She may well be older than all of us put together, but that hasn’t done much to slow the Old-Timer down. I fight to break my way out, trying to follow the line she carved through the bodies, but the flow of patrons wrests control from me. I panic, suddenly awash in the sea of brightly coloured clothes, body paint and masks, wondering why the hell we keep choosing this place to hang out. It wasn’t like this when we first came here, years ago – new management and a new dancefloor have a lot to answer for.
I take a deep breath and give in to the momentum, raising my arms above my head and letting the drunk crowd knock me about. I try to aim myself roughly at the small square of light I know to be the exit. It takes a few moments, the dancers pushing me slowly closer to the door, but eventually I’m spat out into the cold evening air.
There’s a snap in my ears as the din of the club drops out. The crowd’s momentum carries me forward out the door for a few steps before I get a hold of it, coming to a stop in the street just short of knocking into a Residential Guard. I wave an apology to them, barely looking at their face, focusing more on not throwing up.
It takes me a moment to get my bearings as I wait for the ringing in my ears to clear, so I stumble back to a small patch of stone wall beside the entrance. I close my eyes, doubling over to catch my breath, drawing in the air through my nose to try and slow my heartrate. I can handle a lot of things, but truly – fuck clubs.
As my hearing returns, I shake my head a few times, running my hands through my hair. It catches between my fingers, sweat drying on the dark red strands and clumping them together. I need a haircut, or a hat.
The line of patrons waiting opposite me at the door share a variety of colourful looks, but once it’s clear I’m not trying to cut in, they lose interest. The building isn’t really designed to house as many people as want in, but there’s also not much shelter outside, so despite their best efforts most of them can’t hide the goosebumps on their bare arms and necks. Aw, poor them.
Kell Fire is one of the most established bars in the District and the area around it exists because of its popularity. The street, Kell Road, is more like a large alleyway, no room for vehicles but bustling with footfall. Tucked up against the wall, I watch the streams of pedestrians flowing in both directions. Being part of Bastion’s Residential District, set aside for the unwashed masses, the area is packed to breaking with houses and apartments, built in haphazardly organised blocks above the street level. Down on the ground, a scattershot of street food vendors, general stores and speciality product shops fill my vision, peppered as always by advertisement posters and graffiti.
My ears are clear again and the sound of a thousand footsteps and conversations rushes to meet me, along with the ever-present stench of lives boxed in by brick and mortar. I look up, craning my neck as I stretch; a dark but clear night is visible in a strip along the roof of the street, despite being crowded by the buildings that seem to bend in from the sides, choking the stars.
I wonder what stories they tell each other about us, crawling around beneath them?
I sigh, looking back down at the length of the street – right, then left. It’s about a ten-minute walk to either end, so I scan for a sign of the Old Timer. The street is painted with occasional yellow-white pools from the few streetlights that actually function, washing over the grey stone of shopfronts and alleyways otherwise lit by strips of moonlight and the burning ends of sikars between lips.
I scan heads; mostly just normal Null, with a smattering of hair and skin colours, plus a few Fey’s pointed ears, a single Warlock hiding in the darkness of an alley and – there. A white dot, the balaclava, bobbing above the rest. Heading north, further into the city, but – why?
Of course. The Boar’s Tusk. She’s still staying there – and maybe the Tome-Keeper, too. I guess it wasn’t that old of a story after all.
Would he tell it differently, I wonder?
I break into a sprint, sliding past a group of partiers just leaving. After a few seconds, I realise I don’t want her to see me following, at least not yet. She knows I am, she definitely cut the story short on purpose, but I don’t want to seem obsessed. Even if I am, a little.
I slow down and start blending into the crowd instead, weaving my way past the slower walkers. There’s no concept of lanes or two-way passage in these streets, so it’s a free-for-all, pushing and prodding until you get to where you need to be.
I try not to annoy anyone with my expedience, least of all the Guards that line the streets of the District; every now and then I glance over to see if I’ve caught their eye, but most of them are either chatting with each other or absently gazing into the crowd. Their hand cannons draw my eye every time, holstered tight on the sides of their legs, and I get distracted wondering how secure the fastens are.
Whenever I check back for the Old Timer, she seems a little further away. Her height means she’ll be having none of my difficulties moving through the crowd, so I pick up the pace, determined not to let her slink away and beat me there.
After another minute or two moving down the street, just barely keeping up with her from afar, something stops me, pushing back against my chest as I try to keep moving. I look down: two huge Null males, with lots of muscle and pistols in their belts.
‘I’d watch where you’re going, friend. You could run into some unsavoury characters down here.’ The speaker grins with a set of mostly intact teeth, bar one massive, chipped front incisor that looks like it’s exposing a nerve.
‘He’s right. Very unsavoury characters.’ The other man is bald and a little more put together, although both of them wear tattered suits that scream faux mobsters. I briefly glance to my left, where I know a guard was a moment ago. I find her eyes, pleading with her to intercede. She looks straight at me, then at the two men glaring at her. She turns away, coughing a little and walking a few paces down the street behind me.
‘Where are we headed, friends? It seems I’ll be joining you after all.’
‘This way – nice and easy.’ The left man moves behind me and pushes, directing me off to the side and down a thin, grimy alleyway between two apartment towers. The other man presumably watches for anyone looking to be a hero, but within a few moments I can hear his footsteps joining ours, the street’s bustle muting slightly as we walk further in. No one would be a hero over this and I don’t blame them – I certainly wouldn’t.
‘I didn’t know there was a club down here, it must be pretty exclusive. I’m honoured to receive such a – vigorous invitation.’
‘Shut up. Ain’t no party down here, trust me.’
At least I make myself laugh.