"Hustling and bustling" is often used to describe busy streets filled with merchants and travelers and random passers-by. Whoever thought up of this term, however, had not seen the mercantile streets of Kell. Both the words denote some actual movement, but for the most part there was no real movement in the streets from the hours of 9 to 11 and 5 to 7. This was the busiest time of the day for merchants, catching people going to or coming from their various places of business.
Since Kell was also a major port and the capital city of Mayford, everything imaginable could be found within its formidable walls. It is the very gridlock that keeps some purveyors of the less "popular" goods in business. It is, after all, hard to say "no" to someone who has been pushing for you to buy a jar of Uncle Bunk's Acne Creme, Expectorant, and Degreaser for the past hour, knowing that you get to spend another hour in his presence.
Manfred had never seen city streets so full of life and exotic fragrances. At least, he was pretty sure he hadn't. The quartet did their best to blend in with the crowd while keeping to the hustling and bustling alleyways and side streets which allowed passage at a time like this. Manfred was wearing the tight-fitting black pants he had on the night before, but a blue shirt had been purchased for him to help him fit in a little better himself. Nothing stood out like a man dressed entirely in black.
"How long was I out?" he asked conversationally.
Jesz chimed in with a matter-of-fact voice, not bothering to look back fully at him but just turning her hide to the side slightly. "3 years."
"What?!" The color drained out of Manfred's face for a moment.
"Oh yeah, we thought you weren't gonna make it. I was gettin' ready to harvest your organs for magical experiments. It's good pay." There wasn't even a hint of joking in Jesz's voice.
"Oh, do not listen to her," Mel said. "That is nonsense. Everyone knows an intact cadaver is worth far more."
"Ha ha, very funny," Manfred replied. "I don't believe you. If it had been 3 years, I would have grown a beard, wouldn't I? Huh?"
"Oh, I've been shaving you clean and selling the trimmings to witches," Jesz said loudly to be heard over the din. "But don't worry, Manfred, it'll grow back."
"Stop calling me that. That's not my name!"
"Oh, then what is?" Jesz looked back and winked at him. He was silent for a moment.
"Where are we going?" he asked the group in general as they meandered and slithered through the labyrinthine crowd. He would rather change the subject then have to try to out-think her.
"I told you, we are following Aryx," Mel said from the front of the group. Her eyes were trained on the sky most of the time.
"Yeah, you told me, but where is she lea-"
"He," Mel interrupted. "Aryx is a boy."
"Fine. Where is HE leading us?" Manfred rolled his eyes. "I mean, what is this bounty you're all talking about?"
Jesz looked back at him for a moment. "His name is Cameron Merlot, but he likes people to call him 'The Duke,'" she explained. "We were hired by some judge to find him. Apparently he stole something of hers and she wants it back… you know, under the table-like."
"Jesz!" Mel said sternly. "We cannot trust him! And stop flirting! I do have eyes in the back of my head, don't make me separate you two."
Jesz blushed slightly, her tanned face darkening as she turned her head to look forward again. "Sorry…" she said. She was third in line, behind Eaups, who had been silent most of the time they were following Aryx.
The crowd was beginning to thin out as the group worked their way to the outside rim of the city. In the distance, Manfred could see several large buildings standing as sentinels over the city. One was built like a majestic fortress with its own high wall surrounding it - which Manfred believed must be the palace. Another just off to the side of the first was a single massive tower that was crooked and gnarled, seeming to defy all laws of physics and common sense by refusing to fall over. The last, placed in the center of Kell and closer than the other two, stood like a series of sword-spires that dared to strike against the heavens. Each pointed spire was identical to the others and they were arranged in a 12-point circle. The sun reflected off the spires in a sharp rainbow across their surfaces.
"That's the Pantheological Cloister," Eaups chimed in. "Each spire is dedicated to one of the gods." He smiled, looking back at it. "I'm in that one farthest to the right from here." Manfred wished he could pause and get a better look, but Jesz pulled him along. Soon, his view was obstructed by wooden scaffolding and catwalks. It seemed this part of the city was under repair, and by the look of things, under constant repair. Some of the scaffolding was burnt with more replacing it. Buildings had several different styles of architecture all crowded on top of each other. There were even some parts that had permanent "danger" signs posted. "This is the Alchemists' District," Eaups said.
"Yeah, better known as Boom Town." Jesz chuckled to herself. "Some poor sap is always blowing hisself up around here."
"Sshh!" Mel pulled the group to a small alcove. Above them, Aryx was circling before landing on a nearby piece of scaffolding. With a motion to the others to keep out of sight, Mel peered around the corner, scanning the crowd. "That is him," she said as she spied that familiar eye patch. The Duke was sitting at a table talking with another man whose back was to them. "And it looks like that idiot guard of his is not even around."
Manfred backed into Mel. "I wouldn't be so sure of that," he said in a quavering tone. Mel looked back to find the other three with their hands up, a crossbow pointed at them. The brutish bodyguard from the night before approached them.
"Move it. 'Gainst the wall." Mel put her hands up as well, doing as she was told and backing up against the wall. She glanced up for a moment, hoping to call Aryx, but the bodyguard practically shoved the crossbow in her face. "Don't e'en think it, love. I ain't stupid, I know yer a hawker. I've been followin' ya."
"Not… you're not stupid… and I'm an… austringer," Mel said quietly, then bit her lip. Grammar was a pet peeve of hers. It had taken her years to get over Jesz's abuses of the language, and she liked Jesz. Yet now, despite having a cocked crossbow at point-blank range from her nose, she still couldn't help herself when a stranger polluted her mother tongue.
"What?!" the bodyguard demanded.
"I am an austringer, not a hawker. Austringers train hawks, hawkers sell goods." Her voice was steady and without inflection as if she was simply reading out of a text book. Although she knew that technically the bodyguard was correct, the connotation of being a hawker irked her even more than his atrocious grammar.
"Oh, I'm gonna turn you into hawk feed," the guard said with a wicked, mostly toothless grin. He raised the crossbow another inch and pulled the trigger.
Mel winced, but soon realized that she was still… wincing. And breathing. As she opened her eyes, she saw Manfred, holding the arrow and smiling at the well-muscled bodyguard.
"Did know I could do that, huh?" he taunted. "Wanna see what else I can do?" The bodyguard put his hands up slowly, seeing that Jesz was already pulling out a small blade. Yet before she had a chance to use it, he struck with incredible celerity at Manfred. It was simply not fair that such a huge man could move so fast, but, as Manfred was learning, life is hardly fair. He took the blow fully and was knocked back to the wall before grabbing onto the man's arm.
Jesz did not hesitate. She swing at him with a small but sharp dagger, the blade held backwards, away from the thumb. The man cried out as she sliced at his arm, but cross his other arm over his body to grab at her. Just as he was fast, he was also incredibly strong. His grip had her in tears almost instantly.
By this time, Mel was joining the fight, calling to Aryx for aid and pulling out her kukri. Eaups had already set up a spell to keep passers-by away from the fight, a long snake of smoke that surrounded the brawl. In all this commotion, however, no one noticed that The Duke was already running away.
"Oh no you don't," Manfred squeaked as he tried to breath again. He held firmly onto the man's arm and suddenly moved like a man possessed. His motions reminded Jesz a roaring river or winding stream. Manfred deftly ducked under the man's arm, twisting it forward and forcing his assilant to hunch over. This made the man let go of Jesz and try to grab Manfred, but it was already too late. With a pull, the bodyguard felt all the bones in his arm strain against each other and, in an effort to prevent his bones from snapping, he fell forward and landed on his back. His legs hit a large support of scaffolding and dislodged it, causing a catwalk to teeter to and fro precariously for several seconds before it clattered to the ground nearby. Following this, the entire scaffold leaned over, knocking of workers, parts of buildings, buckets of plaster, piles of stone and brick, and loads of lumber. Everything rained to the ground with a thunderous and ongoing clatter, moving quickly down the line of buildings. Just as it seemed to stop, a lone cat would jump off one unstable support and land on the back of an unsuspecting worker who was across the street on another catwalk. The worker thrashed about, knocking over more random construction tools and detritus before he, too, knocked one of the supports loose and sent scaffolding on the other side of the street crashing to the ground. The roar disappeared off into the distance as more and more dominos of industry fell.
By the time the dust settled before for people to see what had happened, The bodyguard had fled and The Duke was half-buried under a pile of wood and rocks.
"How fortuitous," said Mel. She and Manfred approached the entombed man. "Quickly, before the Alchemists' Guild gets here," she said, pulling out a rope from the mess.
"What about the city guard?" Manfred asked as he started pulling up masonry and crossbeams to dig the dazed man out.
"Oh, trust me. They are not the ones to be worried about for this mess."