Ladies and Gentlelost, it is my distinct pleasure to present to you the complete work of fiction, Fear of Retribution, as scribed by pal Ben of Primal Poodle Painting. Nineteen chapters, over 30,000 words, the tale of Capt. Elizabeth Lawley and her mission to bring down a murderous Iosan loose in Corvis, and of Ioryssa, the elf who found herself in the wrong crosshairs, at the wrong time, and had to do something about it. Enjoy.
An Estate near Corvis, Northern Cygnar
There should have been more blood.
It wasn’t Captain Elizabeth Lawley’s first murder scene. Not even her first multiple murder. She’d only been with the Reconnaissance Service for three years, but it was a profession that prepared you for the worst. She’d been ready for gore. Seven bodies was a new record for her, which should have meant record amounts of sanguine stain, but there was nothing. No spray, no spatter. Antique furniture, priceless books, strange magical artifacts filled every room in the estate, and none of them had been touched. Nothing had been damaged but the corpses themselves.
Liz stood in the foyer, hands on her hips, glaring at a dead man. Rochester had been a master Arcanist, a powerful and influential man within the Fraternal Order of Wizardry. The other six corpses had been his former apprentices, all of whom had become mighty mages in their own right. Men and women like that should not have died quietly. And yet here sat Rochester in a large armchair, a book open in his lap, at first glance appearing completely relaxed and comfortable. The second glance revealed the expression of shock and confusion on his wizened features, and the small dark spot on the left side of his chest surrounding a tiny grey-fletched crossbow bolt. Neither chair nor book showed even a speck of crimson.
The other bodies were all the same. One of the others also rested in an armchair, two lay in their beds. One slumped over a desk, one sagged against a bookshelf. All seven bore only the one, tiny wound. Seven of the most powerful murder victims Liz had ever seen, and all had died seemingly without a struggle. Whoever the killer had been, they were an incredible shot, and had given absolutely no warning. Liz wasn’t sure which scared her more.
“It’s just like you asked, Cap’n. Nobody touched ‘em.” Liz started, turning her glare on the man standing behind her. He shifted awkwardly, staring at his feet, wringing his cap with its Constable’s badge between his large hands. The man would likely have been imposing under other circumstances, but seven dead wizards had him decidedly out of his depth. Liz forced her brow to smooth. Smiling was out of the question, but the poor man didn’t deserve her anger.
“I see that, Constable. You and your deputies have done a more than competent job, thank Morrow.” It was a blessing. In her experience, competent local police were as rare as snowfall in the Protectorate. She turned back towards the body, leaning closer to it. Her nose wrinkled instantly. Undisturbed the body might have been, but he’d died nearly three days ago. The corpse stank.
“Strange, innit, Cap’n?”
“Strange indeed, Constable. Disturbing, even.” Liz spoke softly, absently. Her attention was on the body, not her companion.
“Well, o’course it’s disturbing. There’s seven folks dead ‘ere, murdered.” The Constable was indignant.
Liz gritted her teeth. “Of course, Constable. I am referring to the method of their deaths. The bolts are so small. They must have come from a one-handed crossbow, and to be lethal would have to have hit the heart directly. One perfectly executed shot, repeated seven times across seven bodies.” She straightened, fighting the urge to cough the smell out of her nostrils. “Seven assassins made it into this house, each with the skill to put down a powerful mage with a single perfect shot, and then all disappeared again.” She shook her head. “These poor people. They’d planned out such a nice little reunion, and then this happens.” She turned away from the body finally, to find the constable looking at her, his face screwed up in confusion.
“Seven assassins, Cap’n? Why seven?”
Liz’s face twisted to match his. “Well, none of them raised any kind of alarm, so they must have died simultaneously. Seven bodies, seven shooters.”
“That’s not what Cook said.”
Liz strangled an impatient sigh. “I know, the cook only saw one person fleeing the scene, but don’t you think if they were stealthy enough to sneak in without being seen, the others could have snuck out without being seen? Isn’t that more believable than that one person could carry out a perfect execution on seven wizards without any of them even managing to make a sound?”
The constable pointed one side of the foyer, where a door stood open. It was directly opposite the main stairs leading to the upper level. “Cook says she saw it all from that storeroom right over there. Scrawny wench came down the stairs, shot Master Rochester and walked right on out the front door. Didn’t seem to care much about stealth at that point.”
Liz blinked. Indeed, it was unlikely for one of the assassins to come from that direction to attack Rochester unless they had just come from the upstairs rooms where the other bodies lay. But one person, doing all this? It couldn’t be possible. “Wait.” Liz quickly crossed the distance to the Constable, staring straight up into his plain, nervous face. “You said wench. It was a woman? Did the cook say anything else?”
“Oh aye, Cap’n, she wrote it all down for me.” The Constable nervously took a step back, patting his pockets and finally producing a folded piece of paper.
Liz closed her eyes and let out a long breath. “She wrote out a statement for you, Constable?”
“Yessir, ma’am, Cap’n.” He handed the paper to her. She snatched it.
“You could have led with that.” She spun on her heel and stalked away, unfolding the paper. Thank Morrow for semi-competent police, she amended her earlier thought.
The assassin had been tall, wearing a hooded cloak and wielding a one-handed crossbow just as Liz had predicted. As the murderer had slipped out the front door, her hood had fallen back and the cook had gotten a look at her face. Careless. The assassin’s desire for stealth had apparently died along with the seven wizards. She’d been not just a woman, but an Iosan, her head shaved bald and a small dark tattoo visible beneath one eye. The cook had scurried to the foyer windows and watched her cross the grounds and disappear into the forest, alone. No other assassin had appeared after that point. As soon as she could bring herself to, the cook had ventured upstairs and discovered the other bodies. She’d gone for the Constable immediately after that.
There certainly could have been other assassins. A terrified servant’s testimony guaranteed nothing. But the description of the woman had Liz’s eyes stretched wide, her mouth taught. Alarm bells were ringing loud in the back of her memory. The pit of her stomach felt terribly cold.
The assassin was an Iosan elf, with a cultish appearance. She wore a hooded cloak and wielded a hand crossbow with terrifying accuracy.
“Mage Hunter.” Liz only mouthed the words, careful not to let the Constable hear her. The chill in her stomach had slid up along her spine. Her heart began to pound. The corner of her mouth started to twitch.
“Constable.” She spun to face him, her voice stern and cold. She could not, would not, start grinning like a madwoman in front of him. “Would you be so kind as to arrange for proper burials for all of these men, as Morrow requires? Also please contact their next of kin.”
He nodded cautiously. “And the investigation, ma’am?”
Liz cleared her throat to stifle a wild giggle. “Mine, Constable. From this point on, this investigation is mine and mine alone. For your own sake, and that of your men and all of your families, I suggest you leave it at that. This goes far beyond a local affair.”
“If you say so, Cap’n.” Still frowning, he stuffed his mostly-crushed cap onto his head and tipped it towards her. “Pleasure working with you.” He shuffled off towards the door. Liz was already heading up the darkened staircase. She needed to see the other bodies again.
There were no lamps lit, and no windows in the hallway, but Liz didn’t mind the dark. Sight, she thought, and felt a tingle rush through her. A pale blue flash lit the corridor for a moment as glowing runes raced past Liz’s eyes. The darkness returned, but now she could see perfectly well. Her vision fortified by arcane means, she set off down the hall.
Alone in the dark, she let the giddiness overtake her. In all honesty, there was the tiniest touch of hysteria in it. But still, Captain-Magus Elizabeth Lawley of the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service had been waiting a very long time for a case like this one.
A Rooftop, Merywyn, Capital of Khador-Occupied Llael
Two Nights Later
Ioryssa shivered. It was the middle of the night. It was raining again. She was huddled under a dormer on a rooftop, colder than Nyssor’s nethers. Back in Ios, the cold was always crisp and dry. Nothing like this oppressive dampness. She pulled her coat tighter around herself and wished she’d brought a hat. The plan was going about as well as her plans usually did.
She’d been attacked out of nowhere and chased through the rain-slick streets of her city. She’d been accused of murder and espionage. She’d found out that her favourite informant was informing on her. Her name needed clearing, which meant finding the real culprit. And that meant some kind of plan. This was the best she’d come up with.
The killer had to be a Mage Hunter. So she probably wasn’t actually after Ioryssa. It was just a bad combination of time and place. The Hunter probably wouldn’t come after her directly, so Ioryssa would have to find her prey. Kerenov, the man who lived in the house across the street, was a likely possibility. He was a ‘Greylord’, a Khadoran wizard. The house had belonged to a Llaelese merchant, but the merchant was gone, and now the house was Kerenov’s. If there really was a Mage Hunter in Merywyn, she’d be paying Kerenov a visit sooner or later. It was her job. She probably even thought she was doing the right thing.
Ioryssa idly touched the tattoo beneath her eye. The mark of Lacyr, Narcissar of Ages. Once, Lacyr had been queen among the gods of Ios. Now, she was just one of the Vanished. Scyrah was the only deity left in Ios, Scyrah’s followers the only religion with any power. It was too bad they’d gone mad with it. Ioryssa’s finger pressed harder. Her teeth clenched. A rainy rooftop in Llael was still better than being in Ios these days. For someone with Ioryssa’s skill set, there would have only been one path for her to follow in Scyrah’s service.
They would have made her a Mage Hunter.
Ioryssa was no stranger to death, but she was an honest assassin. Out there in the dark there was a woman dedicated to the cause of holy murder, and there was nothing worse than a person who killed out of perceived righteousness. Ioryssa wouldn’t have anyone thinking that that was her.
She’d been there on the roof for hours. She’d stay there all night if she had to. That was the plan. Stake out the prey, find the Hunter, do what “Lizzie Bullets” hadn’t yet. Lizzie was fixated on Ioryssa herself, which had surely blinded her to other possibilities. Ioryssa closed her eyes for a moment and whispered a silent prayer to Whoever Was Listening that she was on the right track. That she wasn’t just an idiot.
On another rooftop, next-door to Kerenov’s stolen townhouse, something moved.
Ioryssa didn’t wait for it to slip away. Staying crouched, she scurried from her hiding place down to the edge of the roof. The street was empty. Carefully she lowered herself over the edge, dangling from the slick shingles. A few feet below, a faint creak rose from a wooden sign swinging in the wind. Ioryssa released the shingles and fell for an eternal moment. Then she drew even with the sign and frantically grasped at the metal bracket which supported it. She came to a stop with a sharp wrench in her battered shoulders. Her breath escaped in a long hiss. No time to be wounded. Her life and reputation were on the line.
She let go again, dropping from the sign to the street below. It wasn’t far, but it was enough to trigger sharp complaints in her bruised abdomen. She landed in a crouch to absorb the shock, then darted across the street. Time to be thankful for the rain. It kept the streets empty, and muffled the sound of her descent from anyone inside these buildings. She slipped into the alley directly across from her erstwhile perch. A couple buildings down from Kerenov’s house, on the opposite side from that flash of movement. She’d seen no sign of anyone, but they could well have seen her cross the street. Time to tread extra careful. She looked up.
No convenient ladders in this part of town. It would have to be a drainpipe.
Ioryssa sighed and started climbing. If this didn’t work out, she’d spend a lot of time trying to come up with a plan that didn’t involve her shoulders so much. They really, really hurt.
Rooftop coming up. Ioryssa braced herself with both feet firmly against the bricks in front of her. Slowly, slowly, ignoring the steady burning in every muscle, she edged her eyes up past the edge of the shingles. Clear. Abandoning stealth for the moment, Ioryssa scrambled onto the roof. Pressing herself against it, she crawled to the peak. Once again she peeped over the edge. She could see Kerenov’s roof from here, longer and higher than the surrounding houses and shops, with a number of ornate dormers like the roof where she’d hidden before.
Still no sign of motion.
It took several minutes for her to make her way to the roof of Kerenov’s house. Each time she had to crest the peak of a roof, each alley she had to leap she felt her heart seize. It was cold, it was raining and the streets were empty, so of course the roofs were empty. Ioryssa still felt horribly exposed. Somewhere out there was one of the most lethal killers in Western Immoren, and Ioryssa was trying to avoid her notice. She refused to be terrified. Being terrified wouldn’t help.
Pressed flat to the surface of Kerenov’s roof, Ioryssa climbed the shingles towards the nearest dormer. The roof was much steeper and taller than the others. It was slippery and treacherous. But Ioryssa hadn’t come this far just to fall off the damned roof when she got there. Reaching the window, she peered through. Dark inside. No telling what to expect. Carefully, carefully, she reached up her hand and gripped the bottom of the window pane. She pushed upwards. Locked. Of course it was locked. Ioryssa gritted her teeth and pushed harder, muscles straining against her wet clothes. Too few people these days appreciated the ‘breaking’ part of ‘breaking and entering’.
The lock gave with a sudden jerk. Ioryssa slid the pane up and open, then slipped inside.
Crouched, she scanned the room, allowing her eyes to adjust. She was on the third storey of the house. It was quiet. The open window behind her let in enough light to see a small bedroom, drapes thrown over all of the furniture. Kerenov wasn’t using this part of the house. The doorway bled a faint warm glow. Lamps were burning elsewhere in the house. As quietly as she could, Ioryssa slid the window closed and crept across the room.
Hallway. Running under the peak of the roof, from one end of the house to the other. Large windows at each end, letting in the moonlight. To her right, at the rear of the house, a staircase leading down. That’s where the warm orange light was coming from. Doorways opened into the hall from the other roof-level rooms, three on each side. Still no sign of movement.
Being here was probably really, really stupid.
Ioryssa scurried across the hall to the room opposite. She crept quickly to the window and stared out at the roof of the building next door. That’s where she’d seen the figure. Had they left? Were they still watching? Or had they broken in too?
If the Mage Hunter was in the house with her, what was Ioryssa supposed to do? Save Kerenov, or let him die as bait? What would satisfy Lizzie Bullets?
A small dark blob snuck into view above the ridge of the roof. Someone else was indeed watching the house. It was darker inside than out, so whoever it was shouldn’t be able to see Ioryssa past the reflections in the window. She stood up a bit, moving her face towards the glass. There could be a Retribution of Scyrah Mage Hunter right out there, right now. Ioryssa tensed for the fight of her life.
The figure rose up, and disappeared.
With a swirl of smoke and shadows, a person appeared in the small dormer bedroom beside Ioryssa. She immediately reached for her sword. Not a Mage Hunter at all, but a mage.
“Now, Ioryssa, surely you realize how bad this looks?” Lizzie Bullets’ voice dripped smugness from beneath the coalescing broad-brimmed hat. Ioryssa’s lips pulled back and her fist clenched instinctively at the tone. She was interrupted by an unfamiliar voice from the doorway behind her. Both women whirled. The voice wasn’t speaking Llaelese.
Ioryssa didn’t know Khadoran, but she didn’t need to. The gun levelled at them was clear enough.
Spare Bedroom, Kerenov’s Estate, Merywyn.
Captain Elizabeth Lawley was fluent in Cygnaran, Llaelese and Ordic. She also knew a smattering of the other common languages of the Iron Kingdoms. She definitely understood the Khadoran word for ‘alarm’ when it was bellowed by a uniformed guard holding a gun on her.
Damn it all. Ioryssa had finally made a mistake, and given Liz something to incriminate her. After all her protests that she wasn’t a Mage Hunter, Liz had caught her trying to infiltrate the home of the Greylord Kerenov. Perhaps the Iosan hadn’t come to murder him, but there was no way her presence here was entirely innocent. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Liz being able to make the arrest was dropping by the moment. She certainly wasn’t trading her life for it.
Sometimes Morrow gives, and sometimes Thamar takes.
Liz turned slightly. She needed a glimpse out the window, but she wasn’t about to turn her back on the guard and his gun. She just needed to see the roof she’d been hiding on before, and she could teleport back to it and be safely away from the brewing violence. The spell coalesced at the front of her mind, and the room around her lit up as pale blue glowing runes began to spiral about her body. Move. Too bad for Ioryssa. Liz was getting out of here.
And then she wasn’t.
A firm hand caught her by the arm, fingers like iron digging into her bicep. An irresistible weight yanked her down. The bedroom spun. The guard’s blunderbuss roared. Liz couldn’t see the rooftop anymore. The glow of the runes around her faded as her concentration shattered like the window glass as the Khadoran’s bullet hit it. No teleporting out now. Ioryssa had stopped her from escaping.
Unless it had already been too late. Liz could have been too slow. She could have been hit. Ioryssa could have just saved her life.
That momentary relief faded as the tall Iosan dragged her to the floor. Ioryssa continued her dive into a roll, not letting go of Liz’s arm. Liz released a squawk of half-stifled outrage as Ioryssa’s momentum dragged her off her feet. Morrow, but the elf woman was strong. Liz was airborne, tumbling across the room towards the frantically-reloading guard. He shouted again as she touched down and half-stumbled, half-landed against the wall near him. The man dropped his gun, going for a sword at his side. Liz instinctively pulled at her own blade, raising her other hand to cast a spell. Which spell was a decision to make when her head stopped spinning.
Ioryssa hadn’t paused. She was on her feet again, sword in her right hand and pistol in her left. She flashed across the room in a blur, blade tip leading. The Khadoran’s yelling cut off in a squeal and he ducked back through the door. Liz’s rattled brain finally decided in favour of defense rather than offense. Armour, she thought, and draped herself in arcane protection. Ioryssa had not stopped, following the guard into the hall. It was definitely time for Liz to be leaving. She turned back towards the window.
“I don’t think so,” said Ioryssa, and Liz caught a flash of movement out the corner of her eye. She turned to see Ioryssa’s left hand, still holding the pistol, swinging towards her face. She stiffened, eyes bulging, but the pistol did not connect with her skull. Instead, Ioryssa’s elbow wrapped around the bottom half of her face and pulled. Liz was dragged along into the hall.
Ioryssa dumped her to the floor in the dim corridor. “You’re the reason I’m stuck here, Lizzie, so you are not getting away that easily.” More guards in red uniforms were thumping up the stairs, lit from below by warm lamplight and from above by moonlight from a high picture window. Ioryssa was hammering the first guard back towards his reinforcements, keeping his body between her and their notoriously-inaccurate firearms. She wasn’t even breathing hard. “After all, if I’m worthy of suspicion just for being here, what does that make you?”
“A licensed officer of the law,” Liz muttered, climbing to her feet. The rain must have been slackening off, considering how much light the window was letting in. She could have made a break for it. It was tempting. But Morrow wasn’t the patron of the cautious and cowardly. Keeping a portion of her mind focused on maintaining her defensive spell, Liz levelled a hand at the cluster of men in the hallway and began releasing bolt after bolt towards them. It wasn’t easy with Ioryssa in the way, but Liz did her best to keep the Khadorans off-balance.
Ioryssa swung a roundhouse with her sword hand, cracking her opponent between the eyes with the pommel, finally dropping him. “Took you long enough!” Liz called. Without missing a beat, Ioryssa raised her pistol and put a bullet into the grizzled woman next in line. The woman fell back, yelling. Even at this range, the Iosan couldn’t seem to make a kill shot. Still, she gave Liz an opening to blast the third guard, narrowly missing the pointed tip of Ioryssa’s ear.
“A bit close there!” she snapped back.
“Oops,” Liz muttered unapologetically. She should really be leaving the fight behind, leaving Ioryssa behind, getting as far away as she could. Instead, she gritted her teeth and kept firing.
The fight seemed to go on for an eternity. In truth it couldn’t have been more than a minute. The hall was just too narrow for more than one of the Khadorans to come at Ioryssa at a time. When they did try to mob her, their packed-together bodies were easy targets for Liz’s bolts. One on one, they fell to Ioryssa’s sword in a few easy movements. The elf woman was so superior to the Greylord’s guards it was almost laughable. They couldn’t even touch her. Try as they might, none of the Khadorans could overpower her, nor slip past her fluid defense. Three times, a man would put all of his efforts into defense, assuming that no woman, no matter how tall, would be able to break his guard. Ioryssa did, all three times, and all three times Liz caught her smiling. She was so fast. So strong. Liz had never seen a woman fight like Ioryssa.
Mage Hunter or not, she was terrifying.
And then there were only two left. Both backed towards the stairs, ruddy faces white. Eight of their companions lay dead, unconscious, or moaning on the floor, and these two had figured out just how overmatched they were. Ioryssa stalked towards them, that fearsome smile stuck across her face. Liz stayed back. There were still sounds coming from below. Kerenov had more than ten guards.
Ioryssa moved to engage the first of the Khadorans. She was a good fifteen feet or so ahead of Liz, who hadn’t moved far from the spare bedroom she’d arrived in. She was tired, her arcane reserves running low. She barely had enough left to be certain she could teleport out. She knew what she should do. She grimaced. If Ioryssa was in fact the Mage Hunter, Liz needed her alive for questioning, not dead in this hallway. If she wasn’t, then it might well be true that she had been driven to this point by Liz’s relentless pursuit.
One of the Khadorans yelled as Ioryssa put her sword through his shoulder. The shouts from downstairs continued. Alarmed men and women, the rattle of weapons, and one deep booming voice overwhelming all the others. That had to be Greylord Kerenov. Liz was out of time.
“This is over, Ioryssa! You need to get out of here before you make things any worse!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ioryssa wrenched herself back out of the reach of the last guard’s wildly swinging axe. She kicked him back down the stairs and shot a glance at Liz. Liz tightened her lips and gave her head a small shake.
“They can’t be allowed to capture me, Ioryssa. I have to leave, immediately. If you want me to believe you, you need to leave too. Prove to me that you’re not trying to add to my problems.” With that, Liz turned and bolted for the window.
Moonlight beamed down through a break in the heavy clouds, setting the rain-wet rooftop next door glistening. Liz tightened her mouth and focused her thoughts. Move.
As soon as she materialized on the roof, she started running, fighting for footing on the slippery shingles. She’d meant what she said. Khadorans wouldn’t take kindly to finding an agent of the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service in their midst. She hoped Ioryssa had gotten out as well, but the time for prioritizing the Iosan’s well-being had passed. If Kerenov got his hands on the elf, Liz’s mission would get a great deal more complicated. If he caught Liz instead, she would die. At times like this, an agent had to look out for herself.
Elizabeth Lawley slunk away into the dripping Merywyn night, more frustrated than ever.
Kerenov’s Manor, Merywyn
“Damn it, Bullets!” Ioryssa snarled, kicking the last Khadoran in the chest. The red-clad man fell backwards, yelping as he went down the stairs. Ioryssa didn’t pause to watch. She jammed her pistol into its holster and turned away. She needed to get to the broken window. That would be the easiest way out.
Lizzie Bullets had abandoned her. Time for Ioryssa to leave too.
She’d come to the house – formerly a Llaelese merchant’s home, now occupied by the Khadoran wizard Greylord Kerenov – to catch an Iosan Mage Hunter. Instead, Ioryssa herself had been caught by Lizzie Bullets. Bullets still seemed to believe that Ioryssa was the Mage Hunter. If Ioryssa stuck around to pick a fight with Kerenov, that wouldn’t do much to change Bullets’ mind. Ioryssa gritted her teeth. If Bullets had just stayed with her instead of being spooked by the guards, maybe they could have caught the assassin together. Now, all that mattered was not getting caught herself.
A freezing gust of wind blew around Ioryssa’s ankles as she turned towards her escape route. She shivered, every tiny hair on her shaved scalp rising. Greylords were widely known as masters of cold magic. She bolted for the bedroom with the shattered window.
“Stop!” The word was Llaelese, but with a thick Khadoran accent. Instinctively, Ioryssa glanced back. Another red-clad figure was moving down the hall towards her. A heavy fur was draped over his shoulders. The biggest, shiniest beard Ioryssa had ever seen rolled down his chest. He looked like some sort of large northern animal. Probably a bear. Khadorans liked bears. He also wasn’t walking. The edges of his furry cloak fluttered by his dangling feet as he floated towards her, born on another icy gust. Behind him, more Khadoran guards clustered on the stairs. None of them seemed interested in moving up with him.
Ioryssa gulped. This, then, was Greylord Kerenov. He raised a hand, ice-coloured runes beginning their slow spiral. Ioryssa dove for the cover of the doorframe.
Looking back had slowed her down too much. The torrent of glacial air drenched her mid-dive, making her bones scream. Her entire body went stiff from the shock. She bounced awkwardly off of the door frame, collapsing to the floor. She tried to roll with it, but her muscles would not respond. Her eyes tried to widen. The lids were too stiff. Kerenov drifted closer.
The moonlight dimmed.
Ioryssa’s frozen eyes couldn’t focus on it, but there was a dark shape outside the high window. The way it blocked the light, it must have been right outside. None of the Khadorans seemed to notice.
Kerenov stopped just outside of sword’s reach and glowered down at her. “So you are the one who has come to kill me,” he said. His voice was somewhere between a beast’s growl and the burble of hot tar. From his tone, he was starting a monologue. Ioryssa tightened her jaw and strained against the cold stiffness. Ever so sluggishly and ever so painfully, her limbs responded.
Kerenov frowned deeper. “You should not move. If you do, I will have to freeze you again. I do not think you would survive that.” Ioryssa growled. The Greylord stood straighter and continued speaking. “I realize that you Iosans have a grudge against people like me. People who wield Thamar’s Gift in the service of Human causes. I realize this grudge is irrational. You cannot help yourselves.” Kerenov gave Ioryssa a momentary patronizing smile, then frowned again. “I did not realize, however, that I myself was on your hit list.”
“You … aren’t … on my list …” Ioryssa managed to force out. Her eyes had finally managed to focus on the window. A humanoid form was silhouetted there, pressed up against the glass. “You’re … on hers!”
Kerenov finally noticed where she was looking and pivoted. With a grunt that edged towards a scream, Ioryssa levered herself up to her hands and knees. Head down, she didn’t see the moment the glass broke, but she heard it, saw Kerenov’s feet drift backwards as he recoiled. She looked up again just in time to see the man’s eyes go wide, his mouth droop open. A small, grey-fletched crossbow bolt protruded from his beard, just left of center. “No. No no no …” Ioryssa’s voice grated past her clenched teeth as she pulled herself up the doorframe. She twisted her aching neck towards the broken window.
The rain had stopped, and the clouds had begun breaking apart. Calder shone full and bright in the dark sky. In front of the large white moon dangled the silhouette. She hung from a rope with one hand, hoisting a slim crossbow in the other. A heavy cloak obscured details, but there was only one person it could be.
“No. No. NO!” Ioryssa bellowed. It wasn’t fair, wasn’t damned fair. She lurched into motion. Every recently-frozen muscle in her body joined in the angry chorus that her bruised shoulders and abdomen had been singing all night. It was not going to end like this. Her escape route lay behind her, red-garbed Khadoran guards clustered the top of the stairs ahead. The guards were between her and the window. Ioryssa bared her teeth and accelerated.
The dark figure slipped down the rope and vanished from sight. Ioryssa raised her voice into a wordless roar, raising her sword as she ran. The Khadorans began to stumble back, some down the stairs and some into the nearby rooms. Kerenov was dead, their duty ended in failure. They were getting out of Ioryssa’s way, that’s what mattered. She barrelled past their retreating forms, leaping for the window sill.
Strength and feeling had mostly returned to her muscles, but they still complained as she grasped the metal frame with her free hand. Remaining shards of glass crumbled under her thick glove. Ioryssa ignored the pain in her muscles, the pain where glass cut through the leather and into her skin. She flung her sword-arm’s elbow over the sill and pulled herself up. She paused a moment to steady herself, and jumped again. Grabbed the rope. She didn’t even try to hold her weight, letting herself slide to the ground. She needed speed. The Mage Hunter was already ahead of her.
Even before she hit the cobblestones, Ioryssa was scanning. She was in a courtyard behind the house. A small fenced square of cobbles where a wealthy person could enjoy the weather with some amount of privacy. If Merywyn ever had any good weather. A flicker of motion on a nearby rooftop brought another growl from Ioryssa’s throat. She’d have to climb again.
Ioryssa flung herself at the plank-and-wrought-iron fence surrounding the courtyard, grabbing the top and pulling herself up. A broad alley, what would have been a street in her part of town, ran behind. She dropped into it and sprinted towards the roof where she’d seen the motion. Puddles threw gouts of dirty water up under her coat. Her fingers, now thawed from the paralyzed claw they had been, gripped the hilt of her sword with determined strength. Nearly there.
“Whoever is Listening, it would be really nice if there were a ladder this time,” Ioryssa muttered as she slowed beside the target house. There was no ladder. Not even a drainpipe. Instead, as Ioryssa’s gaze panned up the back of the house, one of the shadows atop it lengthened and extended upwards. The moonlight, filtered through a drift of cloud, glinted from the tip of a crossbow bolt. Ioryssa immediately dropped into a crouch, her left hand diving for her pistol. She darted to the side, taking cover behind the corner of the next building.
“Who are you?” The voice spoke Shyrr, the language of Ios. It was soft and low, with a rasp that indicated the woman didn’t speak often. So then. Definitely a woman, definitely an Iosan. Definitely a Mage Hunter. “Who are you?” the figure called again, somewhat more forcefully.
“Ioryssa!” Talking was good. Better than being shot at.
“Of what house?”
Ioryssa snorted. That wasn’t a question she’d had to answer in a long time. “None in particular.”
“Ioryssa of No Particular House … why were you at Kerenov’s manor tonight? Do we hunt the same prey?” Ioryssa risked a glance around the edge of the building. The Hunter had crouched down again, her crossbow pointed to the sky.
Ioryssa stepped into the open, her weapons lowered but not sheathed. “The same prey? No. I kill strictly for coin, not for Scyrah.”
There was a long pause. The hood tilted to one side. “You’ve not been home in some time, then?”
“No. I left around the time everyone started going crazy.” Slowly, her weapons likewise lowered, Ioryssa approached the building.
“Is it madness to try to preserve our race? Insanity, to save the life of our sole remaining mother?” The soft voice thrummed. It was a tone Ioryssa had heard plenty of times on Merywyn’s street corners, from people waving Menofixes or Radiances. Never from hooded women with tattooed faces. Ioryssa’s jaw tightened. She felt the urge to touch her own tattoo. Calm. The debate wasn’t important. Keeping the Hunter talking was.
“Genocide doesn’t solve problems,” she said. “We can’t change the past, and your way isn’t going to change the future. Right now, your way is standing between me and my future. That’s all that really matters to me.”
Ioryssa could hear the frown in the Mage Hunter’s reply. “You truly care nothing for your own people? You’d abandon us all to a world that will destroy us in its ignorance?”
Ioryssa’s chest twinged, her mouth twisted. “I don’t … I don’t hate my race. I just wish there was a better way.” She didn’t want to think about Tovys. She couldn’t not think about Tovys. If more Iosans were like him, maybe she wouldn’t have had to leave home. “I wish more of us wanted a better way,” she muttered.
“There is no better way.”
“So you say.”
“So Scyrah says.”
Ioryssa glowered up from the foot of the building. “Scyrah’s in a coma!” she snarled up at the rooftop shadow. “She has nothing to say to anyone!”
The shadow rose up again. Ioryssa’s throat tightened. Stepping out might have been reckless. “Then I have nothing to say to you, cousin. I do not want to be your enemy. So let us hope our paths do not cross again.”
The Hunter disappeared over the roof with an overly-dramatic swirl of cloak. Ioryssa swore, jamming her weapons into holster and scabbard and racing around the side of the building.
By the time she found a way to the roof, the Hunter was gone.
The Lily, Merywyn
The Next Day
Captain Elizabeth Lawley clenched her jaw. Her fingers tightened on her tankard’s handle, making it rattle on the tabletop. Greylord Kerenov was dead, and she could have stopped it. Ioryssa had killed him, and Liz had let her do it. Why? To protect her cover? Fear of the Khadorans? Her superiors would have her head for this.
She’d found Ioryssa inside Kerenov’s house, for Morrow’s sake! Liz should have just taken her down on the spot, Khadorans or no. Instead, she’d faltered. Somehow she’d been convinced that the Iosan woman was not the Mage Hunter she sought. Somehow, Liz had been willing to accept that Ioryssa was there, in the home of a well-known wizard, in the middle of the night, for the same reason she was – to catch the Mage Hunter. And now a man was dead. A Khadoran, to be fair. Probably not a very good man. An enemy of both Cygnar and Llael. And yet none of that changed the fact that he was dead because Liz was an idiot.
Liz let her head drop to the stained wood with a thunk. Next time, she’d kill Ioryssa if she had to. Assuming she had the chance. Ioryssa could well be finished in Merywyn. Perhaps now she’d just disappear.
Of course, she could feel obligated to kill Liz before she went.
That’s what Mage Hunters did, right? Killed mages? Liz was a mage, a human mage, and she’d certainly proven herself Ioryssa’s adversary. But there’d been chances before, and Ioryssa hadn’t taken them. Why hold back, unless she didn’t want Liz dead? Liz lifted her head an inch and thumped it down on the table again, growling into the damp surface. Iosans were all mad. There was no trying to understand them. Except, Liz would clearly have to do just that if she was ever going to finish this investigation. To get justice for the seven murdered wizards in Corvis.
Liz growled again. Louis’ voice cut right through the ale-fog and recriminations, piercing straight to the center of her brain and sowing the seed of a terrifying headache. She levered herself up off the tabletop and glared at him past her skewed hat brim. “What.”
The rodentlike Llaelese man slowed when he met her eyes, his smile faltering. “I, uh, well, I got somet’ing for ya. Somet’ing you asked for.”
Liz slumped back in her chair, fixing her hat with her free hand. She continued to glower at Louis.
He cleared his throat, eyes doing a quick flick from side to side. “You asked me to tell you if dere was any news about Iosans in town besides Ioryssa. Well, I ‘eard somet’ing.”
Liz blinked. Another Iosan? Meaning, another suspect? “Talk.” She didn’t bother faking disinterest. Louis was too scared of her to try to use it against her.
His smile grew a bit bigger, a bit firmer, but his eyes still flicked around the room, unwilling to meet hers. “I can’t reveal my sources, of course, but dere’s an elf-man just took a room in dis fancy inn uptown, de Violet Rose. ‘E was wearin’ fancy clodes, carried a staff wid some weird gem-type t’ing on top. Didn’ talk much, but dat’s Iosans for ya.” Liz frowned, and saw Louis’ expression likewise fall. “Dis isn’t what you were lookin’ for, is it?”
“No.” Liz shook her head, sighing. “I’m looking for a woman, specifically. But it’s more than I had before, Louis. So thank you for that.” Liz slipped a hand beneath her coat, put it on her wallet. Then she narrowed her eyes. “You’re sure this time, you’re telling me everything you know about this man? All of it?”
Louis’ hands flew up. “I swears it, Lizzie, swears it on Menot’, Mor-”
“Menoth, Morrow and your mother, right, right. Fine. If I find out you held out on me a second time, I’m going to kill you, right?”
Louis gulped, nodded. Lizzie slowly drew out the purse and flipped the rat-faced man a single coin.
He frowned down at it. “Ey now, dis is …”
“You’ll get more if I decide your information was worth it. Go away.” Liz deliberately turned her attention to the tabletop, and took a slow drink of her atrocious ale. Louis hovered for a second or two. Liz could see his throat bobbing from the corner of his eye. He didn’t come up with anything to say though, and left quickly enough. She took another drink, and grimaced. Not much to go on, and not likely to help. But it was a lead, and two leads had to be better than one.
She put down the tankard, still half-full, and left the tavern.
To say that the Violet Rose was a finer establishment than the Lily would be like saying Caspia was a finer city than Five Fingers. The sign was clean and recently painted, the windows were clear and even the front stoop had been swept. Inside, Liz saw clean tables and a bar so polished it shone. There was a part of her that wanted to cry. If only she could have holed up here for the investigation. Unfortunately, Lizzie Bullets wouldn’t come here. People like Louis wouldn’t come here. Comfort had to play second fiddle to keeping one’s ear to the street. Just … thank Morrow her lead had brought her here. Just for an evening. Just for a bit. Just to catch her breath.
The Iosan wasn’t hard to find. It wasn’t just his height or the odd cut of his clothes or the staff with its odd curve and the heavy jewel at the top. There was also the fact that he sat on one side of the common room, and everyone else sat on the other. He made people nervous. Liz smiled tightly. That made him more interesting.
Without a word, Liz strode to the corner table and claimed the chair opposite the man. He wore a hood up, to hide his ears, no doubt, but from this proximity there was no mistaking the sharp features and large, narrow eyes. He did not look at her as she sat. “The others leave me alone because I wish it.” He spoke in unaccented Cygnaran. Interesting. Liz responded in the same language.
“They leave you alone because they’re afraid of you. I’m not. I’m curious.”
“Curiosity gets people killed.” He looked at her now, his eyes dark and cutting. “You’re obviously from the southern part of Cygnar, by your face and accent. Yet you speak to me in Cygnaran not out of convenience but to prevent others in this bar from overhearing.” Liz blinked. She opened her mouth, a protest ready, but the man kept talking. “You dress like a street urchin but your neck is too clean. You haven’t given up bathing to suit your cover.” Liz felt her cheeks warming, and fought against it. Lizzie Bullets wouldn’t get embarrassed, and neither should she. “Tell me what a relatively inexperienced agent of the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service wants with me,” the Iosan finished.
That was too far. Liz’s brows drew together and she didn’t hide her frown. She spoke brusquely, with a bluster that was only partially faked. “I’m called Lizzie Bullets. I come to Merywyn looking for things. Right now, I’m looking for an Iosan. You’re an Iosan.” There was no point denying his conclusions. He was at least as good as she was, and arguing the point would insult him. She also couldn’t acknowledge that he was right. That would make her look like an amateur, and not worth his time.
“But I’m not the one you’re looking for.” He shifted in his chair. It was hard to make out anything of his body beneath the voluminous clothes, but he seemed to lack the easy grace and strength that made all of Ioryssa’s movements so unnerving.
“What makes you say that? You don’t know what I’m looking for.” Liz folded her arms, leaned back into her chair.
“I’m a Seeker. No one cares about the Seekers. We’re somewhere between an embarrassment and a curiosity. You did say you were curious, but that’s not the reason.” A Seeker. That was certainly interesting, but probably useless. Liz knew little of the Seekers. They were some sort of quasi-religious scholarly order, and in general, they didn’t go around killing people. Like he’d said, they were an object of curiosity, not concern, so they weren’t a high priority for the CRS.
“So you don’t want to kill all human mages, then?” Liz narrowed her eyes and stuck out her chin. Maybe he wasn’t a threat, but he certainly wasn’t a friend.
“No. I have a different agenda, and no intention of harming you. Nor did I kill that Greylord last night.”
“No. A Mage Hunter killed Kerenov.” Liz kept her eyes fixed on the Seeker’s.
His entire face twitched. “You seem very certain of that.” His voice developed a sudden quaver. His tranquility had cracked, and fear was shining through.
“I’ve been after her for days. I saw her last night at Kerenov’s place. I couldn’t stop her from killing him. I’m hoping you can help me find her again, so I can bring her to justice.”
He grimaced. “I do my best to avoid Mage Hunters. Some of the more … extreme believers among them might identify me as a target rather than an ally. If there is one in Merywyn …” He paused, lips tightening. “I’ll have to complete my business more quickly than I anticipated. Tonight, probably. You should leave.” He started to rise.
Liz held up a hand, stopping him. “Ioryssa. Do you know the name?”
He froze, brows rising. “Ioryssa? Of what house?”
Liz shook her head. “She never gave one.”
The Seeker chuckled, surprising her. He sat back down, clasping his hands on the table. “Ioryssa of No Particular House is not a Mage Hunter.” Liz frowned, opened her mouth, but again the Seeker continued without giving her an opening. “Someone killed Greylord Kerenov last night, but I’m afraid it wasn’t her. If you’ve been hunting Ioryssa, you’ve made a painful mistake.” He spread his hands, still grinning amusement. “She’s a shaven-headed Iosan, but those aren’t uncommon. If she knows you’ve mistaken her for what she despises, she’ll be upset. When she gets upset, she usually gets violent.”
Liz scowled. “You seem to know an awful lot about her.”
The Seeker paused for a moment. His smile twisted into something pained. “Yes, I do. She’s my wife.”
Ioryssa’s Flophouse Apartment
Later That Night
Ioryssa slammed a punch into the wall of her one-room apartment, and winced at the pain in her knuckles. Greylord Kerenov was dead. Killed by an Iosan Mage Hunter. Ioryssa had been right that Kerenov was a target. She’d been wrong about being able to save him.
Ioryssa didn’t really care about the Khadoran’s death. She did care about the Hunter getting away. If she was ever going to prove to Lizzie Bullets that she wasn’t the one murdering all these wizards, she’d need to drag the real killer out. The Cygnaran was not going to be convinced by anything less. And Ioryssa’s first attempt at capturing the murderer had been an abject failure.
She growled, and lashed out with one foot at a chair lying on its side. It skittered across the uneven floorboards. The chair was the only available target for her frustration, and the damage showed. There wasn’t much in the small room. Just a bed on the floor, Ioryssa’s overstuffed backpack, the beaten-up chair, and a small table laden with bottles and cups. Even angry as she was, Ioryssa wasn’t going to risk knocking that over.
She exhaled through her teeth, something between a growl and a sigh. She’d predicted her target’s actions correctly. That was good. It hadn’t been enough, and that was bad. She’d only survived her meeting with the other Iosan woman because of their shared homeland. Ioryssa had been openly aggressive, but the Hunter didn’t seem to want her dead. That would probably change if Ioryssa kept chasing her.
Still, it was this or end up dead or in a Cygnaran jail. Lizzie Bullets probably wouldn’t kill her. But Ioryssa would have to rot in a dark room somewhere, knowing that the real killer was still free and still killing. She’d know that her incompetence had assisted the Retribution in their campaign of insanity. She grabbed a nearly-empty bottle from the table and drained it. Intentional or not, Ioryssa would never aid the Retribution.
They said they wanted to kill every human who had magic. As if there were enough assassins in the Retribution to ever do that. They’d probably set themselves the impossible goal just so they’d never have to deal with what happened when they accomplished it, and realized that nothing had changed. That Scyrah was still comatose, and Ios was still a dying land.
There was a creak outside, and Ioryssa’s thoughts instantly found focus. Someone was coming up the stairs.
She lunged across the room for her sword, barely stumbling. The sound was probably nothing, but this was a bad building in a bad part of town. It paid to be paranoid, even if you weren’t being hunted. She drew the weapon and stood in the center of the small room, listening and trying to remain silent. A decrepit building like this one could not be traversed stealthily, thank Whoever Was Listening. Ioryssa could clearly hear the footsteps approaching her door. They stopped outside. Ioryssa tensed. There was a knock.
A knock? Would a Mage Hunter knock? Would Lizzie Bullets?
Ioryssa pressed herself against the wall beside the door as the knock came again. “What?” she called out.
“Message for you.” Thick Khadoran accent. That was probably bad. But it wasn’t a woman’s voice. Staying behind the door, she reached over, flipped the latch and pulled the handle. She immediately jumped back as it slammed open and a bull of a man charged through. He thrust once with a large knife, hitting only air, before arresting his rush and turning to face her. He gave her a nod and a grunt, pointing the knife at her as he raised a second in his other hand. “The message ees thees: the Kayazy had uses for Kerenov. They do not like that you keeled heem. Now I am to keel you. Ees business.”
Ioryssa shrugged. “Business it is,” she said, and thrust for his face. The big man blocked with the forward knife, then attacked with the other. Predictable. Ioryssa retracted her sword and sidestepped away from the thrust. She struck again, this time from outside the frame of the man’s body. He was forced to parry, out of position to counter. Ioryssa continued working her way towards his back. She was taller, and her blade was longer, which should have been disadvantages in the small space, but the Khadoran moved like a bear. The knives were conveniently concealable, but the man was clearly more suited to a battleaxe. He didn’t have the speed for the smaller weapons. Ioryssa could have just forced him deeper into the room and fled through the open door. That would have meant abandoning the apartment, though, and Ioryssa didn’t feel like doing that.
More footsteps on the stairs. Ioryssa was out of time. She attacked again, he blocked again. The other knife squirmed towards her, the Kayazy thug going off-balance in order to resume the offensive. Ioryssa slipped beneath the strike and kicked him in the knee. He squawked and stumbled. His recovery was predictably slow. Ioryssa stabbed him through the neck, guiding his fall to make sure he didn’t take out the table. Then she spun to face the door. Sword raised, she froze.
The handsome Iosan man in the doorway smiled, his severe features softening. When he spoke, the words of Shyrr were comforting in a way the Mage Hunter’s could never be. “Hello, Ioryssa. You’re in some trouble?”
Ioryssa lowered her sword, quirking an eyebrow. She kicked the body at her feet.
“For you? That’s not trouble.” Tovys walked in, closing the door behind him. He stepped carefully around the corpse and sat down cross-legged on the thin mattress. Unconsciously he placed his feet so as not to get dirt on the bed. Such a dainty man. Ioryssa’s face twisted somewhere between a smile and a sneer.
“This one wasn’t trouble. The problem is what he represents.”
“People in Merywyn suspect you’re a Mage Hunter.”
She scowled. “It started as just one person in Merywyn, but after last night …” She started pacing. “The Kayazy coming after me too is going to make this a lot harder.”
“You mean your little duel with a Cygnaran intelligence officer and one of Scyrah’s more murderous children? I’d think it wasn’t very easy to begin with.” Ioryssa met his eyes, saw the concern there and looked away.
“I make bad decisions, Tovys. You knew that when you married me.”
“I did. But I respect your right to make those decisions. Which is why you are here, doing your work, and I have been elsewhere, doing mine.”
She stopped pacing, turning towards him. Her shoulder found the nearest wall, arms crossing. “So what does bring you to Merywyn, Seeker Tovys?” She smiled a bit saying the title. “A lead for Scyrah’s cure here?”
His mouth twisted. “No. Actually I am between missions. I have to hope our sole remaining goddess can carry on a while longer.” He gave her a rueful smile. “The more power the Retribution gains, the harder it is for the Seekers. Leads are hard to find when no one trusts an Iosan.”
Ioryssa shook her head. “It’s a damned mess of a world when people distrust you because you don’t want to kill anybody.”
He chuckled, tipping his head towards the dead Kayazy. “Why would I need to kill anyone? I have you for that.” She snorted, smiling in spite of herself. “Anyway,” he continued, “like I said, I’m not here on a mission. I had nothing better to do, so I thought I’d come by Merywyn to see my wife. As soon as I get here, a CRS agent appears, this Lizzie Bullets, and tells me you’re a Mage Hunter. I told her that was ridiculous, of course. She’s an odd one. She asked me many questions, and she seemed quite intelligent, but very eager to come to the wrong conclusions. I only came to one conclusion, myself: that you were in danger.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s nothing new.”
“Perhaps not, but this is different. Three different groups are after you now, all of them very adept at moving in the shadows. We both have some expertise in this area, so perhaps you might listen to me for once.” He leaned forward, catching her eyes. “Leave Merywyn with me.”
“You mean run.”
“I do mean run. Do not try to fight the Retribution, the CRS and the Kayazy all at once. Besides, I thought you’d always wanted to come with me?”
Ioryssa’s crossed arms tightened. “I do … but not like this. I want to help you. Bringing all of those down on you won’t be helping. The Seekers are tolerated. You don’t want to become the exception to that. And really, I don’t have to fight all three. If I prove I’m not behind these killings, the CRS and Kayazy will be off my back. That’s good enough for me.”
“And if you get killed before you clear your name? Is your honour worth your life?”
She straightened, dropping her arms to her sides. “That’s why I left, Ios, after all. I do what I believe in, Tovys. It’s not usually the smart thing, but I’ve made it this far. I don’t believe in letting killers roam free because the ones who should be after them are after me instead. It’s insulting to me, and it puts people in danger who don’t deserve to be in danger.” She stepped away from the wall and bent towards him, holding out a hand. “How’s this: if I survive, I’ll come with you when it’s all over.”
He reached up and allowed her to pull him to his feet. “A Hunter in Merywyn makes me uncomfortable. But she has no reason to target me, at least for now. So I’ll stay here as well. Until it’s all over.” She frowned, but he continued, still gripping her hand. “I’ll keep a low profile, try not to be seen with you. But I’m not leaving you to this. You can’t keep fighting alone.”
She returned his grip with crushing force. “Thank you,” she whispered. There was someone on her side now. Just one, but someone. And that made all the difference.
“Let’s catch a Mage Hunter,” she growled.
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.”
Outside Ioryssa’s Tenement Building, Merywyn
Captain Elizabeth Lawley growled and kicked the alley wall. She could still hear Ioryssa’s retreating footsteps. There shouldn’t have been any footsteps. It was supposed to be over. No more games, just one last fight. It should have ended with Liz dead or Ioryssa in custody. Instead, the blasted Iosan had convinced Liz to let her go. Again. A tingle struck Liz’s spine, remembering with the clarity of arcane sight Ioryssa’s sword descending towards her face. She lifted a hand to touch the cut on her brow where Ioryssa had punched her instead of decapitating her. Her neck still tingled where Ioryssa had placed the edge of the blade.
It was time to accept that Ioryssa wasn’t her enemy. Liz was a human spellcaster, and Iosan Mage Hunters existed to hunt and kill people like her. And yet, every time they fought, Ioryssa went out of her way to avoid killing Liz. If it was a ruse, the Iosan woman was insanely dedicated to it. “Thamar’s teeth,” Liz spat. Ioryssa was certainly far from innocent, but she hadn’t killed Arcanist Roderick and his apprentices. She certainly wasn’t going to allow herself to be arrested for the crime. And Liz could not kill her without certainty of her guilt.
She turned her back on the lamp-lit street where Ioryssa had disappeared, and headed deeper into Merywyn’s back alleys. There were no lights back here, but Liz’s arcane vision pierced the shadows that lay piled deep in the alley corners. A few vagrants huddled into their ragged cloaks as her footsteps went by. They wouldn’t be able to see her. She’d just be a passing fear in the dark.
The dark was where Liz needed to go. If Ioryssa wasn’t her target, then the true enemy had stayed hidden. She’d managed to hide from Liz, from Ioryssa, and from Louis, the secret-peddler who’d supplied both of them. Liz would need to visit the places where secrets couldn’t be bought, only beaten from unwilling lips. Someone had to know where the other Iosan woman could be found, and Liz was not going to be gentle in asking.
The darkness lifted slightly, prompting Liz to look up. The alley in front of her opened into a small square. It was piled with crates, a half-dismantled wagon pushed up against one building. Probably a market once, now some combination of storage and garbage dump. Just another forgotten part of Llael that no one cared about any more. Liz shrugged, and started to cross the square to the alley on the far side. It was a good place for dark dealings, but there was no one there and Liz wasn’t in the mood to wait around.
Something stirred on the roof in front of her, drawing her arcane vision. To normal sight, it would have been less than a shadow shifting in the darkness. To Liz, a shrouded figure slid fluidly and silently across the face of the roof, staying low, not allowing any part of itself to break the ridgeline and silhouette against the night sky. Liz bit her lip, swallowing a curse. Her emotions had gotten the better of her, and like an idiot she’d walked right out into the open.
Liz allowed her gaze to shift past the scuttling figure. Pretend she hadn’t noticed it. She needed to be a little bit closer to teleport to the roof. She couldn’t let the figure get spooked and attack or flee too soon. She kept her pace and her breathing steady. Her heart began to pound in her ears as the figure stopped moving, settling into a crouch almost directly in front of Liz. It withdrew something from beneath its cloak – a small, slim crossbow. Liz’s throat tightened and she swallowed hard. The figure began to sight down towards her. Liz was almost close enough.
In the perfect silence, Liz heard the snap of the crossbow string. MOVE, she thought, more forcefully than ever before. The bolt pinged off of the flagstones behind her as her feet alighted on the rooftop. Her sword hissed from its sheath as she let the arcane enhancements fall from her eyes, replacing them with a swirling field of magical armour. The darkness would hinder her and her opponent both, but the increase to her defenses would give her an edge.
Liz struck forward, roaring as her sword tip bit shingles. The cloaked figure dropped to the roof, rolling backwards over itself as if boneless. A slim knife appeared in its other hand even as Liz noticed that the crossbow had been reloaded. “Too close, Lawley. You got too close.” The voice was a woman’s, low, thickly accented. Cold, with an edge that twisted Liz’s stomach. It was most definitely not Ioryssa.
“You’re under arrest,” Liz breathed. She didn’t know what else to say. “For … for seven counts of murder and …”
The other woman hissed and sprang forwards, knife flashing. Liz jabbed with her sword, aiming for her assailant’s hand. She extended her open palm and fired an arcane bolt. Both strikes were evaded with a sinuous twist, the flash of blue light illuminating small, sharp features and huge, dark eyes like a child’s doll made terrifying. The Iosan woman was more beautiful than Ioryssa, and far more alien. Beneath her right eye was a dark, swirling tattoo.
Liz attacked again, and the Mage Hunter – there could be no question this time – melted away like smoke. Liz turned to follow her, striking again with sword and spell. The Hunter flicked the knife-tip towards Liz again, and she carefully parried, suddenly conscious of her precarious footing. The fight had brought them to the very edge of the roof. The Iosan didn’t seem to care, though, taking advantage of Liz’s hesitance to vault through a long, lazy backflip across the alleyway towards the adjacent rooftop. At the top of the arc, the woman seemed almost to hang suspended upside down as Liz watched the crossbow come into line. With a yelp, she threw herself to the side. She’d never evade entirely, but her magical defenses should be enough stop a glancing blow.
The pain of the bolt sinking fletching-deep into her bicep came as a stunning surprise. Liz let out a gasp that was half sob. The projectile had cut through her armour spell as if it weren’t even there. Indeed, Liz realized she was also now having difficulty maintaining it. Something about the pain of the wound was interfering with the flow of magic around her body. Some kind of poison? She scrambled up, dropping her sword to release another arcane bolt with her good arm. The Hunter dodged again, slapping another tiny bolt onto the crossbow and locking it into place with a quick motion of her thumb. Liz’s breath hissed through clenched teeth. The terrain was too open, giving the advantage to the combatant with the ranged weapon. Liz could not keep up the same rate of missiles that the Hunter could.
She teleported again, arriving just beside her quarry. At this range it would be much harder to miss, but now Liz was unarmed. She thrust out an arm to blast the Hunter, but was forced back by a swing from the knife. She pressed back in. She could not let the Iosan get enough space to bring the crossbow back up. She swung her hand low, aiming for the other woman’s feet. The Iosan danced backwards, and Liz followed, adjusting her angle towards the Hunter’s gut. The elf spun a graceful pirouette, but this time she wasn’t quite agile enough. The bolt clipped her shoulder and it was her turn to hiss in pain, dropping the knife.
Liz grinned and surged forwards, but the Mage Hunter was still rotating, finishing her pirouette into a turning back kick that took Liz right in the sternum. Breath fled in an instant. Liz’s legs went limp, her feet losing purchase, and she was off the roof. She didn’t see the crossbow come around again, but she felt the bolt sink high into her uninjured shoulder. Her armour was gone now, and she was falling.
Her eyes panned quickly, finding a patch of clear alley floor within line of sight. Move! Liz teleported, momentum slamming her down hard. She couldn’t stay down, though. She knew the Mage Hunter would have lost sight of her, and had to take advantage. She staggered to her feet and took off as fast as she could towards the nearest main street. She flashed across it with another teleport, entering yet another alley and immediately changing direction. She had to get away.
Both arms throbbed. Her sternum ached and it was still hard to breathe. The entire back side of her body stung from the short, sudden fall. She’d been beaten, and badly. Her fights against Ioryssa had almost been fun. This had not. Everything about this had been different.
For the first time since Rochester’s estate, Elizabeth Lawley wondered if it had been a mistake for a mage to hunt a Mage Hunter.
A Nameless Tavern, Merywyn
Three Days Later
Ioryssa watched Louis drink and tried not to gag. The ugly information broker drained half of the tankard in one long chug, his throat bobbing grotesquely. He set it down and let out a satisfied sigh which turned into an even more satisfied belch. She grimaced. “So, Louis. You came all the way here to drink my ale and tell me you’ve got nothing?”
Louis held up a finger and belched again. Ioryssa’s fists tightened on the tabletop. Louis noticed and smiled weakly. “No, no, Yo-reesa. I came ‘ere to tell you dat in dis case, not’ing means everyt’ing.”
Ioryssa glared at him. He met her eyes and his smile disappeared entirely. He swallowed hard. “I mean to say, Lizzie Bullets leans on me even ‘arder den you do. When she’s lookin’ for somet’ing an’ I don’ hear from ‘er for t’ree days …” He shrugged. “Eit’er she found it or somet’ing went real wrong.” He shrugged. “Eit’er way, it’s good news fer you. She’s outta your hair now.” He tried another smile. Ioryssa ignored him. She looked down at the tabletop. He was right, it should be good news. It didn’t feel like good news. If Lizzie had disappeared, to the point where even Louis hadn’t heard from her, there was pretty much only one conclusion to draw. Her target, the Iosan Mage Hunter she’d mistaken Ioryssa for, had turned at bay. And Lizzie had lost that confrontation.
“Three days ago was the last time I saw her too.” Remembering their fight in the dark alley sent a shiver across Ioryssa’s hairless neck. Bullets had just been a shadow in the pitch black, but her voice had told volumes. Ioryssa shook her head, still gazing downwards. “I don’t think she’d found what she was looking for, but something was definitely different.” Her eyes snapped back up to Louis’ and he recoiled. “What were you selling her three days ago?”
He swallowed, throat bobbing again. “Um … dat’s confidential?” Ioryssa’s brows pulled together and she shook a coin from her sleeve onto the table. The ratty man didn’t look at her, but he swept it up. “I was tellin’ ‘er about anudder Iosan jus’ come inta town. A man. She was lookin’ fer a woman, so I didn’ t’ink it was what she wanted, but she wanted to know about Iosans.” He shrugged.
Ioryssa snorted. “So you put her onto Tovys. Might have helped me a bit, but not her. Tovys said he tried to put her off of me, but she didn’t believe him. Guess that was the last straw. She came after me looking to end it.”
“An’ since yer askin’ me about ‘er, you didn’ … yanno … end it yerself?” Louis cocked his head, his absurdly round ears flaring towards her. Ioryssa shook her head, nose wrinkling at the sight.
“No. We had words. Also punches. But we both walked away from it. We might be sort of on the same side now.”
Louis actually leaned forward at that. “Oh?” He caught her glare again and settled down. “Tell me more an’ I’ll owe ya?”
She sat silently. She didn’t want to tell Louis anything. Just on principle. But he did buy information as well as sell it. And wasn’t it in her best interests to have more people know she wasn’t actually the one Bullets as chasing?
Finally she sighed, spreading her hands. “Lizzie Bullets is chasing after someone she thought was me. That makes it someone I’m interested in. To keep myself covered, you know? I don’t want people thinking I’m a criminal.”
He chuckled. “Ain’t you?”
“Obviously. But I try to be more useful than harmful, you know?”
Louis nodded. “Fair enough. So you an’ Lizzie are bot’ lookin’ for de same Iosan lady, den, but now Lizzie’s gone poof an’ you’re worried dat dis Iosan lady mebbe got to ‘er? I guess dat also means you ain’t the one the Kayazy are huntin’ for?”
Ioryssa scowled. “That’s about it, yeah. The Kayazy got involved after the whole Kerenov thing.” She shot him a firm glance. “Which was also not me.” When he nodded earnestly, she shrugged. “Neither Bullets nor the Kayazy have been able to take me down yet. But they’re both pretty serious enemies to have. There’s someone out there who can hide from both of them. Maybe she made Lizzie Bullets disappear. That’s someone scary.”
“Got dat right.” He finished the tankard and looked expectantly at her.
She crossed her arms, leaning back away from him. “No, Louis. Now, you owe me.” She jerked her head towards the door. “Go do your job. Come back when you know something.”
He got up and stepped away from the table. He didn’t walk away immediately though. “’Ey Yo-reesa.”
“What is it, Louis.” She didn’t look at him, but scowled instead at the empty tankards arrayed in front of her.
“Ever t’ought about getting’ out o’ Merywyn? Seems like de city’s getting’ worse by de week.”
Ioryssa shrugged. “There’s money to be made. And the only people asking questions are businessmen.”
Louis grinned. He nodded, tugging at the sparse hairs on his forehead and wended away between the too-close-together tables. Ioryssa went back to the bar. She needed more ale. A lot more ale. In tankards Louis hadn’t touched.
Some Time Later
Ioryssa blinked. Wood filled her vision. Ancient alcohol filled her nostrils. Ah. A bar-top. Her old friend.
“Hey, boss! You awake?”
“Yeah, Thordok, I am now.” She got an elbow under her and righted herself. She blinked the fuzziness from her eyes. Two slim, goateed humans sat on the stools immediately to her left. The enormous blue form of a trollkin loomed over them, his enormous brow furrowed. He was wringing his hands like a nervous maid who’d just broken a glass. His concern made Ioryssa grin. It had been too long since she’d seen these three. Not since … her smile vanished.
“You … bastards!” She was on her feet, her fist flashing towards the nearest face – Tonio’s. The Ordicman yelped and lurched backwards. Leon caught him before he fell off his stool, and Thordok put out a thick hand to stop Ioryssa from doing the same. She shook him off, stumbling. Her scowl deepened. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you still be off bodyguarding that floozy?”
Leon winced. He and Tonio shared a glance. “Actually, it turned out she wasn’t as good a thief as she let on. First job she tried to pull had the three of us up against an entire gang of Kayazy. We got her out alive, but …”
“We quit after that,” Tonio finished. The two men shrugged in unison. They looked shockingly similar for being from different countries.
“Can we work for you again, Boss? We’re kind of dumb without you.” Thordok’s expression was so open, so familiar. She had to fight to keep her face from softening.
Ioryssa folded her arms. “I’m not exactly working a job right now, boys. Kind of wrapped up in personal stuff.”
“We heard there was some trouble with the Kayazy? There a story behind that?” Tonio leaned towards her. Leon nodded encouragingly. Thordok’s big hand gave her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze that set her bruised and battered torso into bright sparks of pain. She winced and chuckled.
“Of course there is. This Cygnaran mage has been after me because she thought I did some things I didn’t do. I managed to convince her that she had the wrong person, but now she’s disappeared. I think the person she was really after disappeared her. That shakes me up a bit.”
“Why you nervous, Boss? Isn’t it a good thing if she’s gone?” Thordok withdrew the hand from her shoulder, shrugging expansively.
“This other person, the one the Cygnaran’s been after. She’s also an Iosan woman. She looks kind of like me, and I don’t like that. She might be connected to the reason I left Ios, and I like that less. I don’t want any of that in my life here.” Ioryssa shrugged, then stretched slowly. She groaned softly, feeling all the punishment her body had taken over the past week. She was sitting in a crappy little tavern, and the Mage Hunter had taken out Lizzie Bullets, but still … with her boys around her again, Ioryssa felt safe. Safer than she’d felt since they left. She set her shoulders and fixed the three men with a firm stare. “I like my life here, boys. That means this other woman has to go. And if she’s taken out the Cygnaran, my best shot at not getting my hands dirty is gone.”
Leon reached his hand around Tonio. “Pay or no pay, Boss, we’re with you. Take this wench down and things can go back to normal, yes?” The Llaelese gunman’s face wore an open, earnest smile.
Ioryssa took his hand and gripped it. “That’s the plan.”
Thordok thumped his meaty palms together. “So where do we start?”
Ioryssa leaned back, one finger unconsciously tracing the tattoo beneath her eye. “Louis’s going to keep his ears open for any news. But there’s some other folks who might know things, and they already hate me so it’s not like I can make them any madder …”
Leon’s hand gently caressed the pistol holstered at his hip. “I do love shooting at Khadorans.”
Tonio swept up his tankard and lifted it high. His voice was soft, but his grin was wide. “Let’s go beat up the Kayazy!”
The Violet Rose Hotel, Merywyn
Two Days Later, Evening
Captain Elizabeth Lawley was not going to die quietly. She’d been fooled, manipulated, hunted through the dark and shot twice with crossbow bolts, but that hadn’t been enough. She was still alive, and she wasn’t going to stay disappeared for long.
Liz had seen the Mage Hunter’s face, had heard her voice. The only way for the Hunter to protect her secrecy would be for Liz to die, and that suited Liz just fine. She planned to trap the mysterious Mage Hunter, and now she herself was the perfect bait. The next time they met, Liz would be ready.
She’d start with the Kayazy. The princes of the Khadoran underworld now ruled Merywyn’s underbelly as well. The Kommandants and Kapitans and Greylords of the military might maintain the occupation, but it was the imported criminals who were getting fattest off of it. The proof of that was their interest in Ioryssa, the Iosan woman Liz had suspected of being the Mage Hunter until recently. The last time they had met, the last time they had fought, Ioryssa had mentioned that the Kayazy were after her. Ioryssa had worked in Merywyn for years, alongside the Kayazy. If Louis, the rat-faced information broker, was to be believed, Ioryssa had even worked for the Kayazy on occasion. So why would they be hunting her now? They must have suspected her for the death of the Khadoran wizard Greylord Kerenov, just as Liz had.
Not any more. Liz had seen the true killer’s face. Whatever crimes Ioryssa was guilty of, the murders of Archmage Roderick and Greylord Kerenov were not among them. It seemed like the Kayazy didn’t know that yet, however. Liz and Ioryssa both pursued the Hunter, who was pursuing Liz, while the Kayazy pursued Ioryssa. For all she knew, the Hunter was after Ioryssa too. The two Iosans certainly didn’t get along. The board was muddy enough, but to swing things to her advantage, Liz would need to make it darker still. She was at her strongest where the shadows were thickest.
And in order to bring the Kayazy’s involvement to the forefront, Liz needed a change of tactics. Her cover identity, the mercenary mage Lizzie Bullets, had vanished from the eye of the underworld. She hadn’t been seen at any of her normal dives for nearly a week. She hadn’t spoken to Louis, her usual broker, in nearly as long.
It was wonderful.
Liz drew in a deep, satisfied breath and sank deeper into the plush chair beneath her. The goal was to get as far away from her previous approach as she could, and that meant replacing squalor with luxury. She looked around at the antique furniture, the imported carpet, the silk drapes. It would all be ruined if the Mage Hunter tracked her here, but that seemed unlikely. This was a place Lizzie Bullets would never be. Besides, if the end were to come quickly and suddenly, Liz was not going to face it in the filthy common room at the Lily.
She shook herself. Enough reverie. Time to get things done. She rose from the chair and walked over to the large, heavy the bed. She pulled the cord which rang a small silver bell downstairs behind the bar. It was only moments before a knock came at the door.
A well-dressed young man entered. Liz’s jaw tightened. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen. Younger than she’d like, but the boy was what she had to work with. “Can I help you, Madame?” He bowed perfectly.
Liz nodded. “You can. I am but recently arrived and in need of information. I’m not sure where to go to get it.” Liz leaned back in her plush armchair, leaning her face on one hand. Her skin was finally clean, courtesy of the Violet Rose’s baths, but her clothes were still filthy. The boy made no comment, just stood, his head at a respectful angle. Perhaps he was merely well-trained, but Liz also knew that voice and body language could matter more than appearance when it came to demonstrating power and demanding respect. “I’m sure I’m not the first guest at this establishment who has been in the market for … a little discreet advice?”
The boy bowed again. “I know of a few I could contact. Would you prefer to meet with them here, or go to them?”
Liz waved a lazy hand. “Oh, here, here, of course. It’s far more comfortable in here than out there. I’ve spent enough time out there to last me the rest of my life.”
The boy nodded. “Very well, Madame. Is there anything you can share with me that will help me identify the best … advisor to suit your needs?”
Liz lowered her hands to the arm of the chair and leaned back, elongating her neck in exaggerated relaxation. “I would like to speak to a representative of the Kayazy. And I’m not talking about street thugs, friend. I mean the real Kayazy. Men with things to sell.”
The boy bowed once more. “I know just who to call on.”
Liz raised an eyebrow. “You do?”
He nodded. “But of course. Anything Madame needs.”
Perhaps he wasn’t too young for this after all. Liz smiled and waved a hand. “Well then. Go do what you do.”
He bowed a final time and left. Liz snuggled deeper into the armchair, stroking her chin. Drawing out the Mage Hunter would require action. Staying alive would mean staying unpredictable. The Kayazy could always be relied on for unpredictable action. And if Ioryssa happened to be drawn in as well … so much the better.
The next knock to come at Liz’s door was stronger, without any of the young servant’s diffidence. “Enter.” Liz tugged the brim of her hat down. With this visitor, it would help to look as rough as possible. Lizzie Bullets could be rough.
The woman who entered was dressed significantly better than Liz was. Lace peeped from collar and cuffs, and her long coat was actually clean. Her face twisted instantly as she took in Liz’s ragged apparel. “I hear you’re looking to do business?” Her Llaelese was that of a wealthy merchant, but Liz could hear the faint traces of a street-level upbringing. This was a woman who had made something of herself, by herself. This was no Louis.
Liz idly slid one hand down the arm of her chair, resting it on the small purse perched at the end. It shifted with an audible clink. She smiled past the edge of the hat. The broker inclined her head, answering the smile. Airs or otherwise, both women knew that this meeting was about money. No reason not to keep that fact open and honest.
“I’m looking to buy,” Liz replied after an appropriate pause.
The broker laughed, a refined titter with the slightest edge of a bray to it. “Well, that’s good then, because I’m here to sell.”
Liz smiled again. “What I mean is, I want to buy things. The information I want to buy from you is the names of the people who are going to sell me those things.”
The other woman frowned. “Kayazy, the boy said? What would you wish to buy from the Kayazy?”
Liz shrugged. “Wealth. Art, heirlooms, luxuries. There used to be a great many more men and women of means in Merywyn than there are now, so there must be quite a few objects of value that have suddenly found themselves without owners. Enterprising people of business would have found opportunities here. The Kayazy are the most enterprising people I know.” She lifted her chin just a bit. “So do you know of anyone who might have some merchandise for me?”
The broker smiled and walked over to Liz’s chair. She extended an open hand towards the purse. Liz picked it up and smoothly tossed it to her. The Llaelese woman weighed it, and looked down at Liz. Liz tipped her head back far enough to let the broker see her smile, not enough so she could see her eyes. “Yes,” the broker finally said. “I know a few of these enterprising businessmen you speak of. Some of them do deal in … discount luxury items. I am sure you would find something of interest in the collection of one Blackened Petrov.”
“Blackened Petrov? How does a man come by a name like that?”
“The circumstances that led to M’sieur Petrov possessing the items you asked about were not without risk. M’sieur Petrov is a man who has suffered much for his position, and you would do well to remember that when you meet him.” The broker weighed the purse in her hand again. “I can give you an address for his place of business.”
Liz gave a slow nod. “I would appreciate that. And trust me, my friend. I know all about suffering for one’s cause.” Liz tipped her head back then, meeting the broker’s eyes. Sight. The broker’s eyes widened as the runes flashed past in front of Liz’s eyes. She might have recognized Lizzie Bullets, or she might not, but she knew arcane power when she saw it. “I suggest that you tell M’sieur Petrov that I’m coming to see him. You might get a nice little bonus out of it. Tell him … I’m looking forward to coming to an arrangement.”
As the woman fled, clutching the purse, Liz let her smile widen. Her wounds still stung, but they had closed. There was no more time to waste. Time for Merywyn to know that Lizzie Bullets was back, and embarking on a new venture. Roughing up a few Kayazy would be a fine way to pass the time. Until she could get all the players to converge in one place.
Then, Captain Elizabeth Lawley would have her career-making arrest, and eight murdered wizards would have justice.
Louis’ Alley, Merywyn
Two Days Later
“Why are we here, Louis?” Ioryssa crossed her arms and frowned down at the rat-faced information broker. Dealing with Louis was an unpleasant necessity, but at least he usually came to her. Being told to come here, to a grimy alley of his choosing, was particularly unwelcome. Louis just shrugged, wringing his hands. He made none of his usual show of confidence, no false attempts at friendliness. Ioryssa kept her glare firmly fixed on the little man, but kept her focus wide. Louis was more scared than usual, and that meant she should be at least a bit nervous.
“You wanted to know if I ‘eard anyt’ing, yeah?” Louis attempted to meet her eyes, but flinched away almost immediately. “Well, I deed.”
“But why here, Louis?” Ioryssa leaned towards him, taking advantage of her height to look down at the little man. “I thought I told you to come to me.”
He looked up at her then, his brow tightening in irritation. It was a new expression from him, and Ioryssa felt her own eyebrows lift in surprise. “Dat was before you started messin’ around wit’ de Kayazy, Yo-reesa.”
Ioryssa glanced at her boys. They’d only rejoined her a couple of days ago but already it felt natural to have them with her. Leon and Tonio leaned against the filthy alley wall a few yards away. Leon had his revolver out and was polishing it with a handkerchief. Tonio was cleaning his fingernails with a knife. Thordok stood beside Ioryssa, giant thumbs hooked into his wide belt. Trollkin didn’t really need to do anything to appear threatening. The intimidation seemed wasted on Louis, though. The man was terrified enough already.
Ioryssa turned her attention back to Louis and shrugged. “Lizzie Bullets is gone. You were busy finding out what happened to her. I figured the Kayazy were already after me for Greylord Kerenov, I couldn’t make things any worse.”
“Not for you, mebbe. But what about de rest of us? Scared and angry Kayazy are bad news for everyone in Merywyn. You still after dis other Iosan woman, de one Lizzie was looking for?”
“The one everyone thinks is me, yes.” Ioryssa frowned. “Is that why you’re afraid to leave your alley? Did you find something about her?”
“Not ‘er, no.” Louis’ head-shake was nearly a spasm. “No one knows anyt’ing about anudder elf lady in Merywyn. But I did ‘ear some’ting about our ot’er favourite angry lady.”
Ioryssa was instantly focused. “Bullets? She’s back?” Beside her, Thordok shifted, his thick blue brows rising.
Louis nodded. “Holed up at some fancy inn for a bit. Did some business wit’ a broker ot’er den me.” He pouted at that. “Anyway de short version is she’s also beatin’ up Kayazy now. So I dunno what’s up wit’ dat, what you t’ink dey know or don’ know, but de Kayazy are good and upset. I would be too, if I got crazy ladies attackin’ me from bot’ sides …” Louis’ explanation trailed off into a mumble.
“We’re on the right track then, boss?” Tonio asked. Ioryssa glanced at him. The knife had disappeared. Beside him, Leon still held the revolver and cloth but had stopped polishing. Both men stood on the cracked, trash-strewn cobbles as if on a parade ground, shoulders square and stances firm. “If Bullets also thinks the Kayazy know something about this woman, we must be close!”
Ioryss grunted. “It might just mean that no one cares about Kayazy but Kayazy. They’re good targets for blowing off steam.” She spun on her heel away from Louis and began pacing down the alley. “Maybe there’s more to it than that, I don’t know. Bullets knows more than I do, she always has. She’s not as desperate as we are. Kerenov had some value to the Kayazy, that’s clear by how they came after me. Maybe there are more ties between the Kayazy and the Greylords, maybe there aren’t. It would make them enemies of the Mage Hunter, but there’s no evidence of that. Just wishful thinking.” She turned and began pacing back the other way, glancing at Louis and Thordok in turn. “Bullets is after something more than information. She thinks attacking the Kayazy is going to lead her to … to this other Iosan. But there’s no way the other Iosan is working with the Kayazy.” She stopped in front of Louis. “What exactly has she been doing, Louis?”
“She hired dis broker to set up a meeting between ‘er and Blackened Petrov, one o’ de Kayazy bosses local. Petrov’s been running de operation to smuggle valuables outta Merywyn. T’ings dat belonged to de nobles, before dey all got killed or ran away to Cygnar an’ Ord. She went to de meeting, took out all Petrov’s guards an’ attacked de boss ‘imself. Petrov got away, an’ since den she’s been attacking any Kayazy she can find, trying to find out where Petrov’s main ware’ouse is.” Louis scowled. “’Course, I know where Petrov’s ware’ouse is, but Lizzie Bullets is all done wid me …”
Ioryss reached down and grabbed him by the shoulders. “First of all, you’re going to tell me where that warehouse is. Second of all, how do you know all this? Isn’t Bullets good at covering her tracks?”
He blinked, pulling away. He wasn’t strong enough. “It’s down by de river, in Kayazy territory. Biggest building on de block, green shingles on de roof! An’ yeah, Lizzie’s usually pretty good at covering ‘erself, but dis time she’s hitting too ‘ard an’ too often. Even she can’t keep dis quiet from someone as good as me.” He tried a weak smile, which faded when he failed once again to pull his arms away.
Ioryssa let go of him, turning away and resuming pacing. “Petrov can’t be important to this, can he?” asked Thordok, Leon and Tonio all stared blankly at her. She shook her head, addressing the secret-peddler again. “It bothers me that you know so much about this. All right, you aren’t terrible at your job. But you didn’t watch the attacks, listen to the interrogations. You heard about it from someone, so people were already talking. And how does someone like Lizzie Bullets start a campaign against the Kayazy and let people talk about it?”
“Maybe she wants people to talk? Wants to look scary.” Thordok thumped his meaty fist into his palm. “Fighting Kayazy and getting away with it is good for the reputation.”
“He might be onto something there, boss.” Leon tilted his head, one eyebrow lifted. “Some people knew the name Lizzie Bullets before, but not everyone did. You think she’s Cygnaran Intelligence, right boss?” Ioryss glared at him. He didn’t get the hint, but kept talking. “Maybe she wants to build up this alter ego of hers, get everyone scared of her. It’d be useful.”
“Too bad it’ll be a trap,” added Tonio.
Ioryssa paused. “Say that again.”
The Ordicman shrugged. “All this time she’s been chasing after Petrov, by now he must have a trap set for her. That warehouse must be crawling with his goons.”
“A trap.” Ioryssa stared at Leon and Tonio without seeing them. They glanced at each other, their nearly-identical faces and goatees seeming like a distorted. “It is a trap. And she’s the bait.”
Ioryssa began walking rapidly down the alley away from Louis. “Come on!” she barked. Her boys hurried to catch up.
“Where are you going, Yo-reesa?” Louis called after her.
“Petrov’s warehouse, before Bullets gets herself killed.”
“But what about me?”
Ioryssa pulled a pouch of coins from beneath her coat and threw it over her shoulder without turning. She heard Louis scrabbling for it as she turned the corner.
“Why are we doing this, boss?” Tonio asked, coming up beside her.
“Bullets is letting people know that she’s after Petrov. The other Iosan … she’s a Mage Hunter. Most dangerous assassins in the Iron Kingdoms, and experts at killing spell-casters like Bullets. The Hunter has to know by now that Bullets is after her, so she’ll want Bullets dead. Petrov’s warehouse is where it all converges. Bullets goes there to kill Petrov. The Mage Hunter goes there to kill Bullets.”
“And so why are we going there?” Leon came up on her other side.
“Bullets can’t handle Petrov, his Kayazy, and an Iosan Mage Hunter all at the same time. I don’t even think she thinks she can. If she loses this, nothing ends. That Mage Hunter will still be out there making me look bad. I’ll never work in Merywyn again.” Ioryssa glanced between the two men. “You boys don’t want me to leave Merywyn, do you?”
“It’d be better for us if you didn’t, that’s for sure,” said Leon. Tonio nodded agreement.
“Also we want to thump this wench for what she’s put you through,” Thordok said from behind them.
Ioryssa grinned at them. “All right. Get your gear, meet at my place in two hours.”
When Ioryssa emerged from her apartment two hours later, she scowled. Leon looked much as he had before, dressed in worn but serviceable leathers. The only difference was that his revolver now sat high on his hip in a visible holster. Thordok had his big heavy helmet on, his shield on his back and an axe Ioryssa would have struggled to lift at his side. Tonio wore the scratched and dented plate armour he’d ‘borrowed’ from his old mercenary company, and hefted a long halberd.
And standing with them, leaning on his crystal-topped staff, was Tovys.
Ioryssa hurried down the stairs, hopping over the sections Lizzie Bullets had destroyed in their last fight. She stopped in front of the group, ignoring her three subordinates and looking straight at her husband. “What are you doing here?”
He angled his head towards the trollkin. “Thordok told me.”
Ioryssa glared at Thordok, then back at Tovys. “You aren’t coming.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “I probably shouldn’t, but I am.”
“I can’t waste energy looking after you.”
“That’s not how this is going to go. You’ve said it yourself, you’re going to be outnumbered. You’re not fighting Lizzie Bullets this time, though. You’re fighting a bunch of Kayazy and a gods-forsaken Mage Hunter. I can hold my own against Kayazy, and against a Hunter, you’ll need all the help you can get.”
She bared her teeth. “Stuff your logic. I’m still going to be worried about you and we can’t have that.”
He reached out his empty hand and placed it on her upper arm. “You’ll be worried about me wherever I am. This time, Ioryssa, let me help. I don’t fight much, but I’ve been on my own a long time. I can handle this.” Before she could respond, he winked. “Besides, you’ll fight harder to impress me, won’t you?”
She snarled and spun away from him. She wasn’t going to let him see her smile. He probably heard it anyway. “Fine. Come, then. Let’s get moving.”
As soon as they turned onto the lane that led to Blackened Petrov’s main warehouse, they saw the bodies.
Warehouse District, Merywyn
Two Days Later
Captain Elizabeth Lawley was on the hunt.
Being a human spell-caster, hunting an Iosan Mage Hunter was a dangerous proposition. Dangerous, but not difficult, as Liz herself made the perfect bait for her prey. Not that she was sitting around waiting to be attacked, of course. The Khadorans who occupied the city of Merywyn had brought their criminals with them, gangsters called the Kayazy. Liz could kill two birds with one stone. She’d draw out the Mage Hunter by making a show of attacking the Kayazy.
There were three of them outside the warehouse, two men and one woman. None showed visible weapons, but the Kayazy were experts at being surreptitious. All that mattered to Liz was that there weren’t enough of them to stop her. She’d been pursuing a Kayazy Underboss called Blackened Petrov for several days, but he’d finally run to ground. He was hiding with his most valuable goods and his most loyal guards. Regardless of whether the Mage Hunter appeared, Liz would remove a dangerous man from Merywyn’s underworld and perhaps recover some old Llaelese artifacts for the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service.
She began on the rooftop of an adjacent warehouse. She was draped in arcane shadows, even though the patrolling guards had limited line of sight to her hiding place. The stealth was necessary. The guards would need to go down quiet. Liz smiled. She was good at quiet.
She crouched at the edge of the roof, staring down at the empty alley. She didn’t wait long. A bearded man carrying a lantern came around the corner, strolling casually. His eyes, though, were busy. He even looked up once or twice, causing Liz’s mouth to tighten with approval. The Kayazy were on high alert. She’d made them nervous. But he did not see Liz, coated in darkness the colour of the night sky, moving no more than the shingles she pressed against. Unfortunately for him.
Strike. As the man’s eyeline passed her, Liz shifted just enough to point a hand at him. The blue flash of arcane runes lit the night in a moment when Liz knew there were no eyes on her. She could do nothing about the hiss of the arcane bolt tearing the air, but it was quieter than a gunshot, at least. The Kayazy guard heard it, spinning on his heel, but he was too slow. The bolt hit him in the chest, and he dropped, thumping backwards against the stone wall of the warehouse. The lantern hit the ground with a clink, but did not shatter. Thank Morrow for the small things.
Move. In an instant, Liz stood over the body, wisps of light from her teleport fading back into blackness. She pressed herself against the corner of the building. The attack had been efficient, but not silent. When the woman came around the corner, she already had a knife in each hand. Liz stepped into her from the side, a moving shadow among other shadows. She grabbed the woman’s closer hand, holding the knife at bay while she blasted another arcane bolt into her ribs. The woman yelped, but did not scream, her own stealth training working against her. Liz let the body drop on top of the other one, and slipped around the corner.
The woman’s lantern lay twenty feet away, where she must have been standing when Liz had dropped the bearded man. It was broken, a small puddle of flaming oil spread across the cobbles. Not good. In the frenzy of her attack, Liz hadn’t heard the glass shatter, but the last guard likely had.
He appeared around the next corner, lantern raised in one hand, blunderbuss drawn in the other. Liz swore, and dashed towards him. His eyes widened, and he dropped the lantern, bringing the blunderbuss up with both hands. That bought him a moment, as Liz’s first arcane bolt hit the gun directly. The impact wrenched it from his hands before he could pull the trigger and rend the night with the sound of gunfire. Immediately his hands disappeared into his coat, emerging with a pair of long knives like the woman’s. Immediately his mouth opened and he started to bellow. “Alarm!” he screamed in Llaelese, and then in Khadoran. “Alarm! Intruder! Attack!” As Liz closed to two yards away, he raised the knives and sprang at her. Liz dropped to the ground and let him have a second bolt right in the face. He hit the cobbles beside her.
Liz was on her feet again, bolting for the door. She’d assumed the Kayazy were going to figure out she was here eventually, it just wasn’t supposed to be quite so soon. Liz drew her sword, letting the shadows drop away from her form, replacing them with Armour. Things were about to get a lot more up close and personal.
Liz reached the warehouse door at the same time two Kayazy thugs did from the inside. She swung wildly with her sword. Neither of the men seemed phased, weaving around her blade to strike in towards her with their much shorter ones. Liz blasted one of the men with a bolt as the other’s knives scraped against her magical defenses. The first man’s breath burst from him as he fell to the ground, knocking into his companion and staggering him. Liz turned sideways, evading a wild swing from the surviving Kayazy and driving her sword through his chest. She followed him to the ground, pulling her sword free as he fell and scrambling over the body into cover.
The warehouse was filled with crates and boxes, as she’d expected, providing cover to both her and her enemies. Five were down, but she didn’t know how many had been inside the warehouse to begin with and she was almost definitely still outnumbered. She needed to find Petrov, kill him, grab what she could, and leave. At least word of this attack was likely to reach the Mage Hunter’s long, pointed ears. That would be helpful, but only if Liz survived. She kept moving, staying low behind the boxes, listening. Liz usually enjoyed this sort of cat-and-mouse game between trained stealth operatives. Usually she wasn’t at quite this much disadvantage.
She paused behind a tall stack of crates. Ahead, a man’s voice was speaking Khadoran, low and gravelly. Liz couldn’t translate the words, but the tone was clear. Anger, frustration, a touch of worry. That had to be Petrov. Liz slipped away between the boxes, angling around the sound. Her eyes flicked around, taking in the surroundings, looking for a way to use the artificial terrain to her advantage.
Perfect. There was a narrow balcony running around the inside of the building, about fifteen feet up. Exactly what she needed to get eyes on her target. Liz teleported, arriving in a crouch and immediately flattening herself to the balcony floor. No cover up here aside from the balcony itself and its railing. If Morrow was kind, no one had been looking directly at this spot when she teleported.
Morrow was kind. On the warehouse floor below, there was a cleared space with no crates. A table had been set up there, a number of papers laid out upon it. Several items of obvious value served as paperweights; gilded knives, a glass inkwell, a few small pieces of jewelry that flashed with gold and gemstones. A painting of a finely dressed young woman was propped to one side. The ‘merchandise’ was here, at least. Two men stood by the table. One was much larger than the other, broad with muscle but soft with fat. His greasy hair was topped with an elegant hat in the Llaelese aristocratic style. The smaller man was dressed much like the thugs, but he wore a sword at his waist. The sword, like the hat, seemed far too expensive for a street-level criminal. As Liz watched, the big man in the hat turned slightly, and she saw the extensive burn scars running down the left side of his face and neck. Blackened Petrov.
Liz had her target, but she was running out of time. She stood and immediately began pumping arcane bolts down towards the two men. She clipped Petrov’s arm and struck the smaller one full in the shoulder as they both dove for cover. She tracked after the swordsman, striking him another glancing blow. He yelled in pain, tucking himself in beneath the table as the Underboss disappeared behind a crate. Liz cursed. Too much time!
Someone shouted near the door. More Kayazy. Then, the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Blunderbusses, like those the guards had held, and something smaller, sharper. Liz’s time was definitely up.
Armour dropped away, replaced by Sight. The swordsman’s exposed shoulder seemed to glow like a beacon to her arcane vision. Liz carefully slid her aim to the side, and blasted one more bolt through the table and into his upper chest. The man didn’t even scream, just fell limp. Liz turned from him immediately, scanning the warehouse floor with her enhanced vision. Petrov was still down there.
Another gunshot, this one much closer. Smoke puffed and flame roared and the sound of cracking brick came from behind Liz as the bullet whizzed past her to strike the wall. Around the edge of the largest stack of crates, Liz’s perfect sight caught the glint of a gun barrel in the lantern-light. Behind it, a large, floppy velvet hat. Liz grinned, and teleported.
Arriving just around the corner from the gun and hat, Liz firmed her grip on her sword and re-cast her warding spell. She swept around the stack with her sword leading. Petrov backed away, pistol held two-handed in front of him. His lips pulled back, puckering the scar tissue on his face as he levelled the gun for another shot. Liz gritted her teeth and lunged towards him, runes spiralling around her free hand.
Before she reached him, he stumbled. His face went slack, and the gun drooped, then fell from his hands. Liz paused. She kept her sword pointed at the large man, and the runes still gently swirled around her outstretched hand, but she held back. She watched, her face twisted in confusion, as he stumbled and fell backwards. Then, she saw the tiny grey-fletched crossbow bolt sticking from his chest, just left of center.
Morrow help her.
The shouting and gunfire had stopped. The warehouse was eerily silent. When the voice slid through that silence, it seemed even colder and more unfriendly than the last time Liz had heard it. “Two birds with one bolt, Cygnaran. You wanted the Kayazy removed, and you wanted me to find you again. I am here. Are you so eager to die?”
The plan had worked. The plan had worked far too well.
Blackened Petrov’s Warehouse Headquarters, Merywyn
The Same Time
The soft, familiar voice made Ioryssa’s teeth pull back in a snarl. Lizzie Bullets’ trap had indeed worked too well. Ioryssa and her boys had arrived just in time.
She’d hoped to beat Bullets to the warehouse. An open attack on the Kayazy gangsters had to attract attention, and Ioryssa wanted to be there when it did. Both women wanted their adversary, an Iosan Mage Hunter, to come out of hiding. But whatever Bullets thought, there was no way she could handle an entire gang of Kayazy and the Mage Hunter at the same time. Ioryssa’s help was unasked for, but Ioryssa was going to give it anyway. The bodies in the street had told her that Bullets was already here. But so was the Hunter.
Ioryssa yanked her sword from the torso of a dead Kayazy, already moving towards the voice. “Leon, Thordok, left,” she hissed, gesturing with her pistol. “Tovys, Tonio, right!” The Trollkin warrior and Llaelese pistoleer faded into the maze of crates and boxes to her left without comment or glance. Ioryssa felt Tovys’ eyes on her and knew he had paused even as she heard the rattle of Tonio’s ornate Ordic plate mail fade away to the right. Tovys had something to say, but Ioryssa didn’t wait. The Hunter wouldn’t.
“Here I am, Cygnaran,” the soft voice was saying from somewhere above. “Are you so eager to die?” Ioryssa snarled again. Where was it coming from? She and her boys could easily cover the floor of the warehouse, but the ceiling was an impenetrable mass of darkness. And that’s where the Hunter was. Ioryssa imagined that deadly little crossbow lining up on an unaware Lizzie Bullets. Ioryssa and Bullets were not friends, but they were allies now. Ioryssa was not going to let the Cygnaran mage die like that.
“It’s not over yet, Bullets!” she shouted. Her voice snapped in the stillness, throwing echoes in the cavernous emptiness. “I’ve brought backup, and we’re here to put this annoyance down!”
“Ioryssa?” Bullets’ voice was incredulous, but also relieved. Ioryssa’s grimace softened into a grin. Even a dirty merc like her could play the hero sometimes. She took cover behind a particularly large stack of crates. The Hunter knew she was here now.
“Remember me, Huntress?” she called out, using formal Shyrr this time instead of Llaelese.
“I remember you, Ioryssa of No Particular House,” the soft voice hissed. “Heretic.”
Ioryssa barked a laugh. “It’s tragic that you can’t see the irony. You call me heretic for my opposition to the Retribution of Scyrah, when the entire Retribution is heresy!” Make her mad. Make her mad, but don’t stop moving. Ioryssa bolted from her cover, scrambling over a broken antique table and crouching behind a stack of rolled carpets. Assume the Hunter could see her. Hold no position for too long. A clink of steel to the right told her Tonio had found a Kayazy with some fight left.
“What we do is for Scyrah!” The Hunter’s voice boiled with rage and Ioryssa’s smile broadened.
“Scyrah would never approve of killing innocents and you know it. No matter how many spell-caster corpses you pile up, she’s not coming back, and you know that too. Monsters like you are the reason I left Ios!” She ran again, finding a new hiding spot. This was fun, but she couldn’t enjoy the taunting too much. She’d get sloppy. Couldn’t get sloppy when the enemy was better than her. “You’re just too afraid to change when the world changes!” she finished, dropping behind a cluster of barrels.
To the left, Leon’s pistol barked, and then there was total silence. Ioryssa didn’t really expect a verbal response. Just needed the Hunter to –
Thunk. She heard the the impact first. Ioryssa’s eyes snapped down to the grey-fletched bolt in her left shoulder. Then the pain hit. By all the Vanished, it hurt! “Lyliss’ frigid lips, leave my shoulders alone!” She dropped to her hands and knees, scurrying deeper into cover. Wincing, she holstered her pistol. The shoulder wound would ruin her already-bad aim. Now she was stuck with her sword, against an invisible enemy well out of reach. “No plan survives contact, after all,” she muttered.
Maybe she could get a shot from the catwalk. She raised her eyes above the barrel. There were ladders at the corners of the building. She should be able to reach one of those without being shot again, but once she was up there …
“Don’t.” Ioryssa whipped around, sword already raised and pointed at the throat of a pale-faced Lizzie Bullets. The human woman ignored the sword, shaking her head. “You won’t be able to see her from there either.”
Ioryssa’s mouth twisted. “At least you believe we’re on the same side now.”
“Shut up. We need a plan, and you standing out in the open getting a bolt in the eye isn’t it.”
Ioryssa shrugged. “Know where she is?”
Bullets pointed straight up. “The roof. The rafters. She’s tucked right up there in the shadows. I can see her, but I can’t get close enough to hit her.” There were faint swirls of blue glow in the mage’s eyes. Some kind of vision-enhancing spell. “We need to get her to come down, or at least get one of us close to her.”
Ioryssa shrugged her uninjured shoulder. “I think I made her mad, if that helps.”
Bullets snorted. “I don’t think she’s going to run away on us, if that’s what you mean. She still wants me dead.”
“She definitely wants me dead.”
“Common ground at last.” Bullets chuckled, then frowned. “What about your friends? Do you think she’ll stay focused on us, or go after them?”
Ioryssa paused. The warehouse was still quiet. “Doesn’t sound like there’s any Kayazy left. My boys are smart enough to keep quiet. If we can get her down from there, we have the numbers. For now I think it’s just you, me, and her.”
“What about your husband? He’s a mage, right?”
Ioryssa’s spin went cold. “He is. He’s not human, though.” He was an outspoken opponent of the Retribution, though. Could the Hunter know that? Would she go after him when she already had two targets? Ioryssa’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What’s she doing now?”
Bullets glanced upwards. “She’s moving.” She made a small gesture towards the front of the building. “That way. She’s … Ioryssa, she’s aiming, and not at us.”
Ioryssa sprang to her feet as a man screamed in pain. As Toyvs screamed in pain. She bolted, left arm dangling. “Thamar’s Teeth,” Bullets swore behind her. Ioryssa didn’t care. A patter of feet told her the Cygnaran was following. So many boxes in the way! With her injury, Ioryssa couldn’t climb them. She had to go around. She was too slow. She was going to be too late.
“Ioryssa. Ioryssa!” Bullets was yelling at her. Ioryssa just grunted back. “You get to Tovys. I’ll get her off you.” There was a strange whoosh from behind her, and Ioryssa risked a glance over her shoulder. Bullets was gone, teleported away. Didn’t matter. Tovys mattered.
Tovys was down. Slumped against a wall of crates, staff fallen to one side, cloak pooling around him. Bolt in his chest. Ioryssa dropped to her knees, skidded into him. He groaned. Breathing. Alive. Ioryssa exhaled. He was alive. The bolt was low. Missed the heart, missed the lungs. Painful, deadly if untreated, but he was alive. Ioryssa glanced upwards.
Lizzie Bullets was on the catwalk, running full tilt. One of her arms was extended, and blue runes swirled continously around it. Arcane bolts shredded the air in front of her, tracing lines up into the rafters. A second shot would kill Tovys, but there had been no second shot. The Hunter was too busy dodging Bullets’ missiles. Lizzie Bullets had saved Tovys. Time for Ioryssa to do her part.
“Boss!” Leon and Thordok appeared. Tonio’s head came out from behind a stack of carved chairs. He’d lost his helmet.
“He’s alive.” Ioryssa didn’t look at Tovys. Couldn’t, right now. She looked up instead. Saw Bullets stagger to a halt, breathing heavily. Saw her lurch into motion again, firing again. Saw the bolts splashing blue light against the roof and rafters.
Light amongst the rafters. Ioryssa’s eyes widened. Something was moving up there! A shadow among the shadows, a puddle of darkness that the arcane projectiles did not illuminate. Ioryssa’s lips pulled back into a savage smile, and she dropped her sword, pulling her pistol.
She fired. She missed, of course, but the shadow dodged again. The barrage of glowing lights slowed and the illumination faded. Bullets was tiring. They were all tiring. Plans that relied on precision would not win them this fight. But those relying on numbers and brute force might.
Ioryssa glanced about. Leon’s pistol was out, and he was watching Ioryssa. Tonio gave her a nod, raising a Kayazy blunderbuss. They’d noticed what she had. “Thordok,” Ioryssa said softly, “go find one of those guns.” She nodded towards Tonio’s salvaged weapon. “Everyone … follow the lights.” She looked up again. “Bullets!” she bellowed. “Light her up!”
The Cygnaran didn’t spare any breath. She just came to a stop, setting her feet and raising her hand again. Her other hand gripped the catwalk railing tight. She fired.
Ioryssa tracked the light, found the dark spot. Her pistol cracked. Two Kayazy firearms spoke with overlapping booms. As the light began to fade, Leon’s revolver barked. The shadow jerked. A hit was too much to ask for, but the Hunter was shaken.
“Do. Not. Stop!” Ioryssa roared, her throat raw. She scrambled to reload, making as much use of her injured arm as she could. She heard the two blunderbusses rattle and clank. Heard the hiss of another arcane bolt, the bark of Leon’s revolver, the whir of its cylinders, a second bark. She glanced up again.
Intermittent flashes of light showed the Mage Hunter retreating, moving towards the back wall of the building. Ioryssa’s face contorted with emotion. “Follow her,” she growled.
The Hunter became the cornered prey.
Kayazy Warehouse Headquarters, Merywyn
Captain Elizabeth Lawley’s breath burned in her lungs. Keeping up a barrage of arcane bolts was hard enough without the constant threat of sudden death from her crossbow-wielding target. Liz had been running down this Iosan Mage Hunter for weeks, and only now was she realizing what a fool she’d been. How lucky she was that Ioryssa had come to her aid.
Liz sucked in a breath and thrust out her right hand. Her magically-enhanced vision found the cloaked form of the Hunter perched on a rusted metal truss high above, just under the warehouse roof. Without the pressure of Liz’s attack, the elf was lining up a shot at someone down below. Probably Ioryssa. The two Iosans had been at each other’s throats from the moment Ioryssa had arrived in the warehouse. Whoever it was, Liz wasn’t about to let them be killed while she caught her breath. A circle of glowing blue runes sprang into existence around her outstretched hand. Strike, she thought, and a burst of light and force sprang from her palm with a hissing roar.
The Mage Hunter turned at the sound, already moving. It wasn’t just the bolt she feared, Liz knew, but what would follow. The magic struck the beam where the Hunter had been crouching, and illuminated a small area of the rafters. Into that flash of light came the bellow of two heavy blunderbusses and the crack and bark of two smaller pistols. The Hunter scurried along her beam, leaping to the next one over as ricochets threw sparks around her feet. The odds of Ioryssa and her companions down on the warehouse floor actually hitting the Hunter were extremely slim, but there was a chance. The assassin couldn’t afford to take it. She had to keep moving. She couldn’t take the time to make accurate shots. Which gave her only the options of escaping, or coming down from the roof to fight at a range where she wouldn’t need accuracy.
Liz knew that as long as she was here and alive, the Hunter wouldn’t run. A human spell-caster was an Iosan Mage Hunter’s sworn prey, and Liz had offended this one by hunting her. Liz fired another bolt, heard another volley of gunfire, and watched the assassin spring quickly across two more trusses. She was heading for the back wall of the building, where she would run out of space. She was going to turn and fight. Morrow willing, Liz and her allies would win that fight. Her teeth gritted at the thought.
The Hunter had given up on her hiding spot. She no longer held the crossbow in her hand, letting it swing from a strap around her shoulders. Flattening herself, she grasped the heavy metal truss with both hands. Smoothly, gracefully, the elf dropped from the truss and swung hand-over-hand to the wall of the building. Liz released another bolt, but the Hunter was moving too fast now. Liz broke into a run again as the Mage Hunter leapt from the roof beam at an angle, striking the wall and rebounding to land on the catwalk’s railing with barely a sound. “She’s on the catwalk! Lower your aim!” Liz’s voice barely scraped out of her raw throat. She stumbled. The Hunter began sprinting as well, moving opposite Liz. She was moving towards something. Liz’s eyes followed her, looked past her, and found her target.
Tovys. The Iosan mage, Ioryssa’s husband, sat propped against a crate in the alley between two low stacks. He was slumped and still, but Liz’s enhanced sight perceived the rise and fall of his chest above the small crossbow bolt that pierced him. He wasn’t dead, but he was about to be. “No,’ Liz gasped. “Morrow witness me, no one is dying today.”
Liz didn’t even realize she’d thought it until she materialized beside Tovys’ collapsed form in a swirl of runes and light. She heard shouting, knew that the others could see the Mage Hunter now that she was on the catwalk. They were coming. They’d be too late. The Hunter was already bearing down on Tovys. Before she knew it, Liz had tackled the fallen elf, pulling him down to the floor even as the crossbow shot thunked into the crate he’d been leaning against. Liz rolled up to her hands and knees, gasping. Morrow protected. Now it was her turn.
She lifted her head towards the catwalk, and saw a shadow perched there. She raised her hand. Strike. Her arcane sight faded as she gathered all the magical power she had left for one final attack. Strike! It would all end here, one way or another. STRIKE!
Nothing happened. No flash of light, no swirl of runes, no sound of tearing air. She was finished. The crossbow’s glinting point filled her vision. Liz had been arrogant. She’d pursued her own death. And so Morrow had turned his protective gaze from her. She felt her eyes grow wet.
It was never supposed to end like this.
“Ioryssa …” Tovys gasped the name, struggling to rise. Liz grimaced. She’d saved him, but only from the first shot. The second would kill her, and the third would kill Tovys. Yet he was smiling.
One of the strangest sounds Liz had ever heard pierced her fugue and jerked the Hunter’s attention and weapon away from her. A deep-throated roar filled with liquid syllables and vitriol. Liz didn’t understand a word of Shyrr, but she got the gist of it as Ioryssa barrelled into the Mage Hunter from behind, throwing both arms around the other Iosan and tackling her over the railing. The two elf women dropped in a tangle, Ioryssa still howling, her opponent remaining silent. The two separated just above the floor, the Mage Hunter drifting away in a lazy backflip as Ioryssa crashed down hard. She scrambled up immediately, spitting blood. The Mage Hunter spun towards Liz, the crossbow rising again.
The trigger clicked, but nothing happened. Liz blinked. The crossbow was empty. “Looking for this?” Ioryssa snarled, holding up a small, grey-fletched crossbow bolt. The Hunter dropped her weapon, once again allowing it to hang from its strap as small, slim blades appeared in both of her hands. Liz grinned and scrambled to her feet. Armour, she thought, feeling a surge of warm relief as the protective runes began to swirl.
Left arm hanging limp, Ioryssa lunged at the Mage Hunter, still holding the bolt in her good hand. One of the blades licked out, cutting deep into Ioryssa’s forearm and spraying blood across the crates. Ioryssa didn’t stop, didn’t cry out, just lurched forwards with that tight, mad grin stretched across her face. Morrow’s grace, the woman was tough. The other blade came up and Liz launched her own attack, the arcane missile punching a hole through the Hunter’s swirling cloak, cracking the stock of the crossbow and knocking her off balance. Ioryssa struck, burying the bolt deep into the Hunter’s thigh.
“Boss!” a deep voice shouted from somewhere nearby.
“Protect Tovys!” Ioryssa growled in response. “This monster is mine.” She released the bolt and staggered back.
With a hiss and a flick of her wrist, the Mage Hunter cut towards Liz. Liz dodged, but her legs were beginning to seize from her earlier sprint. Her breath rasped as she raised her arm again, bracing it with her other hand. Morrow willing, she could manage another shot. Ioryssa came on again, empty hands outstretched. She must have lost her sword somewhere. The Hunter turned, extending one blade towards Ioryssa, the other still pointed at Liz. Her movements, too, were becoming stilted, showing her injury and fatigue. She staggered slightly, the punctured thigh not supporting her weight. Still, she avoided Ioryssa’s clumsy grab, causing the other Iosan to stumble to her knees.
Liz inhaled sharply as the Hunter struck towards Ioryssa. She poured her will into her outstretched arm. Strike! But the magic did not answer. The fight had dragged too long, Liz’s reserves were too low. She stepped forward, reaching for the Hunter’s arm with her open hand. Anything to stop the blade from landing. Then, as the Hunter stepped close, Ioryssa’s hands shot out, injured and uninjured both closing around the assassin’s good leg. That insane grin flashed as Ioryssa’s head rocked back.
CRACK! The sound of the Mage Hunter’s knee breaking under Ioryssa’s head-butt seemed impossibly loud. The breath tore from the Iosan zealot’s throat with a growl as she staggered, trying to shift her weight between broken knee and stabbed thigh. Her blades wavered. Behind Liz, a voice called out in a Llaelese accent, “Give me a clear shot!”
“No!” Liz shot back instinctively. “I need her alive.”
“She’s too dangerous!” The man in Ordic platemail standing over Tovys was leaning forwards, halberd extended. He wanted to charge in, but Ioryssa had given him orders.
The trollkin just stood, heavy brow furrowed in indecision.
Ioryssa sank back, hands going to her head, face tight with pain. The Hunter saw. The Hunter moved. From the corners of her eyes, Liz saw all three men surge forwards, but she was already moving.
“Thamar take you,” she spat, as the Hunter turned away from her. Liz stepped forward and mashed her elbow into the base of the woman’s skull. The Mage Hunter dropped like a felled sapling on top of Ioryssa. The two Iosan women collapsed in a heap.
“Boss?” rumbled the trollkin.
Ioryssa said, “Ow.”
An Empty Tenement Room, Merywyn
Just Before Dawn
Captain Elizabeth Lawley of the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service sat on a broken crate and regarded her prisoner. It had been less than two weeks since the two of them had started hunting one another, but it felt like months. Again and again, Liz had feared for her life, and now it was over. The Mage Hunter was captured, tied by both wrists to the back of an old but sturdy chair. Liz wished she’d had some good iron chains to bind her with, but ropes would have to do. The Iosan was so small, so thin, Liz did not expect she’d break free. It was actually hard to believe that such a scrawny, frail-seeming woman was responsible for so much death. Seven Cygnaran mages, one Khadoran Greylord, two attempts on Liz herself, and those were just the crimes Liz knew about.
The elf opened her eyes. Liz met them, cool and implacable, her face fixed in the interrogator’s mask. The rage and fanatical hatred emanating from the Iosan washed over her like a wave. Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to believe anymore. They were a murderer’s eyes. More, they were the eyes of a murderer who believed fully in her own righteousness.
The Iosan spat something, a hissing whisper in her native tongue. Liz ignored it.
“I can’t get you back to Cygnar,” she said, her voice calm and even. “I know I can’t. On my own, there’s no way I can make sure you don’t escape somewhere between here and Corvis. I’m fairly certain you know that too.” The Mage Hunter was silent, her eyes still burning. Liz continued. “So, that means I have no choice but to kill you. Here, today. I cannot risk letting you go free. But you see, I don’t actually have any hard evidence that you are the one I’m after. Since you tried to kill me twice, I’m going to kill you either way, but I need to know: are you the one who murdered the archmage Roderick and his six apprentices, as well as the Greylord Kerenov?”
The elf hissed again. Liz shook her head.
“Cygnaran or Llaelese. We’ve spoken before, I know you understand me.”
“You belong in Urcaen, with all the rest of the blasphemers.”
Liz shrugged. “That’s not helpful, but at least you’re talking to me now. Did you kill Roderick, his six apprentices, and the Greylord Kerenov?”
“Why would I tell you? You will kill me anyway.”
“It’s the difference between me shooting you in the face and me breaking every bone in your body and leaving you for the Kayazy.”
The Iosan’s teeth pulled back in a snarling grin. “Death is death. Scyrah will see my soul to its proper destination.”
Liz rubbed her face with one hand. Bloody fanatics. This would have to get messy.
An hour later, Liz stared down at her handiwork. The Mage Hunter’s face was bruised, her nose was twisted to one side, and likely at least one tooth was loose. Liz was exhausted, and could only imagine how the prisoner felt. “Did you kill Roderick, his apprentices, and the Greylord Kerenov?” The words escaped her as a sigh. She’d said them a hundred times in the last hour. Each time, her adversary had spat or snarled or stayed silent. Each time, she’d fired a low intensity arcane bolt into a non-vital area. Now, her patience was running out, as was the Iosan woman’s endurance. Would she break before she died?
The Mage Hunter met her eyes, fanatical fires still burning deep inside them. Liz heaved another sigh and raised her hand for what could be the killing blow.
Then, the Iosan’s eyes closed, her head sagging. Liz held the spell in her mind, ready, but not fired. This behaviour was new. The elf’s eyes opened again, the tattoo on her cheek twitching. “Wait.” The assassin’s voice was a low hiss, but the vitriol was gone. She spoke Cygnaran, her tone one of abject exhaustion and misery. Liz lowered her hand, and folded her arms.
“Did you do it?”
Another soft hiss. Liz leaned forwards. “Did. You. Kill them.”
The Iosan met her eyes. Her mouth moved, but the words were inaudible. Liz bared her teeth and leaned in farther, raising one hand to either side of the Iosan’s head, runes beginning to spiral around them. “I am out of patience, you Morrow-forsaken murderess. Confess! Did you kill Roderick, did you kill his six apprentices, and did you kill the Greylord Kerenov?” The words rasped from her throat, spitting between her clenched teeth.
The fire in the Iosan’s eyes re-ignited. “Yes.”
Liz’s breath sighed out in involuntary relief, but she did not let the runes fade. Those eyes held no surrender.
The Iosan’s teeth peeled back. “And now I’m going to kill you.”
Strike! Liz’s mind crystallized around the word and a torrent of restrained force flooded from her hands, but the Mage Hunter was already moving. A hand slithered from behind the chair, fingers curled protectively around a thumb that dangled oddly. The Iosan dove forwards, the chair coming with her, coming between her and Liz, absorbing the blast of the arcane bolt. Half of it came apart in a spray of splinters. Liz stumbled backwards, trying to open some distance as the Mage Hunter’s other hand whipped around. It was still tied to the remains of the chair, swinging a good sized chunk of wood through Liz’s legs like a flail, dropping her to the floor.
The assassin was on her feet, broken hand moving protectively behind her. The chair, still bound to the woman’s right arm, skittered across the floor and rose into the air, following her movement. Liz rolled as the Hunter swung her improvised weapon down. She was too slow, too tired, too winded and too shocked. Wood broke over her arms and face, and the chair receded, jerked back up into the air. Somehow, the Iosan had endured an hour of punishment and still been able to break her own hand to free herself. Somehow, she still had strength enough to wield the heavy broken chair. Liz had been a fool to think she had won. A fool to think she could have won.
She scrambled to her knees, barely managing to get one foot under her before the chair came down again, smashing her back to the floor. Lights flickered in her vision like spell runes as her forehead hit the boards. She rolled over, saw that the elf woman was now holding the shattered remnants of the chair in both hands, curling fingers around the legs even while that one thumb hung limp. She must have been in so much pain. The chair rose again, and began to come down. Liz shot up a hand. Strike! Or she tried to. Her head pounded. The word would not form.
No runes appeared. No bolts tore the air. The chair fell.
The Next Day
Ioryssa’s gaze drifted past the two empty bottles of clouded glass and swept over the faces of her companions. Faces she’d know anywhere, even through the haze of strong drink. They all smiled at her, and she smiled back. Good spirits had put them all in good spirits. Ioryssa was pretty sure she’d have been smiling even if they’d had to drink the same swill as always.
It was over. It was done.
Lizzie Bullets had arrested the Mage Hunter. Ioryssa was safe from both fanatics, the one who wanted to kill her in the name of an obsolete goddess and the one who wanted to jail her in the name of Cygnar and some murdered wizards she’d never met. Bullets was out of her life now, and Ioryssa could go back to terrorizing Merywyn’s underworld. She even had her boys back with her. Her grin broadened. As if anyone else could have kept Thordok, Leon and Tonio in line the way she could.
And Tovys was alive. Her smile nearly faltered as her gaze swept over to the bed in the corner. The Seeker, Ioryssa’s husband, lay there propped up on a thin pillow and whatever else they’d been able to put together for him. He smiled back at her, thin through pain but genuine. The Mage Hunter’s bolt had taken him in the chest, but missed his heart. With Tovys’ frail constitution, it would be some time before his full strength returned, but he would live. Thank Whoever Was Listening.
For that matter, thank Lizzie Bullets. Ioryssa was well aware that without the Cygnaran’s intervention, she would have been too late. The Mage Hunter would have shot Tovys again, and again, and again. Her jaw tightened. Bullets hadn’t had to save Tovys. But she’d done it anyway. Ioryssa picked up a bottle. I owe you one, she thought, and drained it. Not that she’d say it aloud.
Ioryssa had had plenty to be afraid of in the past weeks. Yet somehow, in the end, everything had come out all right.
“You did it, Boss.” Thordok’s drunken voice slid into her ears like gravelly slush. She looked over to him, an enormous grin distorting his blue features. “You beat ‘em all.”
Ioryssa reached for the third bottle and popped it open. “I did, didn’t I.” The tightness left her mouth. “Lizzie Bullets, the Hunter, the Kayazy, all of them. If only anyone knew or would believe it …” She took a long sip.
“You’d be the most famous merc in Merywyn if anyone knew,” said Tonio, reaching for the bottle. Ioryssa surrendered it and he saluted her with it. “We know, though. That’s good enough, right?” He drank. When he lowered the bottle, his face was surprisingly serious. “We never should have left you hanging like that, Ioryssa.” Then he flushed and raised the bottle again.
Leon picked up where Tonio left off. “We’re with you now. You can forgive us for being idiots?”
Ioryssa shrugged. “You’re human.”
“Oi!” Thordok seemed like he would say more, but instead he just belched.
“You’re not Iosan,” Ioryssa amended. “What’s more, you’re men. You’re entitled to be idiots.” She shrugged again. “It’s not like I don’t make stupid mistakes.”
The three looked at her in silence for a moment. “Boss,” Thordok finally said, “mistakes only count as stupid when you don’t win.”
Leon barked a laugh and clapped his hands. Ioryssa looked down at the table, a rueful smile twisting her face again.
Tonio lifted the bottle he still held. “To Ioryssa! She who prevails over all obstacles, her own stupidity included!”
“Hear hear!” Tovys croaked from the bed.
The bottle started travelling again. Ioryssa accepted it gratefully, not wanting to talk or meet anyone’s gaze. They were right, though. She’d won. Not only was the whole mess finally over, Ioryssa had actually won.
The door opened.
Immediately, all four at the table reached for their weapons. No one else had been invited.
Especially not Lizzie Bullets.
“Prevails over all obstacles, eh?” The Cygnaran’s hat was pulled low, and her voice was heavy with exhaustion. Even through the fog of drink, Ioryssa noticed that fatigue echoed in the way Lizzie was standing. She seemed about to collapse.
“What do you want, Bullets?” Ioryssa’s voice grated. “I thought I was done with you.”
“I’ve got some obstacles that I could use help prevailing over.” The hat tilted back and Ioryssa saw that Bullets’ eyes were as hard as her own. “My job’s not over yet.”
A short time later, Ioryssa sank back in her chair, shoulders slumped, feeling completely sobered. Lizzie Bullets shook her head. “Someone like that doesn’t make mistakes about alive or dead,” the Cygnaran was saying. She looked at each of them in turn. Ioryssa tried to meet her eyes steadily, but her throat was knotted. She’d won. Dammit, she had won! Now the Urcaen-damned Mage Hunter had stolen that victory. “She left me alive on purpose.” Bullets sighed, sinking her face into her hands.
“She didn’t just want to disappear,” Ioryssa muttered. “She wanted us all to know she’d beaten us.”
“Wonderful woman,” Leon slurred.
Ioryssa’s teeth gritted. She dragged a finger across the tabletop, idly drawing patterns in the condensation there. “Don’t blame yourself too much, Bullets. Mage Hunters are all insane. There’s no predicting them. I should have killed her last night, right then and there. I should have ignored your stupid professional pride. I just …”
Bullets shook her head again, looking down at the table as well. “You didn’t think it was important. You thought it was over. We all did.” She frowned at the drawings Ioryssa had done. “Your tattoos,” she murmured. Ioryssa’s mindless doodles had resolved into two divine glyphs, the symbols of Scyrah and Lacyr. The marks tattooed on the faces of the Mage Hunter, and Ioryssa herself.
Ioryssa pointed to them in turn. “Her goddess. My goddess. Like I said, the tattoos are common enough in Ios.”
“Enough, Ioryssa.” Tovys shifted on the bed, fixing Ioryssa with his gaze. He spoke Shyrr. He didn’t want Bullets to hear. Still believed in keeping Iosan secrets.
Ioryssa shrugged, and replied in the same language. “I was loyal to Ios once, Tovys. Look where that got me.” She switched back to Llaelese as she turned her gaze to Bullets. “Ideological differences used to matter back home. Now everyone is either like her, or pretending to support people like her. I thought I’d gotten away from that until you showed up.”
The mage grimaced. “I’m never going to be able to apologize for that. In my defence, I don’t believe I did anything incorrectly. But just because it was correct doesn’t mean it was right.” She looked right at Ioryssa then, a cold calm in her eyes that Ioryssa hadn’t seen there before. “Here’s a start, though. My name’s not Lizzie Bullets, and I’m not a criminal.”
“Figured that out.”
“I don’t doubt it. I still feel obligated to tell you. My name is Captain Magus Elizabeth Lawley and I work for the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service. I started off investigating the murder of Cygnaran wizards, and ended up in this whole mess.” Somehow, Bullets – Lawley – seemed to straighten up even as she relaxed. Ioryssa’s mouth quirked up.
“A bit in over your head, weren’t you?”
“I was. As it turns out, I still am.”
“What’s that mean?” Thordok shook the last bottle, hearing not even a drop rattle inside. He set it down with a sigh and looked at Captain Lawley. “You’ll just catch her again, won’t ya?”
Lawley looked at him and smiled a bit. “Thordok, right?” The trollkin nodded. “Well, Thordok, the problem is, I didn’t actually catch her on my own the first time.”
“We helped!” Tonio raised his fist triumphantly. He and Leon had somehow managed to get far drunker off of the available booze than Ioryssa or Thordok. They always did. Ioryssa had never figured out if their constitutions were just that weak or if they were sneaking extra swallows.
Lawley nodded to him. “That’s right. You did.” She spoke to Tonio, but her gaze had swung back to Ioryssa.
Ioryssa frowned, deep and hard. “You want us to help you again. Track down and take out this fanatic wench once and for all.”
“The CRS isn’t above hiring mercenaries. And it pays well.” Leon and Tonio leaned in at that, identical smiles spreading stupidly across both faces. Thordok looked at Ioryssa, his heavy expression inscrutable.
“We do need work, Boss,” the trollkin rumbled after a moment.
Ioryss found herself looking to Tovys. He still lay propped up in the bed, but his eyes were bright and alert. “She will not come after you right away,” he said, in Llaelese this time. “She will have higher priority targets. She may even leave you alone until she’s killed Captain Lawley.” He nodded towards the Cygnaran. “But as long as she lives, you will be in danger. I cannot be content with that.”
Ioryssa switched to Shyrr. Even still, she lowered her voice, casting her eyes downwards. “Does that mean you’ll come with me if I go after her?”
Tovys smiled. “A Seeker’s work is everywhere. And I’m still between leads. Following an agent of the CRS for a time is as likely to provide me with new information as anything else.”
Ioryssa squared her shoulders and met Lawley’s gaze. “Well, Captain Lawley, it seems like we’re all in agreement. We’ll draw up a contract as soon as I can find some damned paper.” She stuck her hand out across the table. Captain Lawley smiled and shook it.
“Call me Liz.”