The group quickly moved through the streets toward the sky-pier, the atmosphere growing more tense with every step.
The jingle of guards’ armour as they searched the city was punctuated by the sound of doors slamming all throughout the surrounding streets. Folks kept moving, looking around nervously at shadows.
Hunters—both amateur and professional—from all across the city were starting to appear, boiling out of alleyways with weapons drawn. The bounty and word of the attack had brought out the greedy and the brave, while the cautious moved out of their way.
Night was deepening and—as lights were snuffed out in store windows and townhouses—the darkness grew thicker. Only street lamps and the magic lanterns of night-running sky-gondolas were left to light the way. These, and the few light spells, firelights, or force balls the group of students had conjured.
Alex glanced above. There were plenty of sky-gondolas zooming by with panicked passengers and nervous drivers inside. He wondered if the sky-pier would be crowded, or if the majority of people had already gotten away.
Holding tightly to a terrified Selina as they moved closer to the sky-pier, he kept a sharp eye on their surroundings.
“Khalik,” he said. “Do you still feel it?”
The prince was frowning. “I do, but it is growing fainter. Harder to pinpoint.”
“Is it getting further away or closer?”
Khalik frowned. “Closer, perhaps.”
Selina gasped and Alex tried to calm her.
Then he turned to Isolde. “From what you know, mana vampires shouldn’t be able to tolerate the mana-vents, right?”
“No,” Isolde said. “Wild-mana is hard to process for almost anything. Mana vampires have some of the best ability to process mana of any creature: they can process wild mana, but not quickly enough to stop it from burning out their mana-processing organ and killing them in time.”
“Right.” Alex nodded. “But it can process some of it. Good. Good.”
“Hmmm,” Theresa frowned. “Alex, you said that it changed to look like someone else before it got away?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t see its face when it finished shapeshifting. Why?”
She frowned. “When an animal bolts, it tries to take the quickest path to safety, right? What would be one of the best and quickest ways to get out of this part of the city?”
“…crap, a sky-gondola,” Alex swore. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Then that is where we shall have to be most vigilant,” Khalik said. “We are two streets away from the closest sky-pier, I think. And the creature…though it is getting harder to feel now, I think it is closer.”
“We watch anyone that’s there,” Theresa said. “We don’t get too close to anybody unless we have to.” She glanced at the group. “If there's a line-up…I say Selina gets on first with Alex, then the wizards who aren’t staying in the city with us. We don’t want to give this thing a buffet.”
The others murmured in agreement.
Theresa frowned. “The square around the sky-pier is pretty open. If we find it around there, that’ll be a good place to fight it ‘cos there’re less buildings for it to climb, and less cover for it to use. Brutus, Grimloch and I can surround it and bring it down. Khalik and Isolde can keep at a safe distance until we subdue it...if we don’t kill it, that is.” She glanced at Alex. “Your plan…I’m not sure if we’ll be able to do it, though.”
“Only if you think you can,” Alex said. “If it gets too dangerous, you guys just kill it. Nothing’s worth letting it get away.”
She nodded, scanning their surroundings like she had in Coille Forest.
The entire situation felt familiar to Alex: heading toward a potentially dangerous route of escape, trying to keep Selina safe, and watching for a dangerous monster that might kill them if they got caught unawares.
There were some major differences, though.
He was tired, but stronger. They had more friends. Theresa was far deadlier. This time around, it wasn’t a case of three vulnerable people and one cerberus watching for a predator: this time, they were a party of experienced young warriors and wizards who could deal as much damage as they could take.
Khalik swore suddenly in his mother tongue. “I’m sorry,” he groaned. “It’s gone. I cannot feel it anymore.”
“I suspected it would fade soon enough,” Isolde said. “Were it so easy to track for a long period of time, the creature would have been caught months ago.”
“Yes, I know,” Khalik said. “But I thought with my connection to my mana that I built through Najyah, I thought that it might…” He swore again in Tekish. “I am sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be,” Alex said, using the language of Khalik’s homeland of Tekezash. His words were still a bit halting, but over the months, The Mark had helped him gain some proficiency with the words. He switched back to the common tongue: “We probably would’ve had to have started tracking it sooner, which we couldn’t. It was still worth a shot, though. When did you last feel it?”
“Farther away from us,” Khalik said. “To the south. I don’t know why, but it changed direction near the end of my connection with it.”
Theresa frowned. “Was it moving in a straight line or…was it erratic? Like it was zig-zagging and going all over the place?”
He looked at her. “The latter, why?”
“When you’re trying to throw off someone who’s following you, the best thing to do is to not go in a straight line: take the fastest route to safety, but try and not make your path easy to follow. You double back, then go forward, zig-zag, go through water if you can: anything that can confuse a tracker and throw them off your trail.”
“So it might still be coming this way,” Alex noted. “Now what?”
“…you said it was wounded?” Theresa asked.
“Yeah. My potion broke its arm and messed it up pretty good. I guess it might be able to hide its injuries…maybe fix them. But healing itself seems to take up mana, so it might still have the big injury: the broken arm.”
“Right…” she frowned. “But if it doesn’t, we need something else then...and I think I have an idea. Okay, it touched you, Khalik and Najyah, right? Did any of you bleed?”
Alex shook his head. “No. It punched me in the stomach but that’s it. Khalik, are you bleeding?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I did stab it, though, so I have some of its blood on my short sword.”
“That shall not do any good,” Isolde said. “A mana vampire’s shapeshifting is some of the most thorough of any creature in this world. Only a few others—such as doppelgängers—can match it. It changes everything about itself, including its smell.”
“That’s alright,” Theresa said. “It should have Najyah’s scent on it and probably Khalik's too from where it touched them. You two were fighting it, so it would have gotten some of your sweat on its hands.”
“Faint scent,” Grimloch said.
“It would be,” Theresa agreed. “It would be useless for tracking…but up close? To something with threesensitive noises? Something that knows Najyah’s scent, Khalik’s and especially Alex’s?” She pat Brutus on one of his heads. “It’ll be obvious. So here’s what I’m thinking.”
She pointed ahead. They were getting closer to the square where the sky-pier was.
“When we get there, I’ll take Brutus and go and just walk around. Get close to people without getting too close: if the mana vampire shows, the fact that some random woman is there with a cerberus shouldn’t make it suspicious ‘cos it’s never seen me before. I’ll have Brutus sniff around.”
She looked at the massive cerberus. “Bark if you smell Alex, Khalik or Najyah on anyone, okay?”
Brutus nuzzled her in acknowledgement.
“Good idea,” Alex said, digging a Potion of Sensory Enhancement from his bag. “Give this to Brutus, it’ll sharpen his nose even more. If the mana vampire doesn’t show up in the square—and I hope it doesn’t—then this’ll help Brutus track our scents on it, and give you a better chance of hunting it down later.”
“Thanks,” she said, taking the potion.
If things were less tense, it would've been almost comical watching Theresa pull out a small, tin water bowl, filling it with potion and then coaxing Brutus to drink as they walked.
He shook the humorous thought from his head as they entered the square.
“That is not good,” Nua-Oge murmured.
The sky-pier was crowded.
A huge clot of people surrounded it on all sides, but they were keeping distant from each other, and glancing around with distrustful eyes. At the sky-pier itself, several of the city guards were checking people over as they boarded sky-gondolas.
Alex looked up and saw an endless line of the sky-gondolas embarking and disembarking from the pier. In some ways he was surprised to see so many sky-gondoliers: they were running the risk of possibly taking a mana vampire aboard their boat and transporting it to safety, if it didn’t kill anyone else on board who had mana first.
Then again, there was a golden opportunity to make a lot of coin from people fleeing from the area, heading in all directions.
As they entered the square, they joined the masses.
“Right,” Grimloch said. “I’m going to circle all these people. See if I see or smell anything strange.”
“We’lI separate too, then,” Theresa said.
“Be careful,” Selina whimpered.
“Yeah, be careful,” Alex echoed his sister.
She gave them a grim nod and stepped away.
That left Alex with Khalik, Isolde, Nua-Oge and some of the other wizards from Baelin’s class. Shiani looked around cautiously, as did Caramiyus and Angelar. Malcolm, Eyvinder, Rhea and Rayne had been busy with other plans.
“Ach,” Isolde said. “I should have let Hogarth and Svenia accompany us: but I thought with such a number of us, I wouldn’t need them. Who would have known we would need their steady hands and heads tonight?”
“Well, we work with what we got,” Alex said, watching everyone around them. “We have to think, adapt and use anything we can to achieve our goal.”
They fell into an uncomfortable silence only broken by Selina’s quiet whimpers.
Alex glanced at the cross section of streets, trying to think of a likely place that it could come from. They had come from the street to the south, which lay in the same direction as the attack. The first place he’d considered it would come from was there, but if it was trying to lose its pursuers and confuse trackers, then it’d likely come from somewhere else.
‘North?’ he wondered. ‘The exact opposite direction. No…maybe that would be too obvious.’
He shook his head. He didn’t have enough information to work with. None at all, as a matter of fact. It’d be impossible for him to predict where it was coming from without knowing more about how it thought and how it moved.
His eyes turned to the east. Down the street—just out of sight—was Shale’s workshop. Would it have gone there? There were plenty of golems and wizards there: it would be a good place to draw mana and replenish its stores. Then again, Shale’s was well defended by security golems, and many of the crafters knew their way around a fi-
‘You’re doing it again,’ Alex thought to himself. ‘Clear your mind. You can’t guess where it’s coming from. The only thing you can do is keep a lookout for it.’
He looked around the crowd. It was starting to thin toward the centre as the guards allowed more and more people to pass. There were few people coming from the streets around the area: most had already fled, it seemed.
‘Look for someone that seems to recognize me,’ he thought to himself. ‘The mana vampire might be surprised to see me here. Look for that momentary reaction.’
He scanned the crowd carefully, looking for-
“Get back!” he heard Angelar bark.
The entire group spun around to see the doberman beastman snarling at a portly man who had stepped too close to them.
“Right, right! Sorry!” the terrified man said, holding his hands up and stepping away.
Others in the crowd watched him and tried to step farther apart without losing their place in the loose line-up.
“Steady, steady,” Caramiyus placed his hand on Angelar’s shoulder.
Alex felt Selina squeeze his hand.
“Alex…” she murmured. “Are we going to be okay?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re going to be just fine,” he said quickly.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, absolutely. We’ll make that mean mana vampire go away if we see it.”
“Do not worry, Selina,” Shiani added in her gentle way. “The spirit of fire will gird us and see us through this. It will guard us against our enemies.”
Selina flinched, but then she nodded.
Suddenly, what sounded like a pack of dogs barking shattered the quiet.
The entire group whirled.
“Get your beast away from me!” a woman screamed.
Alex looked toward her voice. Brutus was growling and advancing on a portly woman with grey hair, who was stumbling back from him. Her hands were raised as if to shield herself. Neither of her arms looked to be obviously broken, but one arm was raised much higher than the other. That hand moved more freely as well. “Stay away!” she cried, seemingly in distress.
Theresa was glaring at the woman; her hand went to her sword.
“Hey!” one of the guards cried. “Control that beast! The last thing we need is a panic!”
The clothes were different. The form was different. The mana vampire had been a man dressed in fine tailored trousers and a jacket: this was a woman in a rough peasant’s dress with a shawl around her shoulders. The creature had been escaping capture for so long because of one key trait—its cunning.
Alex took a deep breath. “Hey! Hey you!” he shouted.
The woman startled and whirled, her eyes catching Khalik and Alex’s faces. It was only for an instant, but a look of surprise flicked across her face.
“It’s her!” Alex shouted. “She’s the one, Theresa!”
Theresa’s sword came out of its sheath in an instant.
“What?” the woman cried. “No!”
“Hey, break that up!” the guards shouted, pushing through the crowd toward the commotion. Civilians tried to move out of their way.
“Don’t move!” the guard cried again.
But Theresa was already leaping forward, her blade swinging.
The old woman held onto that look of terror for an instant longer before her face went slack.
The woman’s hands changed, sprouting those tentacled suckers.