Al looked back to see that the men had regained their footing and were heading towards him. He sped up, running as fast as he could before the exertion caught up with his lack of endurance. He started gaining distance, first at half a block, then a full, then one and a half by the time he saw the sign that confirmed he was going the right way.
Scarinjou had been its own town once, hundreds of years ago, and was situated a few miles from the center of Whitney. It’d had the misfortune of too many critical losses of notable residents, legislature, and businesses over time so that the support for Whitney being the chief city in the area won out. In turn, it became the forgotten town where police rarely patrolled and money for improvements didn’t even trickle in. It had once included several other neighborhoods that had since renamed themselves, distancing themselves from Scarinjou as much as possible. Teakwood was safe enough to walk at night, Old Mavingold might have a few drunks stumbling down the street, but only Scarinjou made people take long detours around in order to avoid its streets.
Al knew he had crossed the line into Scarinjou based purely on the cobblestones popping up every so often, causing him to trip and falter even with the extra balance he got from magic. He slowed his pace due to the thicker crowds and to watch his step better. At this time of night, the streets were filled with snake oil salesmen, corrupt priests, cheap wizards, prostitutes, thugs, and the men looking to hire any of them, even in the pouring rain. It wasn’t easy to see with only the light from the windows of taverns and brothels keeping him from slamming into the walls of buildings, but he managed to feel a sense of safety returning.
Now that he had made it, he needed to get out of sight and hole up for a bit. He wiped the stream of water from his face and was treated to the laughing calls from a few men leaning outside of a bar. “How are you doing, brother?” one asked.
“He looks like a frightened mouse!”
Al gave a low wave and slowed down as he passed them. “Brother”. How dare they? It wasn’t like Al was like them, the scum of the city. He was an honest and hardworking man who paid his taxes and was polite to people. Not like them at all. They moved on to different conversation and ignored him, swears and rude phrases peppering their conversation. They spat into the street and began catcalling a group of whores who saddled by them, catcalling them back. It was all so sickening to Al, like the stench of curdled milk. He didn’t just need to get out of sight, he wanted to.
He spotted a narrow, stone stairway across the street that led up past where he could see. He shouldered past a guy standing at the corner who looked like he was going to charge Al a toll if he felt like it. He gripped the railing and took the steps two at a time, being careful to avoid slipping on the wet moss that clung to certain areas.
At the top he looked around and almost laughed. I sometimes wonder, Kriskin, if I shouldn’t really worship you. You have a knack for eking your way into my life.
The cemetery he was in was small and haphazard, much like the layout of Scarinjou. He walked carefully along the worn path, likely used more as a shortcut than to remember the ones buried. In the corner, deep out of sight from the road below, was what Alpine first thought was a columbarium. As he approached, Al realized it was too small to house urns. It was some sort of an open shrine, two crumbling walls a story high bracketing the corner of the graveyard. It had the disorderly look of a place untended, but used frequently by those who had no pride in aesthetics. Melted candle wax stained the stones red, black, and yellow from the melted wax. Feathers, and what was once attached to the feathers, littered the corners like windswept trash.
Would the miscreants from the streets rat him out if, no when, the trackers came through? It was hard to say. They might buck at the authority or they might want the entertainment of seeing him dragged through the streets. Likely, though, it didn’t matter and a silver or two would convince them to wag their tongues. It was only a matter of time before the trackers made there way up here
The front of the shrine was too messy and exposed. The back of the shrine, however, had some trees and shrubbery. Al walked over and around the wooden posts used to mark graves and slipped behind the walls. He plopped down to the ground, unconcerned about his clothes.
He began breathing slowly and evenly. His heart had been racing for hours and he was starting to feel bone weary from the chase. The Unease was gone and he felt the tingle he almost felt from using magic leave him. If he was caught, he could shift back quickly, but staying in either the Calm or the Unease for too long brought lasting side-effects.
He wasn’t being overly cautious. After learning how to tap into magic, students at Amandorlam were taught the repercussions to long term usage immediately after their first foray with the power. It was a lesson Alpine took to heart, mainly the reason why he had refused to do Unease work. He knew what it would do to him.
The exhaustion hit first. He closed his eyes, unable to keep them open any longer, and rested his forehead against the side of the stone wall. His teeth chattered and he rubbed his arms trying to warm himself. Those symptoms he would get those even if he wasn’t out in the cold. He watched for the next, a feverish madness that manifested as paranoia, an overly high humor, and loneliness.
Alpine pulled the inkwell out to look at the rings again. He visualized himself as a pig in mud wearing loads of jewelry and he began laughing. Two people that had been walking through the graveyard turned heel and ran, which made Alpine laugh all the harder. He had to slap his hand over his mouth to quell the mania as best he could.
He peeked outside to see if those people had returned and saw a man come up the stairs. He was wearing that same dark uniform with gold trim that the trackers wore.
Al held his breath and moved farther behind the part of the wall that wasn’t crumbling. It was going to be very important for him to be very quiet. Except, the man looked like a puppet from a show involving inept policeman Al had seen several times as a child. He took deep, ragged breaths trying to calm himself and found tears stinging his eyes.
Another man with the same uniform came up from the opposite way. If he had bothered to turn his head when he reached the top, he would have seen Alpine. “No sign,” he said to the first tracker. “I feel the information we got from the vermin below was false.”
“Then we continue to search using our normal strategy. Bribing rarely works. Let’s not make the same mistake again and rely upon the chattel for information.”
They looked around the graveyard briefly before leaving the way Al had used. They were gone. Or were they? Was it a trap? Would they be waiting for Al below if he tried to leave? What about the other way? Why did they leave together? Would he be caught if he stayed there?
Normally the paranoia was just a nuisance until it left him, but now it was self-preserving. He wasn’t sure if it was too strong, though. Both the choice to stay or go racked him with doubts and fear that he’d be caught. They wouldn’t have bothered with the conversation if they knew he was there. Unless they were pulling a charade and would catch him one he left down the stairway. They went down the front stairway, though, and both together. The back way was safe, unless they again were pulling a dramatic farce, pretending they didn’t know he was there and had the back stairway covered as well. Then why not just ambush him? He was on a hill that was boxed in by thick woods and a steep angle. There was nowhere for him to go, other than down the stairs.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched or set-up for capture. It wouldn’t hurt if he just gave the situation some time.
Al stayed. His mind continued to race with a constant feed of possibilities. Some were ridiculously absurd, like the fear that they had a pet mammoth they were going to get to sniff him out, that he began laughing all over again. This happened for another quarter hour until he felt the excitement wane. It was replaced by the hollow loneliness he had been expecting.
While it was the most devastating symptom of withdrawing, it was also the one Al was most prepared for. He was always lonely. Even when he was with a patient or in a crowd, he felt detached and observing. The only person who made him feel wanted was Marnie, and that wasn’t a full relationship. It was one of need, one of duty and total trust. She had to love him because no one else did. And he sometimes felt he loved her only because of that.
It wasn’t the best time to make decisions regarding his future, but he had the time and he needed to think things through. He’d go into work tomorrow, bring Ember the chalice, and pretend nothing ever happened. She’d keep her end of the bargain and let him work in peace.
Al brushed his hair out of his eyes and sighed. Even if he could set aside his conscience and pretend he didn’t care that he’d been used, that it didn’t feel right giving her the chalice, there was one problem that he’d just realized. One of the men chasing him knew he was a wizard. They all knew what he looked like, more or less. And Berlont knew Ember had an interest in his prized item. How long would it take for someone to draw connections between Milxner’s and Jindahl and Stohr, then to Ember, and then finally to him?
But, he was registered as a Calm wizard only and had used the Unease. If he kept his head low, he might be able to feign ignorance, even if he matched the description of the wizard they had fought. So long as they used Ghenian law and not Uvarnic, it assured him that he couldn’t be convicted unless they could positively identify his face. It was how trirecs got away with walking the streets with their masks on even though they were likely on their way to commit a crime.
Still, the legal system could draw him into a nasty and long fight. He’d lose clients, work, possibly his job, and his license over this. It was probably best if he avoided any kind of confrontation.
He could return the items, leave them inside Berlont’s door with an apology. But then he’d need to do another favor for Ember and he was so tired of this game she was playing. That is, if she’d even consider another task. Maybe she was at the end of her patience. Maybe she wouldn’t give him another chance. He didn’t understand her motivations and so he couldn’t even guess as to where they were.
The last thing he wanted was to leave, but it was the only option he had that left him satisfied. It was a thought he’d almost had so many times. It would float up, almost to the surface, before Al would push it back down. He hadn’t let himself consider it for many reasons. He didn’t have the money. He had clients that depended on him for their well-being. He was a responsible family man with a business he’d built from nothing. To walk away from seven years of work and marriage, it was a lot to ask a man who enjoyed his comforts and routines.
He sat there for a little while longer, then left the graveyard down the back way. He trekked the miles home, through neighborhoods he was discovering for the first time, heading roughly in the direction he thought was home. Al stopped every once in awhile to check if he was being followed, but it seemed he had slipped away. He had escaped, but he wasn’t sure for how long.