The continuing story on one woman’s quest to stop a killer, another woman’s quest to, well, not be killed for being presumed to be the killer the first woman’s looking for, and somewhere in the shadows, an assassin who’s really got quite a bit to answer for in the whole mess, if you ask me.
Outside Ioryssa’s Tenement, Merywyn
Later That Night
Elizabeth Lawley flexed her body, fighting to keep her muscles perfectly still. She couldn’t let her clothes rustle, or her breathing become audible. Her concealing spell would protect her from casual observation, but her concern was with the two very perceptive Iosans in the building in front of her. The Seeker, Tovys, and the Mage Hunter, Ioryssa. Tovys and Ioryssa both swore that she wasn’t a Mage Hunter, but Liz was done listening. The woman had killed Greylord Kerenov, and Liz wasn’t letting her get away again. As soon as Tovys left the building, Liz would enter, and take Ioryssa down. Tonight, it would end.
Something moved at the top of the exterior stairs, where Tovys had disappeared into the building an hour before. She froze, letting her breath out in a silent sigh as a robed figure began to descend. Was it Tovys? He’d been tricky to tail earlier, but Liz was certain he hadn’t noticed her following him. He’d have no reason to expect her now, would he? If only she could use her arcane sight, but the flash of light when the spell went off would give her away instantly. The figure reached the bottom of the stairs and a sparkle of reflected light danced across the large gem at the top of its staff. It was Tovys, after all. Liz didn’t relax. The seeker had to stay unaware. Just let him blithely walk past her. If he got nervous, if he went back inside, it would make arresting Ioryssa much more complicated.
At the lowest step, the Seeker paused, studying the darkness around him. Liz’s muscles screamed, her lungs begged for one good deep breath. She knew she could hold out several seconds longer but Tovys seemed willing to stand there all night. Finally, after an eternal moment, he moved on. Liz watched him go, waiting as long as she could before collapsing against the alley wall, gasping for breath. It had been easier when it was just her and Ioryssa in this little game.
Within moments, her breathing had calmed, her muscles relaxing. Liz’s body was used to the unique physical pressures of stealth. With a mental shrug, she allowed shadows to fade from the front of her mind, replacing it with sight. It would be dark inside the building, more than dark enough to hide her. Liz’s advantage would lie in seeing through the darkness, where Ioryssa could not.
Liz stepped forward, moving through the soft shadows of the alley towards the staircase, now lit as if at noon to her arcanely-reinforced eyes. She put a foot on the bottom step, beginning to slide her sword from its sheath. She wasn’t about to be caught without a weapon in hand this time.
The door at the top of the stairs opened. Liz hissed and immediately sought the closest cover. She swung around the railing, diving into the only spot invisible from the stairs – the space beneath them. She pressed herself against the wall of the tenement building as she listened to the boots stepping out onto the landing above. A heavy tread began to make its way down. Slowly, ever so slowly, Liz edged herself sideways, straining for the smallest sliver of a sight-line. It wasn’t raining tonight, and the figure’s hood was not raised. Liz caught a glimpse of shaved head and pointed ears. That was enough.
Liz leapt sideways, away from the building and into the pure darkness of the alley. She pointed a hand at the nearest of the staircase’s aged wooden support posts. Strike.
Ioryssa heard the hissing roar of the arcane bolt in the same instant she felt the stairs under her buck. She pitched forward, tucking into a roll made awkward by the steps. She managed to avoid cracking her head on the sagging structure. Somehow, she wasn’t at all surprised that Tovys’ words hadn’t gotten Lizzie Bullets off her back. She was suddenly very glad he’d left first. Against an opponent as formidable as the Cygnaran, Ioryssa needed to focus on protecting herself. She’d have no attention to spare for her husband’s safety. She came to her feet at the bottom, sword and pistol coming to rest in her hands. She could feel a constellation of new bruises across her back. She peered into the deep darkness that surrounded her. No windows or lamps back here. For once Ioryssa wished she’d taken the front door.
“I told you to get out of there, Iosan. I told you it looked bad. And the next thing I hear, Kerenov is dead.” A flash of blue light accompanied the words and Ioryssa dove again. The arcane bolt tore by above her, smashing into the already-tottering wooden staircase and making it groan deeply. Ioryssa came up with her pistol leading and fired in the direction of the voice. In the instant of light, she saw Lizzie Bullets, no shadows drawn around her, lunging with a sword. Ioryssa flashed through a sequence of parries, rewarded by a shock of impact, a ping of metal on metal and a hiss from her opponent. She followed, throwing herself bodily at the darker shadow in front of her. They collided, both women crashing to the ground.
Ioryssa dropped her pistol, scrambling to get a hold of Lizzie’s free hand. “I told you,” she squeezed past gritted teeth, “I wasn’t there to kill him, I was there to see who else showed up. And someone did!”
Metal scraped against stone as Lizzie dropped her sword, blue light swelling as she swung her now-open hand up towards Ioryssa. “That’s right, I caught you in the act!”
Ioryssa lurched to the side, feeling the crackling wash of the raw power against the side of her face. Couldn’t let Lizzie rise. She lunged back, arms outstretched, sword still clenched in her right. The two went down in a heap again. This time Ioryssa tried to pin one of Liz’s hands with her knees. The sword made things awkward. She didn’t want to throw it away, but with visibility this bad, she couldn’t bring it to bear without risking killing the Cygnaran. And Ioryssa found she didn’t want to do that. “Damn it all,” she muttered. “No, not you! There was another woman there, with a crossbow. She killed Kerenov, I watched her do it!”
“Why should I believe that?” Another blue flash, from directly beneath Ioryssa. She groaned aloud as the energy blast shoved her off of Lizzie.
Ioryssa rolled to her hands and knees, wheezing. “If you’d just stuck around you wouldn’t need to believe it, you’d have seen for yourself.” She squeezed the words out between gasps. Her ribs ached. “But no, you have no reason to believe me. You haven’t believed me yet. Even though I could have killed you four times already. And if I really was a Mage Hunter I should have. But I haven’t. What do I need to do here, Lizzie?” Ioryssa staggered to her feet, putting a hand on the alley wall. Lizzie Bullets was just a darker patch of darkness. But she wasn’t attacking.
“You really want to convince me of your intentions, Ioryssa? Then surrender. Let me take you in. Stop fighting me.”
Ioryssa snorted. “I do that, and your Mage Hunter kills again, and that’s on me.” She took a step towards the darker shadow. “I’m not letting that happen. You’ve made me responsible for all this, and I don’t like that. Tovys asked me to walk away, you know?”
“That’s Seeker Tovys, then? Your husband?”
“He told you?” Another step. “Yes. He thought we should go on the run together. Very romantic. I told him I wasn’t bringing the CRS, the Kayazy and the Retribution all down on him like that. Not when I can stop it all right here.”
“I hardly think you’re in any shape to stop anything anymore.”
“Really.” Ioryssa lunged. With all her remaining strength and speed, she flung herself spread-eagled at Lizzie’s center of mass, raising her sword high away from the entangled bodies as they crashed to the ground for the third time. She felt the rush of air expelled from Lizzie’s lungs on impact, heard the mage’s strained gasp as her sword began to descend. At the last moment she choked the swing, punching the human in the face with the hilt. As Lizzie’s struggles momentarily stilled, Ioryssa gently laid the cold steel against her throat. “There, Lizzie. Dead to rights.”
The Cygnaran mage said nothing. Ioryssa could hear her breathing, fast and steady. They both knew Ioryssa had won. They both knew Ioryssa had the kill, and they both knew she wouldn’t take it. “If I was your enemy, I should cut your throat. There is no reason for me to let you live.” Slowly, Ioryssa pulled the sword back and shifted her weight off of Lizzie. “So will you finally accept that I want the same thing you do?”
There was a scrape, a whistle of air, and Ioryssa felt something cold touch her skin. There was a tingling sting. She growled. She could see no more than before, but she knew Lizzie’s blade was now at her neck. She’d knocked her opponent to the ground right beside where she’d dropped her weapon earlier. Ioryssa cursed the dark.
“Damn you, Ioryssa.” Lizzie’s voice was low and tight. “I’m supposed to be better than this. The evidence says it’s you. Everything says it’s you. Everything but your word and your husband’s, and I have even less reason to trust him. But you aren’t going to let me take you alive, are you?”
It was Ioryssa’s turn to stay silent.
Lizzie let out a long sigh. “Fine. Despite everything, I’m not certain you’re the murderer, and I won’t risk killing the wrong person. Get up, and get out of here. Try not to cross my path again.”
The cold metal withdrew. Ioryssa was on her feet in an instant. She backed away, moving deliberately, though her heart raced, towards the pool of light at the front of the building. She’d had enough of the darkness for one night.
Just before she stepped around the corner, she stopped. Still facing the dark alley where Lizzie Bullets lurked, her mouth twisted into a wry smirk.
“I’ll try, Lizzie. But I won’t promise.”