With the guards and the Bazaar now far behind them, the thief and his monkey familiar soon found themselves near the southern end of the River District. Notoriously nicknamed 'the Borderlands', the area once served as a checkpoint for a variety of travelers arriving to the capital and connected the River District with the Outer District via a large stone bridge located above the South Canal. As the main way in or out of the capital, the residents of both sides of the Borderlands flourished on trade and tourism with swarms of merchants and adventurers acting as city guides offering their merchandise or services to travelers entering the city.
However, during the Third Uprising, the Outer District got taken over by rebelling citizens, who wanted to punish the King for making them starve just so he could indulge in luxuries. With a large part of the city no longer in his control, 'The Poor King', as they mockingly called him, ordered the reserve army to deal with the rebelling citizens and take back the district - no matter the cost - and so the Week-Long War began. Spilled blood coated the streets, buildings and people set on fire lit up the night and heads stuck on wooden pikes decorated the ranks of each faction. For seven days, the horror lasted and when it was finally over, only corpses and ruins remained.
The King had won and, both in celebration of his victory and as a display of power, he ordered his troops to exterminate any surviving rebels along with their families and friends, as well as to brutally murder anyone who dared speak against him. He made sure to make the lives of his subjects miserable, as punishment for their treachery.
But, as time passed, so did the Poor King's reign. Soon, he met his end by the dark blade of a Shadow Fiend - a deadly creature formed of darkness itself and used only by masters of the Shadow Arts - which marked the end of an era of oppression by selfish and incompetent rulers. In the decades that followed, Brurradin became a prosperous city and its' people were leading mostly carefree lives, completely ignorant of the rising threat within.
Abandoned and very nearly forgotten by all but a handful of people, the Outer District eventually became known as a safe haven for outlaws of the city. Even after the numerous gang wars that were fought for control over the district, it remained the one and only place where any law-breaking citizen could be free and safe from prosecution. Thieves, murderers, sellswords, black market merchants, brothels, exotic and dangerous animals for sale - all that and more made the Outer District an exciting, albeit dangerous place for anyone who found themselves on the bad side of the law. For years, it gave sanctuary to a variety of criminal scum that operated within and away from the city without much fear for their futures or well-being. With gold coins constantly changing hands and sandstorms sweeping through the streets, it soon became known as 'The Sands of Greed'.
Although outnumbered, the City Guard valiantly tried their utmost to bring it back under their control, but the snickering villains of the Outer District - led by the three major gangs: The Dead Eyes, Iron Razors and the Crimson Ravagers - won each battle, which only further increased the already sizeable power and popularity of the gangs representing the outlaws. The City Guard, having sustained heavy losses over many months of gruesome conflict, decided to put a desperate plan in motion - one that they intended to use as a last resort, should the city fall to foreign invaders - that would significantly hurt the criminal ranks, if not annihilate them all at once. They called upon the High Priest of the Church of Ahras to cast an ancient spell on the so-called 'Sands of Greed'. Caught off guard by this action, the three gangs and much of the outlaws were left with little to no time for escape or to hide as the entire district was gradually swallowed by the sand that it used to rest on. With screams echoing all the way to the Royal Palace, the Outer District quickly disappeared from sight behind the tall city walls. The few that miraculously survived the attack were hunted down and dealt with, giving the city of Brurradin a long-needed break...or, so it seemed.
"Hold here, Noxy! We've gone far enough."
The monkey, carrying the thief with his unusually long tail, jumped over one of the many side streets in the area and gracefully landed on a dusty rooftop overlooking the bridge leading towards the Southern Gate. As he landed, he carefully placed his master down and reverted his tail back to its original size.
"Raul, what are we doing here? Home is that way.", Noxy spoke and pointed behind him with his tail.
"I told you, we're going to meet a friend of mine. She's waiting for us across the bridge and we're already late."
"A friend, eh?", the monkey paused for a moment with a devilish grin appearing on his face. "Heh, now it's all starting to make sense."
"Ugh, please don't start this again...", Raul said as he let out a heavy sigh whilst slowly making his way towards the edge of the rooftop.
"The scented water you bought from that shady merchant yesterday, the careleaf sticks you got from that pretty lady at the market and the ring you stole at the Bazaar earlier. It's just like the time with that fat cow Meereena. Man, that was hilarious!", Noxy snickered and jumped on Raul's left shoulder.
"Oh, shut up, will you? It's not like that, Noxy. And even if it were, it's none of your business!"
"Alright, boss. Whatever you say. I'm too tired to care right now anyway."
With a loud yawn, the monkey reduced himself to the size of a pebble and climbed into one of Raul's chest pockets.
"Wake me up when we're there...", he mumbled whilst slowly falling asleep.
"Don't worry, I won't. I'm better off not having you around now anyway."
Reaching into his leather bag, Raul pulled out a small wooden crossbow that fires a sharp metal hook attached to some thin rope, which is coiled around a miniature reel mechanism at the hilt. Etched into the sides are, what he assumes, its maker's initials - 'ss' - and a short text written in a language Raul never managed to decipher.
Ten years ago, when he found it in an ornamented chest he stole from one of the wealthier nobles during the Fourth Uprising, he tried to sell it on the black market, but nobody would buy it, no matter how persistent he was. He thought it was odd that nobody would want something that was seen as important enough to be locked up in a chest and set on a display as a prized possession, which made him curious. If he couldn't sell it, maybe he could use it.
Indeed, over the years, he found and developed many uses for it, but what he found it most helpful for is navigating the city at speeds that could almost rival his familiar - Noxy. Since he can't always rely on the monkey to carry him around, the crossbow has proven to be an excellent alternative while he waits for Noxy to recover his energy.
"Now then, let's see who I'm up against. Van'ar En'shah...", he said as he snapped his fingers. He blinked a few times until his eyes faintly glowed and his blue irises transformed into those of a hawk's. He could now see clearly for miles ahead, with everything he saw feeling like it was within an arm's reach.
In the distance, six armored knights stood guard at the bridge - two at each end and two patrolling the center. On his side of the bridge, the two armored knights were busy talking to each other while sitting on a pair of wooden logs. At the southern side, the two guards were laughing with wine bottles in their hands while roasting meat on the fire. The remaining two were silently performing their duties, each walking a short distance up and down the bridge with a spear in one hand and a shield in the other.
"Pathetic. And they call themselves the city's 'protectors', 'warriors of justice'...heh, what mockery. They're no different than the rest of the scum in this city.", he said with an obvious look of disgust on his face.
Seeing how he could not use his crossbow to swing across the canal, as it was far too wide, he looked around for an alternative way to get to the Southern Gate. There was a boat tied up to a small wooden dock, but it looked severely damaged, so he quickly dismissed that idea. He then thought about going downriver to the other checkpoint and try his luck there, but it was too far away and he was in a hurry. Knocking out the guards to cross the bridge would be the fastest option, but it carried too much risk of being discovered and the guards calling in reinforcements, which would be too much for him to handle alone.
Although he wasn't keen on the idea, sneaking past the guards was the only remaining option he could think of. It would take him a while to reach the other side, but at least he'd avoid attracting unnecessary attention.
He quickly climbed down the roof until he reached the first floor balcony, off which he jumped and rolled towards the fence protecting the edge of the canal. Decorative plants and bushes lined against the fence gave little to no cover, but they were better than nothing as he made his way to the bridge. With the south side of the canal on his left, he focused his attention on the two guards ahead. Both were wearing white plate armor without their helmets, which they put aside while they talked. Raul was able to make out their faces as he drew near the bridge. One of them had blonde hair cut short by a large scar above his right ear, stern light blue eyes and a rough stubble covering his square chin and neck. The other guard had long raven hair cascading down the back of his armor, baggy brown eyes and a protruding beak-like nose that hovered over his growing moustache. Hiding behind the east railing, he could hear their conversation.
"...At least that's what I think, anyway. I might be wrong (actually, I hope I'm wrong), but I guess it's a good reason as any to send us here.", said the blonde guard.
"Don't be naive, Ricardo. You and I both know that demons can't enter the city...or any city, that is. The barriers are too strong for them."
"The Order claims so, but how can we be sure about that? How can anyone be sure that they can't just jump over the walls and wreak havoc? From what we know, there has never been a demon threat strong enough to test the strength of the barriers in the first place."
"I'm sure the Order - the gathering of the most powerful and wisest mages in the world - knows absolutely nothing about the demons or about magic. They must've protected us all for this long based on luck entirely...", the raven-haired guard said sarcastically and shrugged with a smug smile.
"Look, I'm just saying, what if they're wrong? How do we defend ourselves? We're more likely to become demon chow than survive."
"Ricardo, you're worrying about creatures that have been extinct for hundreds of years. They're nothing more than creepy legends now. What you should be concerned about is our relations with the Gastrian Empire. With the way things are now, I wouldn't be surprised if we were pushed into war with them soon and I don't want to fight yet another war for this damn country."
"Anrion, I might be worrying about the wrong things, but I'd rather do that than pretend everything's alright when it's not. You saw Celon's face when he rushed into the barracks. For him - a man who barely ever showed any emotion at all - to be that afraid is unusual, to say the least."
"He says he saw some demon extend its arms like they were made of some shit and then it just vanished towards the south of the city. Frankly, that sounds as stupid as you worrying about him, but I have to admit it's odd for the captain to believe something like this. Usually, if someone went crazy like that, he'd just ignore them and continue with his business. Instead, he ordered everyone to double the watch here in the southern part of the city..."
'...Extend its arms? Is he talking about Noxy?!'
Raul, who was trying to make his way along the bridge's eastern side, was still able to hear the two guards pretty clearly and the obvious mention of Noxy surprised him. He was sure he had been seen jumping across the city with Noxy before, but he never heard anyone talk about it and after a while, he was under the impression that nobody cared. However, if what the two guards were saying is true, he was actually known enough to get the City Guard to take action.
"So you do think there's something weird going on, don't you?", Ricardo smirked triumphally.
"I never said I don't. But when has anything been anything else but weird in this city? Just remember that ordeal with the mass suicides last month - that one is still beyond me."
"I guess you have a point there. I just hope you're right about this, though. I really do..."
"I hope so too, my friend.", Anrion paused for a moment. Seeing Ricardo's worried expression, he nudged his shoulder with his fist and smiled. "Well, no point in worrying too much about it. Why don't we open up a bottle of this wine and talk some more about those twins of yours, eh? I want to hear all the details..."
"Haha, now when did you see me pass an offer like that? Give me that bottle!", he said as he grabbed the bottle from Anrion's hands and began chugging down the wine.
Realizing he likely won't be hearing anything else of much use, Raul continued to move along the bridge. Still pondering about what the guards were talking about, he quickly reached his first real challenge.
'Great. Now what do I do?...'
Standing on the edge of the canal, he could see and hear the river bubbling below as the guards patrolling the middle stomped their way back and forth the bridge. Looking around the area for a way to cross without alerting the guards above, he noticed that the bridge's metal skeleton was sticking out on certain parts of it. The thick metal bars were only a short jump away from him, but he was concerned about their state. Covered in rust, they did not look very stable. In fact, it was a miracle they could still carry the full weight of the bridge in that state. Raul tried to find a different, hopefully safer way to get across, but he knew that he was only delaying the inevitable.
With no other options, Raul took a few steps back from the edge and a deep breath to calm himself as he prepared to jump. After doing a final check on his surroundings and the short path ahead, he ran straight towards the bridge, jumped off the stone canal wall and landed on the middle of one of the rust-covered metal bars with pinpoint accuracy. He expected it to crack into little rusty pieces as soon as he put his feet on it, but to his surprise, the metal bar was unusually sturdy. Showing no obvious signs of breakage, it gave Raul a short sense of relief before planning his next move.
Looking ahead, he could see several other jutting metal bars lined along the bridge. They all led towards the center, where they were replaced with a large metal arch hovering over the river and connecting the two opposite sides. While the line continued on the southern part of the bridge, getting there was impossible using conventional means. Luckily, the crossbow he carried in his bag was as unconventional as it gets.
Not willing to risk falling to his untimely death, Raul moved from one metal bar to another while making sure to never place his full weight on any of them. The Sun, with its fiery body now at the center of the clear sky above, lit his way towards the wide middle of the canal. Like a monkey leaping from one branch to another, he quickly reached his destination. The metal constructs that made the arch and held the bridge in one piece provided plenty of anchors for his crossbow's hook. As he reached for his leather bag, his eyes caught the beautiful cascade of colors that decorated the river's surface below his feet. Were this any other day, he'd stop and admire the sight for a while - perhaps even pull out a fishing rod and try his luck with the fish - but much to his regret, he had no time for idle pleasures.
He pulled out his crossbow and aimed for one of the large metal bars up high on the southern side of the bridge. After making sure he got the right angle, he squeezed the trigger and the hook went flying towards its target with near-lighting speed. Within a moment, it attached itself to the metal bar, but Raul did a quick check just to be safe. He pulled on the rope to make sure it was locked in place before going any further.
"Man, the things I do for money...", he said and let out a heavy sigh. After confirming that the hook is in place, he firmly grasped the crossbow with both hands and prepared to jump.
"Veh'run Na'shar...", he whispered as his gaze focused at the blue sky above. His eyes turned gray as the warm summer wind suddenly became enraged and slammed viciously into his back, effectively propelling him across the canal and into the air. By pressing a small button on the crossbow's left side, the hook detached itself from the metal bar and reeled itself and the rope back towards the mechanism on the hilt. Realizing he miscalculated the strength of the wind, Raul - still flying towards the sky - quickly aimed for one of the buildings below him and hoped that the hook would attach itself to the roof as he once again fired the device. The sound of the reel mechanism echoed through the air as the rope vanished in the distance and Raul's trajectory changed from flying up to falling down.
His face was being molded into ridiculous shapes as he began to pick up speed on his way down. Within moments, he would be facing certain death by slamming into the deserted building directly below.
"Uh...what's going on...Raul?", Noxy slowly came out of Raul's pocket, yawning and rubbing his eyes. Woken by the turbulence, it did not take him long to realize the situation he was in.
"Uwah, what is going on?! Why are you falling, Raul?! Humans can't fly, remember?!"
"You don't have to tell me that, you idiot! Do something or we'll both end up squashed like a pair of watermelons!"
"W-What are you expecting me to do?! Grow wings?! I'm a monkey, not a bird!"
"I don't know! Just think of something, fast!"
Panicking, Noxy's mind was void of any ideas that could help them. He didn't have much time to think, but he forced himself to calm down and find a way out of this mess.
"I-I think I got it! Raul, hold on tight!"
Noxy jumped out of the pocket and coiled his extended arms around Raul's waist. At the same time, he transformed his body into a makeshift canopy that slowed their descent.
"Yes! Noxy, you did it! Good job!"
"Hmph! No thanks to you, though. If it were up to you, we'd be a smear of red paste by now!"
Noxy's words stabbed through Raul like sharpened knives. He really was at fault here and he knew it, but he didn't appreciate Noxy's remark.
"Well, seeing how we're still alive, how about we keep it that way and avoid being seen by those drunken morons over there? They're bound to notice us if you don't get us down quickly!", he said while pointing towards the two guards enjoying themselves on the southern end of the bridge.
"Ugh, fine!", Noxy replied angrily and leaned his body forward, which sped up their descent towards the small alleyway snuggled between two abandoned shops. "I hope you realize I'm going to charge you extra for all this trouble."
"Sure, sure. As long as we survive the rest of the day, you can have as many as you want."
"Hehe, I'm looking forward to it, then!"
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