The sun was high and fierce by the time Manfred and the others arrived at the predetermined meeting space. After they had captured The Duke, Mel sent Aryx off to relay a message to their client, the judge, saying when and where to meet. It was always a good idea to find a neutral place for these things, and the group had been using this one for several weeks with great results. Very little was spoken as they led their bound mark out of the busier sections of the city and into the ruins of the old sector.
Tall buildings filled with busy people turned into tall ruins filled with lazy pigeons. The crowds thinned until soon the only people they saw were each other. This part of Kell had fallen into disrepair long ago because it was too far from the merchants, temples, homes, and other sites of interest that had risen in the newer sections. In some parts, carts, buckets, ancient fruit stands, and children's toys remained behind - a testament to some long forgotten exodus.
"Where are you taking me?" The Duke asked eventually as Mel prodded him forward. His hands were tied behind his back and Mel kept her kukri pressed against his back.
"We are going to see Judge Aska," Mel replied with a grin. "You have something that does not belong to you."
Before The Duke could protest, the cry of a bird sounded from a clearing in the buildings. Aryx was perched atop a column, one of many that encircled a small stage, perhaps where an altar of a neglected temple was once placed. Mel grinned and raised her left arm. Almost immediately, Aryx launched from his vantage point and flew straight toward her, talons outstretched. The Duke squealed and ducked as the bird flew at him and grasped onto Mel's arm just a few inches behind his head.
"I was beginning to think that you would not show," came the resounding echo of a firm voice. Its owner stood on the stage in the middle of the columns, and what surprised Manfred the most was that this judge was a woman. She was tall, wraith-like in feature, and had a strong, angular face. It was a face that had condemned thousands of men and women to unfair punishments without flinching. Then again, in her court, there was no such thing as unfair. She was wearing the red robes of a judge, her graying, thin hair tied up in a bun. The moment Manfred stepped into view, her cold gaze shot to him. "Who is that?"
"He is… our apprentice. Pay him no heed. We are here to settle our bounty." Mel took charge of the situation, pushing The Duke in front of her as she stepped before Aska. Jesz sank back behind Manfred, all too eager to let Mel take the lead. If there was anything a thief did not like, it was a judge.
"This is true, let us stick to business." Judge Aska said as she took a step off the altar towards them. She was just as tall as Mel and gave off a fearful aura that commanded respect and attention. "Let us see if the item is still intact." She grinned and leaned close to The Duke, reaching up with a bony hand and tearing the patch away from his left eye.
"No! You cheated me!" he said, closing his eyes hard and turning his face away. "You said that in exchange for giving that false testimony, you would she me the truth about the witch who did this to me!"
"Oh dear Cameron, or should I call you 'Duke?'" Aska purred, a sound that was so grating it could cut cheese. She grabbed his cheeks with one hand, pulling his face up to meet hers. "I never renege on a promise. Surely you did see the truth."
"Yeah, I saw it, and I couldn't stop seeing it! No one should know what this damned eye told me! My girl was cheating, my boss thought I was a fool - even my own ma was keeping secrets I wished had stayed that way! This patch is the only way to stop it from telling me things!" He shuddered in Mel's grasp as Judge Aska pulled out a strange, pointed device with a small cup in the center. "Wh-what are you gonna do with that?"
The judge pointed this device, which looked like it could easily have been given a spot in Auntie Payne's Torture Digest, directly at The Duke's left eye. "I only lent it for a week. I'm just going to take back what is mine."
Manfred, Jesz, and Eaups were grateful that they could not see what happened next. The Duke screamed, and a moment later there was a strange sucking noise. The next thing they knew, there was an eye in the device. The eye did not look normal, however, but appeared to be put together from many overlapping layers of gold leaf. The iris and pupil seemed to be mechanical, but it was far too complicated and small for any jeweler, clock-maker or gold smith to assemble. In the back of the eye was a small, dark hole. Judge Aska grinned as she held it up in the mid-day sun to look at it. "Ahhh… Occam's Gazer. You're finally home."
The Duke clenched his eyes shut. Mel let go of the rope and let him fall to his knees. The object was back with its rightful owner and he was no longer needed. "Fine, take it! I never could find a buyer anyway." The Duke stumbled to his feet and pushed past Manfred, hands still bound, heading for the busier sections of town. Manfred was about to stop him when Jesz put her hand up in a gesture that said, "Let him go."
"It is with its rightful owner, now," Mel said, shifting her weight as she started to put the kukri away. "Now for our pay." Under normal circumstances, a proper exchange would have taken place, with money and item changing hands at the same time. But it was a tedious, stressful affair that often ended up in needless fighting or hostages. Besides, everyone knew you could trust a judge.
"Yes," Aska said as she continued to look over the eye. "You know, had you been in possession of this little gem, you would have seen the truth simply by looking through it." She held the device up to her face so that she could look at the group through the eye. "The longer you look, the more truth it tells you. Oh my, aren't' you a naughty boy," she said as she looked at Manfred and smirked. "Had you used it on me, you would have known that I can't be trusted. Why should I pay for something that belongs to me? But, since you know my word is bad, I can't very well have you leaving here alive, now can I?"
With a snap, half a dozen men armed with crossbows stepped out from behind several of the columns, all of them trained city guards. Mel pulled back, launching Aryx and taking her bow off of her shoulder. Jesz lowered her center balance and pulled out her pair of knives. Eaups held his staff out in front of him, and began preparing a spell. Manfred pulled out several long needle-like weapons which no one had seen before. But all of their actions were in vain, because each one already had an arrow aimed at them.
"I should have known," Mel growled behind clenched teeth.
"Oh, don't kill yourself over it," the judge said as she stepped back onto the altar area. "That's our job." With that, she raised her hand. In unison, the guards all raised their crossbows, improving their already deadly aim. "I wish I could promise that it won't hurt, but… what is that noise?"
For some time, the distant sound of thunder could be heard from somewhere in the city. But as Judge Aska and her guards prepared to attack, the noise had grown, and changed. Here it was a CLINK clink… there it was a rummmmble… soon it was replaced by the almost melodic, distressed sound of a bell that had fallen out of its steeple and was rolling along the ground. Behind Manfred and the others, Aska could see that it was indeed a bell, now bent out of shape and wobbling down the road. It collided with an abandoned fruit cart, which sent the cart careening into a pole. The pole teetered for a moment before slapping a sleeping cat on the back, which jumped a good ten feet in the air and landed on huge piece of masonry that was precariously balanced along a wall. Slowly the chunk of rock started to roll, making the cat jump off, and collided with the first column in the abandoned temple. The guards were all looking up at the column as it leaned forward, its balance fighting with gravity until finally it collapsed on the second column, which fell on the third and down the line. Too late the guards realized that they were directly in the line of fire.
"Sod this!" one of the guards said as he started to scramble away, but too late. The columns fell all around them, burying the guards in a cloud of dust and a ton of marble. Judge Aska looked up, the second to last column now leaning against the final column, which would fall directly on her. She started to back up, the last one holding steady until
MEOW! Jesz saw it all in slow motion. Aska stepped on the poor cat's tail as she backed away from the column. The cat then jumped at the judge, attaching itself to her head and face. Aska screamed and started to run wildly, dropping Occam's Gazer and pulling at the cat with both hands. Just as the cat was pulled free, Judge Aska ran head first into the only standing column. This small force, unfortunately, was enough to send the ancient piece of marble crumbling to pieces on top of her.
Within 13 seconds, everyone left alive, even the Duke, had made it a good 300 yards away from the rubble.