Alpine hid in an alleyway, one that was thankfully devoid of anyone else. He leaned his back against the wall while he bent over, his palms resting on his knees. His breaths came fast at first, while he tried to calm down enough for his body to trust that the next lungful was coming.
If anything, this night had taught him he was not cut out for athletics.
“He’s this way!” he heard from a man a few blocks away.
How had they found him? He had left the card in the library and he knew they couldn’t put a spell on an artifact. Either he had been taught incorrectly or the chalice wasn’t the real deal. No, it must be something else. He was confident in his education and the fact that the item was invisible was enough to make him believe it was Mikros’s
He began running down the alley, trying his best not to slap his feet down loudly.
He ducked around a corner. How were they tracking him now? Did the tracking spell brush off on him? No, they didn’t work that way. Spells stayed on what they were attuned to, until removed. The inkwell had been clean, the chalice was an artifact, and he hadn’t stolen anything else.
But, yes, yes he had. He pulled the inkwell out again. There was no sheen he could see on the outside, no matter how he turned it, but what of the inside? Al wiggled the clasp to pop it out and opened the top.
What he saw inside filled him with equal measures of awe and melancholy. Maybe at one time it had been a royal inkwell, but in Alpine’s hand, in that moment, it was a jewelry box. Inside the well that was still coated with ink were two rings partially submerged in wax. The larger was thick and silver with a deep blue sapphire in the center and several smaller emeralds clustered on either side. The smaller was also silver, but held multiple sapphires, each smaller than the middle one, with emeralds trailing around to join on the other side. Tiny glints of gold could be seen hinting around the gems as well as the glimmer of the spell at work. They were wedding bands, ones so iconic that Al recognized them instantaneously. They were the rings worn by the former king and queen of Arvonne.
It was said the king had died defending his wife. As the Arvonnese people had stormed the castle, he had pulled a rapier from a dead guard and fought outside the door to her apartment. Instead of barring the door, like he had yelled for her to do, the queen had tried opening the door to let him in. She had failed. The king was impaled against the wall only moments before the queen had been beaten down and had her throat sliced open.
Now that he knew what he had, there was absolutely no way Alpine could surrender the inkwell and the rings. He had no idea what to do with them, but it felt wrong that they were gathering dust in some old shop, probably just a trophy for a man who sold lies and false promises.
He heard a man speak just around the corner. Al took off again, running through the slick streets, dodging through alleyways and parks.
The chalice that he had stuffed in between his belt and pants was chafing his stomach with each step. He couldn’t keep this up. Eventually he’d have to stop, to eat and sleep, and then they’d find him.
His choices were limited. Give up the rings with the spell that was tracking him. Find someone to remove the spell. Or, find a place to stash the rings where they couldn’t be found easily.
None of those worked for him, so he kept running. His clothes and shoes were soaked through.
Even though he ran fast, he felt weighed down. His muscles were both warm from overuse and cold from the rain. Shelter. I need to go inside and dry off a little.
Al knew of a large building a few blocks from where he was that manufactured ship parts. The business sometimes hired Aggie to lift heavy crates and he had told Al about it a few times, mostly about how he had slept with the owner’s daughter on more than one occasion. Al reached the side door and yanked on the hanging lock, mangling it. He threw it away and slipped inside.
It was massive, over three times the size of Milxner’s. There were stations with pallets of wood and steel stacked around them. More were piled around the perimeter, a large section to the left full of materials and projects in various states of progression. Al walked down the cement steps to the main floor and began walking in that direction. When he reached a giant anchor, a piece for one of the massive galleons that crossed the Gamik Sea, he pulled himself on top. He straddled the top of the stock, the whole thing propped against a stack of lumber, and surveyed the yard. It was quiet and dark, the light from the streetlamps barely leaking inside. He rustled his hair and wrung out as much water from his clothes, then rested.
It was less than five minutes before he heard the door slam open. “He’s in here!” Kriskin malor, not even enough time to come up with a plan! He slid off the anchor quietly, moving around the various parts towards where he hoped there was a back exit.
Alpine had entered the Unease as soon as the alarm had gone off in Berlont’s shop. It took a matter of slight concentration to up his senses to where they were far superior to a normal man’s. While increased vision didn’t help a lot in the dark, but hearing and balance sure did. He could hear the individual footsteps from each of the hunters, a good half a block away. More importantly, his feet moved with such fluidity that he barely made a sound, even on the gritty cement.
He had a hard time understanding why the step-creep approach was superior to his wizardry. Some of the characters in the plays had been wizards, still using that approach instead of this silent method he had learned in one of his classes. This was working, for now, but he’d have to investigate things further at some later date. Hopefully not while he sat in a jail cell.
The men were spreading out to search for him. The five of them fanned out from the door, searching amongst the various table, stacks, and merchandise. One man cursed as he startled at some shadow, then laughed lightly.
He was so intent on those five men and his silent escape that Al forgot that posses were almost always in groups of six. It made a more divisible number: individually, in three pairs, split into two groups of three, or, in this case, a high-low group.
Al bumped into the lone man guarding the back and realized quickly that he was too soft to be a boat. The two froze, startled to be running into each other. Al recovered by smashing the man in the nose with the heel of his hand. The man doubled over and shook his head violently, like a wet dog.
“He’s here! He’s a wi-!” Alpine struck again, this time hard enough to send the man’s head into the wall next to him. He slumped to the ground, either dazed or unconscious, and dropped something that clattered on the floor.
He moved back towards the finished projects. Did they have more trackers? If he could take the other tracker, they would be blind and wouldn’t be able to find him. Which one had it, then? Not the one who had startled earlier and cursed. Numbering the men from the door to the opposite corner, that man had been number four. Which other one would it be? If he was creating a strategy to catch someone like him, he’d keep the men with the trackers closest to the exits. That way, if the thief somehow slipped past the men, he still couldn’t escape without a guard alerting the others.
Alpine could leave out the back door. That tracker was in his possession. However, with one more in their possession, it would still be a game of cat and mouse until Al passed out from exhaustion. It was the moment he turned from the hunted to the hunter. He had to finish this.
One or five, then? Or maybe it was three? Which person was hovering nearest the front door? It was a blessing in disguise that the sixth man, the one Al had knocked out, had shouted out to his team. They were moving to the corner he had last been in, slowly moving around the stations and bumping into things.
Number Five was headed towards the door alongside the back wall. The middle three were converging on the last location of the sixth man. Number One held his position, strafing the bottom of the stairs to the other door. Likely him, then, but possibly Five. I’ll try One first.
Alpine began to move to the corner in between the back door and the first man when he stopped. How was this going to play out? He was going to sneak up on the first man, punch him out, and steal the tracker? The closer Al got to him, the stronger the vibration was going to get. He’d yell out to his comrades well before Al tried to take him out. He needed to hide the inkwell somewhere. He hated to leave it, a fear gripping him that one of the other four would find it and he’d never see it again, but it needed to be done. Temporarily, he promised himself, and he’d find a good hiding place.
He found a small gap in between two girder beams and shimmied the inkwell in there. There was a rag resting on the metal farther down, which he moved back and over the nook where he had stashed the item. Satisfied, Al started moving quietly towards the door he had entered.
He stayed close to the wall. He wanted to slide his back across it, again something else he’d seen in that play, but he felt it would make too much noise. He moved behind, then out, from any pallets or large objects until he was close to the first man.
How was he going to do it? He’d gotten lucky with the sixth man, hitting him against the wall and taking him out. Al didn’t think he could do that twice and the idea of a bloody brawl with this guy didn’t put him at ease. He wasn’t going to win in a fair fight. Despite the damage he’d done already, he didn’t want to use magic against anyone if he didn’t have to.
Al’s hand slid across a cart that jangled. He held his breath, waiting to see if the first man reacted. He didn’t seem to have noticed him. He carefully steadied it and his hand touched a piece of metal. The cart he had bumped into was a standing tool kit and he had found some sort of wrench. The end of it that wasn’t a crescent twisted into a point. While it wasn’t sharp, it could pass as a knife to a man who didn’t know better.
“Say nothing,” Alpine said, as his arm slipped around the first man’s neck. He felt just like Caudin Alscaine from his novels, holding a man hostage until he told him the location he needed. “Hand me the tracker.”
“I do, too. I understand. But, I will not hesitate to use this if you disobey me.” Al sounded much more confident than he felt. “How many have a tracker?”
“Just me and Flitz. I’m just doing my job, please, let me go.”
“That the truth?” Al asked, pressing the tool closer to the man’s throat.
“Yes,” he hissed.
Al moved back and held the man’s left wrist behind his back, pressing the “blade” into his ribs. “We’re walking. I hear getting stabbed in the lung is a long and painful way to die. You say nothing, you make no noise, and I’ll let you go when we’re outside.”
“Anyone see him?” one of the other men asked.
“Say ‘no’,” Al told his prisoner. His prisoner’s voice was shaky, but convincing enough. Al didn’t hear anyone move to their position.
Al found the rag on the beam and pulled the inkwell from the place he had wedged it in with the hand holding the wrench. He sighed a little in relief and put it in his pocket.
He didn’t move quickly enough. No sooner had the inkwell reached its home did the man push back, slamming Al into the next set of girders so hard it almost knocked the wind out of him. For the first time that he could remember, Al was thankful he was short. He hit the i-beam across his shoulders, but missed hitting his head on the top by a hair’s breadth. A band of hot pain bloomed across his back, angering him into pushing the man against the opposite side.
He’s over here! Quick!” Al shoved the man again, this time causing him to stumble to the ground. Alpine was both thankful for being short and poor as the man reached out and tried to clutch Al’s pants, but found he was wearing not the trousers of a rich man but the breeches of someone more frugal. Al wormed his way around and headed for the back door. He almost tripped over the sixth man, whom he had apparently knocked out cold and was still on the floor.
He fell against the back door, shouldering it open with the augmented power his magic was giving him. It slammed against the side of the building and began swinging back at Al. He turned and pushed it closed. He felt a man push against it, then more pressure as the remaining men began to add their weight against the door. Al dug his heels in and leaned his back against the door. He knew it was futile, knew that they’d eventually overpower him, but maybe he could work it to his advantage.
Al could hear the men creating a countdown with a push on three that threatened to open the door. He braced himself for the call and pushed against them. Al’s muscles burned at the exertion, barely getting a break before the next wave. He started running after the last push.
As he had hoped, the men toppled out the door and landed on the ground in a pile. He was still unfamiliar with Whitney, having moved there seven years prior and not being the type to wander through neighborhoods on walks, but he knew of the well-known areas. He needed a place that was going to help him shake these guys as quickly as possible. He could only think of one nearby that was a veritable labyrinth of streets and alleyways.