Matt turned down the next alley, glancing back to check on his tail.
He'd picked them up a few streets back and despite his crossing through traffic and moving to a different city block, they were still back there. Persistent and speeding up gradually, it wouldn't be long before they would overtake him. With magic, he could have easily ditched both men, but magic wasn't an option right now.
Indeed, that's why this was happening.
Forty yards from the next intersection, Matt's luck ran out. A third one stepped into the street ahead of him. Kicking a mound of trash to the nearest gutter, the figure moved to block his path. Matt chuckled under his breath despite the obvious threat of the situation.
Garbage kicking garbage. The symmetry was just too perfect.
Matt took a deep breath and used a silent rite to toughen his body. It wouldn't stop a bullet, but it would keep him from getting too messed up if these punks started wailing on him. He thought about the guns in his coat; they were there in case this got out of hand. With luck, he wouldn't need to use them and no one would have to die tonight.
Of course, Matthew Engel was never exactly a poster child for good fortune...
He was ten feet from the one he could see when it happened. The sound of running footsteps entered the alley behind him, accompanied by the gasps of two men trying to get some air back into their lungs. They'd obviously run all this way just to keep from missing the show.
"Best not to disappoint them," Matt murmured to himself. He stopped walking and looked up at the kid up ahead. "Kid" was an appropriate term, even though Matt wasn't quite twenty himself. This punk was maybe sixteen, but he was still two inches taller than Matt and weighed a good thirty pounds more. He barely needed a knife, but he was holding one anyway.
"Where... you going... so fast, man?" The voice came from behind him but Matt didn't look back. His eyes were still on the knife. One false move and he'd be feeling it next. Time for something non-committal. Time for a lie.
"I was just on my way home. I don't want any trouble, okay?" As he spoke, he heard the two behind him walking closer. They'd be in trouble range soon. "Please, I just want to go home."
He was in Knoxville, in probably its worst part. Close to the campus but away from the class buildings, Matt was in the shadow of the city - the "bad neighborhood". All towns had them, and Knoxville didn't even try as hard as most to hide theirs. Just like the bridge in the Billy Goats fairy tale, wander into the wrong part of any forest and you'll find a troll...
...or three. "Well, man, if you want to go home, all you gotta do is pay the price."
Matthew swallowed hard and stammered a bit. "H-how m-much?"
The one with the knife answered first. "How much you got?" He grinned as if he'd just told the funniest joke in the universe. From the raucous laughter behind his shoulder, Matt assumed it was one that never got old for this street ogre's posse.
"I... I ain't got much. Please don't hurt me!" Matt reached up and put his hands over his face protectively. The gesture brushed his hair aside and the gleam of yellow metal across his brow lit up the thug's eyes. With a grunt, the big ganger kicked Matt hard in the stomach, knocking him down.
"Bitch! If yer lucky, mebbe we'll let you live!" Another kick, followed by one from the punks behind him. Matt collapsed against the wall, chest to the bricks, and cradled his chest with both hands. In this position, his back pocket bulged, gaping open enough to show a fold of leather.
A quick hand at his waist yanked the wallet free. "Damn! There's a couple hundred bucks here, guys! Ka-ching!" Another kick, and another. This was starting to actually hurt.
A third voice, one he hadn't heard yet, said, "Fine, let's go!." As he spoke, the unseen kid cracked Matt across the back of the bed with something hard. If he'd had to guess, it was a tire iron or a pipe. Too rigid to be wood and too solid to break even with considerable force. Without his current spell, Matt would have easily been struck unconscious by the blow. As it was, his senses reeled for a few seconds.
Long enough that by the time he regained his bearings, it was to the feel of something painful searing across his temples. There were fingers digging into his skin, blooding him in their rough urgency.
"I ain't leavin' without this!" The kid with the knife had him by the skull, pulling with all his strength. If he'd thought the pipe strike was painful, it was nothing compared to what he was suffering at the ganger's forceful tearing. It felt like his scalp was getting ripped off, his face sheered away as the street punk's hands yanked. And yanked.
And yanked harder. "There!" It was a lance of fire through his brain as the Holy Seal of the Order came off and the kid fell backwards, still clutching his golden prize. "Mine!"
"Shit, I think you killed the guy."
"So what!? Let's bail!"
And then running.
It took a long while for Matt's thoughts to return to anything resembling sentience. He was a void, a vacuous nothing with only pain and darkness for companions. A single moment felt like an eternity; the split second of the Seal being torn free stretching out over an eternity before the Light returned.
When it did, it was the exact opposite for him. He was instantly filled to bursting, power and sensation rushing in to fill what had been so terribly empty. The feeling was violent. It was overwhelming.
It was glorious.
Once he stopped screaming, Matt slumped against the ground and laughed. There wasn't anything funny; it was the mad hilarity of breaking an arm, of seeing everything in one's world break apart and having sanity fail forever. It was a laugh that became a wail.
Then came the tears. Everything he'd ever felt, ever thought, surrounded and impaled him. He was crucified on a cross of his own soul's making, pierced by nails of memory. It was the end of all things, the desolate moment between existence and oblivion...
This all went so far beyond catharsis that when it ended, he almost felt hollow again. The Holy Seal had cut him off from magic, but it had really done so much more than that. Magic wasn't just power. He'd never seen that before, but now it was as clear as the bitter glare of the rising sun overhead.
Magic was life. It was the power of everything and the substance of everything. Without it, nothing could exist. Truthfully, nothing should exist without it. What a cold, empty, horror of a life that would be. Magic was breath and blood, air and light. It was...
Matt shook himself out of the revelation. Life-affirming moments were wonderful and all, but he was still collapsed against a spray-painted alley wall in Knoxville. His head spinning from the pain of earlier, he forced himself to stand. He needed to get back to his car, get his real wallet, and get something to eat before he left this dump.
Groaning, he took the first few steps toward breakfast.
"Fuck, that's the hardest I ever had to work just to get mugged."