowered my body with care, letting myself fall a few inches from the ground.
The lights inside the office were off, but the workshop’s lights gave me enough visibility. The office was very simplistic, with enough stuff to make everyone think you’re working on something important when you’re actually slacking off. The office was situated around ten feet from the ground, with the only way to reach it being a metallic staircase leading to a metal door with scrapped off blue paint. The office was placed against the corner of the building, and the other two walls were thin sheets of metal; I guess it was cheaper to make an office when you only need to build two walls. The furniture, on the other hand, was of high quality; a wooden desk with countless details carved on, a leather chair with wheels that reminded me of Piltover’s aesthetic, and a bulky safe made in Zaun.
The safe was rudimentary, but effective. The metal was really strong; you could drop it from the College of Techmaturgy’s roof and it wouldn’t have a single dent. The combination consisted of three wheels with up to fifty numbers each; too many possible combinations, and not enough time to check them all. Any other family would have the safe’s combination written up somewhere, but the Spindlow weren’t stupid; well, okay, they were stupid, but not as stupid as the other Chem Barons. The Gray Nails were a bunch of idiots, but the biggest prize would probably go to Clan Holloran for that botched kidnapping of who they believed was a rich Piltie, but turned out to be just a random idiot that wanted to feel important with very expensive clothing and fake jewelry. That schmuck didn’t have enough Gears to buy a loaf of bread, and his family couldn’t pay for the rescue, so they simply let him go.
I rummaged through my pockets and took out two small vials of liquid. Each liquid by itself was harmless, but together they could make a really potent acid capable of melting all kinds of stuff. I poured one of the vials over the handle and the hinges, followed by a few drops from the other vial; the metal started to bubble up with an effervescent sound as it corroded everything in its way. The acid was slow, but the low noise was its greatest quality. Once the safe had enough holes in it, I lowered the door carefully as I avoided touching the parts where I poured the acid. Finally, I had opened myself a way to its entrails and all its secrets. Gears, contracts, jewelry, a bunch of blueprints… All valuable stuff if I could find the right buyer. I emptied the safe and hid everything inside the countless pockets of my uniform.
I approached one of the office’s windows to check the place; the lower floor was completely deserted, and there were no signs of recent activity. Going through the ducts had taken too much time, so I opted to escape through the backdoor. The backdoor consisted of two giant wooden doors, with a simple locking mechanism on the inside; I could open them without a lockpick or a key. The only issue is that opening those doors would make a lot of noise, and they would swarm he place coming for me. This was a risk I was willing to take, as I didn’t need complete silence to do my work; only enough so I could run away before they noticed my presence. I descended the staircase slowly, hiding in the shadows in case someone appeared; it wasn’t until I reached the ground that the real chaos was unleashed. The silence had been replaced with distant echoes of screams, bullets flying through the air and explosions coming from the other end of the building. And they seemed to get closer with each passing second.
“What the fuck…?” I mumbled to myself.
The whole place shook with every explosion, dust and splatter falling off the ceiling. A number of theories formed in my mind: Was the Sheriff of Piltover in the Factorywood for a raid? A gang war from the other Chem Barons? The famously rumoured werewolf of Zaun looking for fresh meat? I pushed away all those thoughts and headed for the exit. I took a few steps when I heard a whistle coming right behind me; I turned around so fast I thought my head would unscrew itself off my shoulders. I instantly recognized the silhouette of a giant rocket appearing from beyond the darkness, aiming straight at me. My body acted under its own volition, launching me behind one of the gigantic machines that populated this place, followed by a gigantic, flaming explosion. My ears were ringing, but my audition was still intact; well, as intact as they can be when you’re this close to an explosion. I was stunned, dizzy, and my balance had been thrown off; I slowly regained my senses as I gazed upon the doors, or what was left of them. The giant doors had disappeared, leaving in its place a hole big enough for a kraken to fit through. The wooden splinters cracked and spit tiny sparks everywhere, and the smell of powder replaced the toxic smell of the outside. I was lucky to be alive, but I had to react quickly; this commotion could be heard all the way to Noxus.
The battle raged on far beyond the chemlamps reach, but it was getting louder; that’s when I realized that those sounds were getting closer, and I turned my head right on cue to see the source, running towards the exit. Her blue hair was the first thing I noticed, followed by her two elongated braids flowing free from behind as she ran; they reminded me of a pair of ropes hanging off the base of her nape. Her fashion choices were a collage of different pieces of clothing consisting of what looked like some kind of pink and black bra with bullets as some form of decoration. Her lower body wasn’t much better, with pink shorts, a long and pink pantyhose on her right leg, and a pair of black military boots with her shoelaces untied. Her red eyes and psychotic smile didn’t inspire much trust, and neither did her weapons. She carried a blue rocket launcher on her shoulder, shaped like a shark and with a pair of yellow eyes painted on the front. Her pink machine gun was decorated with a pair of ears, like some kind of animal, bouncing against her hip with every step she took. The lightning on this place didn’t help me a lot, but I noticed her pale skin’s right side was covered with tattoos of pink bullets and blue clouds. The description matched perfectly that of the newest psycho in town: Jinx, the Loose Cannon. I heard all kind of stories and rumors about her, but this was the first time I met the person behind the myths; I distinctly remembered how everyone explained that everywhere she went, all kind of explosions and mayhem would follow her. Seeing her running towards me made me realize that I had chosen the worst place and moment for a hit. That image gave me the strength to run away before she used me as a target practice; or worse, bring more reinforcements with her.
I exited through the backdoor, desperately looking for an escape route; the loading dock was a dead end, or so it seemed. A giant crane was standing against the facade, its hook sinking down into the abyss of the lower levels and probably attached to some cargo. Around me were all kinds of wooden crates, metal containers and drums placed without any kind of effort or consideration. My first idea was to use the crane and descend, but I’d bet anything that it would’ve led me into the Spindlow’s territory; that was exactly the kind of thing I was trying to avoid. I was used to work under pressure, but this was escalating too quickly for my tastes. I had the most dangerous psycho of the city behind me, a whole army of thugs following her footsteps, and the only way out was to throw myself into the Sumps and pray that I wouldn’t be gunned down upon arrival. With all the chaos going on in this place, there would be an army waiting for me down there; I’d be lucky to leave any trace behind beyond a few lumps of flesh and a giant bloodstain on the floor. Yeah, this was going just as planned…
I came up with a second option: climb the facade and get to the rooftop. Those thugs would be too busy looking for her, as nobody had noticed my presence yet. It would be easy to sneak away while their attention was focused somewhere else, and then I’d be able to hide in the darkness as I got the hell out of here. My thoughts were interrupted when I heard another explosion taking place behind me; I instinctively turned around in time to witness Jinx flying backwards through the air before landing right next to me. It didn’t take a genius to know what happened; this nutcase used an explosion from her own rockets to propel herself all the way here. She turned to me as her rocket launcher continued to spit even more rockets with no end in sight. Her cheerful expression didn’t calm me in the slightest; in fact, I found it really unnerving. She probably thought her smile was a sign of trust, but to me this was sign of madness and sadism pushed to the extreme.
“Whatcha doing here? Looking for fun, too?” she asked. The expression I wore during that exchange was priceless –or it would’ve been if I could’ve seen it. She spoke to me as someone who met with a friend after a long absence.
I instinctively walked a few steps back. “Uhm… No… I’m… I’m already leaving…” Very eloquent from my part.
“Oh, me too! I was already leaving, though! This place stinks! All this machinery and not a single red barrel to explode…”
“Yeah, there’s not a lot to do… I guess this is normal in the Chem Baron workshops…” What the fuck was I doing speaking with her instead of running away? I guess I was just afraid that she would point her rocket launcher at me if I started running. I was used to dealing with crazy people, and they never liked being ignored.
“Oh, they’re from the Barons? Now I feel even better for killing them.”
“Yeah… Good thing they’re bad guys…” I replied with a nervous chuckle. “Uhm… I don’t want to spoil your fun, but… I think we should leave before they send more people…”
“That’s a great idea. This place is booooring!” Jinx took her rocket launcher, planted it against the floor and jumped on it like a pogo stick. “Need a ride?”
I wasn’t sure how I should’ve reacted in that situation. All the strange tales I heard about the crazy girl with blue hair weren’t exaggerating; in fact, they didn’t even get close to the truth. The invisible clock was ticking over my head, my options were scarce, and I could hear the stampede of muscles coming for us; all in all, my options had been narrowed to one. I hate to say this, but she was my best asset to get out of this place. I could either take the risk and –maybe- make it out alive, or stay here and be crushed by a tsunami of muscle and metallurgic augments.
“Alright, I’m in! But… What are you planning with that thing…?”
“Duh! This, of course!”
Jinx grabbed firmly my right arm with a smile that made me realize this was a complete madness. Her rocket launcher started spewing clouds of smoke, followed by a burst of fire as it started to rise. We took off in a sudden burst of speed that didn’t seem possible, catching me by surprise; I remember screaming like a little girl as she laughed like the maniac she was. I hugged the rocket the best I could when my feet stopped touching the ground, asking myself why I agreed to this madness in the first place. I had never felt such fear like the one I felt that time; Jinx on the other hand seemed to enjoy this, cackling madly as she somehow steered our “ride” –if I could even call it that...- I had pulled many crazy stunts in my life, but this one would top them all easily –I mean, not often can you fly through the bowels of Zaun riding a rocket launcher- The buildings became a mass of blurry shapes below us as we ascended through the Factorywood, heading for the higher levels. We didn’t get far before the rocket launcher started to make strange noises and spitting clouds of smoke.
“Oh, it finally ran out of gas!”
“Wait, what?! What do you mean it ran out of gas?” This wasn’t the best moment to question why a flying rocket launcher would run out of gas, but my mind couldn’t focus on such trivial matters like what would happen to me if we dropped from this distance.
“I forgot to fill the tank this morning! Get ready for a rough landing!”
As soon as the words came from her mouth, our ride started descending towards the ground; it felt as if reality suddenly realized this shouldn’t be possible in the first place and was trying to fix their mistake. My screams of terror were drowned by her maniacal laughter as gravity pulled us closer. Luckily for us, we crashed in an alleyway full of garbage bags and god knows what else, cushioning our fall the best way a pile of garbage could do. I considered myself lucky to be intact before she crashed on top of me, along with her guns. I did not have a single broken bone from crashing after that “ride”, but that didn’t save me from the fact that I was lying in a mountain of garbage with Piltover’s most dangerous criminal. My luck was running out too fast, and I didn’t want to stay there any longer than necessary.
“That was amazing! We have to try it again!” It became clear that we had different concepts of what could be considered “amazing”.
“Yeah, that was… Entertaining.” I got up as I could and passed my hands all over my clothes, trying to shake off all the pieces of rotten garbage and half chewed food. This wasn’t what I had in mind, but I was alive and with the stolen goods.
“That’s a cool bandana. Why do you wear that? Are you disfigured or something?”
“No, that’s not it... It’s just for covering my face, and sometimes to avoid breathing too much toxic smoke. Besides, I don’t want to be recognized by my victims.”
“Nah, I don’t believe it. I’m sure you have huge scars all over your face. Let me see that!” I couldn’t give her a reply; she jumped on me and took it off, revealing my true face. I instinctively covered my mouth with my hand, trying to hide my appearance the best I could. “A normal face… Meh, that’s just boring.”
Great, now she knew what I looked like. This was just getting better. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not one of Zaun’s oddities. I’m one of the few normal humans left in this place.” was all I could muster before I took my bandana back, turning myself around before covering my face again.
“Meh. Being normal is overrated!”she exclaimed.
“Maybe in Piltover,” I replied. “But here in Zaun, weird people are the norm, so you could say being normal is underrated.”
She looked at me dumbfounded for a few seconds. She was probably trying to make her brain work for once and think about what I told her –if she really was capable of thinking. “That makes sense. I like that. I hope I’ll meet you again.” She smiled again, but this time it was different. That smile wasn’t psychotic, nor sadistic. Just that, a normal smile; well, the closest thing to being normal in her. This was a small glimpse of sanity in a sea of madness.
“Uhm… Yeah, I guess we’ll meet again. Zaun’s not really that big.” I wasn’t sure this was the best answer, but I wasn’t thinking clearly by this point.
I would be better off if I stayed away from her. Her unique brand of madness was a hazard for those around her; I hoped I’d never meet her again in the future. We went our separate ways, and I took this chance to reflect about what had taken place this night; that encounter had been a unique event, and I wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad. But before that, I had to go to a store that placed the neon sign that broke my fall earlier that night. I felt like I owed them something even if they didn’t know about it.