Word spread after that day in the field. Not of Inari's pending dismissal but of the changes in her. Just as she had suspected many of her brethren had been watching and they were almost as divided as the people she had seen on the street that day. Some sided with her, cheering her one despite the rare sightings of her since. Others found the changes she had gone through distasteful, verging on cheating despite who and what skill her opponents had.
Inari heard none of it though.
She kept to her cottage in the woods. After all, she had a life changing decision to make. She could turn herself in, forfeit and submit to being studied… maybe fixed and perhaps someday return to the guild, or… Looking to where her sword hung sheathed near the door, she curled deeper against the warm fur at her back.
Szithlar had wisely made himself scarce, even going so far as to only check in on her through their newly established link about once a day. In one of those check ins, he had updated her on the status of a certain missing person and her next challenge. Snippets here and there of his thoughts when he did not realize it let her see that he was not entirely untouched in this debacle either. She had pieced together that the mage academy had searched his quarters there and his lab. Another inquiry was filed against him and thoughts of being followed had played on the edges of his mind more then once.
He owned her in a binding contract.
He had raised her.
He had his own agenda.
He had always been kind and patient with her.
Could she give up her life for the man that raised her? That was the whole basis of her turmoil and she knew the answer deep down…
…the heavy scent of flowers drifted on the warm breeze of the day. The Royals Gardens lay in full bloom. A vast work of art dotted by the royal colors and lush greenery. In their depths sat a single figure. Blonde-haired and serene, Vittoria looked far calmer then she was. It wasn't nerves that were bothering her either. It was anticipation. An order, yet to be verified, had come into the Hunter's for one Szithlar Ramoth. Until final word came, no one was to act on it, and since it was not the first one to cross their desks several Hunters had taken it lightly. It was almost a running gag with them.
Not Vittoria, though. She had been in the Mage's presence before and it took everything in her to reserve herself then. He reeked of the arcane. If he had truly done what was said to her opponent then he had also committed atrocities against another and that was unforgivable. He had too many questions surrounding him. Too…
A whimper caught her attention and pulled a sigh from her lips.
"Alfren, what are you doing here? Did I not tell you to stay away t his time?"
Sitting up a little straighter, Vittoria looked to where her pupil attempted to hide behind a pillar of shaped ivy. "Is anyone else with her?"
"I can't tell. She smells strange."
"Well, that's understandable, she's been altered."
"I don't think… I mean… I can smell that but there is something else."
She had been about to ask what he was talking about but it did not seem like there would be time. The crunching of gravel beneath sturdy boots officially announced Inari's arrival. From what she had heard of the paladin, she was usually well armed and armored but what came around the corner of the hedge was not what she had expected. A tall woman with hair and complexion much like her own came to a stop dressed only in a light tunic, fitted leather slacks and a simple brown eye patch. There was still the ever present sword at her hip, and the hunter would not discount any hidden weapons. Other then that, however, there was nothing.
"That is I. Captain Cannas, I presume?"
"…Inari is fine."
"Where is your mount? Your companion?"
"I won't need their help."
The sureness in her voice was not there. It was more an icy resignation. She had made her choice. If she survived this and made it to the final challenge then she was giving up her title. She was right in telling Vittoria to drop the rank. It was no longer hers.
"Well then… Shall we?"
The sound of metal against leather rung through the garden as Inari unsheathed her sword. Its gleam was well tended and polished. Merle had done a marvelous job on its repairs. The rune stone imbedded in the handle glistened in the light, which flashed as a thunderous clang announced the beginning of their fight.
From where she had been sitting, Vittoria was up on her feet the moment gravel spurred from beneath Inari's soles. The thick rod of her staff vibrating under the sheer force of the strike. Her footing just barely secure enough to keep her from stumbling back over the bench, but was not good enough to withstand the follow up strike to her sternum. She bumped back against the stone seat and tumbled. Going feet over head and bounding back up, expecting her attacker to charge in when she was down. Shocked to see that she did not.
Alfren made to intervene, his thick furred fingers gripping his own staff as he whimpered out a growl at the aggressive woman. He did not get very far before a firm hand settled upon his shoulder tearing him about and bringing him face to face with a grey toned Inari. His ears fell back against his head in shock. He had heard Vittoria speak of this tactic from Inari's last fight but the one that stood before him was not threatening. She just stood there smiling. When he tried to warn Vittoria though, he found himself on the receiving end of a vicious gut punch that doubled him over and blurred his vision.
The dark fur and sudden motion was not missed by Vittoria where she stood eyeing her opponent but she could not afford to look. Inari had her eye locked on her and looked ready to strike at any moment. Therefore, she turned to words, "What did you do to him. I thought you were alone?"
"I am… and you will be too. I have had my fill of surprises and helpers. One on one, Hunter."
"I will not forgive you if he dies."
"Then let's hope he stays out of it."
The small smile that curled on Inari's lips was as cruel as any Vittoria had ever seen. Worry over her charge welled up in her and she took the offensive. The butt of her staff slammed against the ground, bracing at the bench to propel her at Inari, a heavy kick aimed for the woman was dodged, grabbed and turned against her. Inari's blocking arm wound about Vittoria's leg and with a twist of the waist, she sent her flinging towards the ground. One benefit the elf had though was the ability to spring back. A bounce and a roll had Vittoria on her feet again. Both women going for the other this time. Clanging and clashing echoed all around them. Glimpses of Alfren's prone body with Inari's golem standing watch over him fueled the Hunter's determination.
A few brilliantly bloomed bushes fell pray to their fight. The slash of a sword here and the impact of a stumbling body there, the pair were earning more scratched from thorns then weapons and Vittoria was running low on stamina. She knew that the physical fight was one-sided from the start, so it was time to try another approach. Dodging the last slicing blow from Inari's sword, Vittoria shifted and put some distance between them. Bounding over benches and low hedges, she drew upon her gift of Holy fire. An angry spiral of licking flames poured from her staff head back at her pursuer, who raised a glowing shield laced with shadow. A mixture of Holy light gifted by her guild to form a shield, and the darkness that now lived inside of her. The deflected flames scorching leaves and tingeing flowers brown.
"You have tainted your gifts with dark magic."
"Trust me, priestess, there is nothing holy that isn't a little tainted."
The stoic glare turned dark and Vittoria actually felt the itching of a sneer on her lips before she schooled herself. "You're a victim here. Why do you accept it? What's been done to you is an abomination."
"Oh… you don't know my family." Another cruel strike of Inari's sword was met with another flash of fire that throws the woman back a bit, singing the tips of her long braid.
"Confess to what's been done and we will see to him."
Those words again. It made Inari growl and the sharpened tip of her blade was plunged into vibrant white gravel, "Why do you all seem to picture me as some hapless victim?"
"You mean you willingly let him…"
"Really, it's none of your business but from what you're spouting I can guess the Hunter's have finally gotten a hold of his inquiry."
The creak of her hands about her staff showed the emotion that shifted inside of Vittoria, "He has slipped through our fingers time and time again. You are proof of his meddling. His crimes."
"Look, Szithlar is no angel. He's not even really the man I grew up to know anymore but I had to agree on some level to this or it could have killed us both. So, I guess it's our crime."
"Then you both will be…!"
Pebbles skittered, the flash of a sword arched out towards Vittoria kicking dirt and stone up at her face. Dodging the debris, she found the flat of the very same sword smacking against the back of her knee. She stumbled and staggered but did not fall. Stinging eyes blinked away the sharp dirt as she righted herself and spun in the direction she thought Inari would be. She was wrong. The woman was still where she had been. But she was also standing right in front of her.
There was two of her.
The doppelgangers she had used before, "disgusting abominations of arcane magic. You use them so freely too."
"What can I say? They've grown on me."
"You're no better then your master!" a twirl of her staff and the clink of rings heralded Vittoria's other ace. A burst of pressure and a small sonic like wave flowed out from the butt of her staff where it cracked the coble stone it struck. The golems wavered, like water disturbed by a stone, then folded in on themselves and retreated to their host.
"I didn't read that one in your file. Guess I should have studied harder."
"Yes, you should have."
Despite the smile on Inari's lips, Vittoria sprung back at her arching her staff down for another strike of lethal fire. The fan like wave carved a line down the walkway forcing Inari to roll, right into a tangled mass of thorns. They bit and pulled, ripping the back and sleeves of her tunic. Trying to yank herself free, she just seemed to get more and more ensnared by the biting needles until she gave in and rolled to her knees. Fresh blood dotted her skin and started to bead on her cheek.
The darkness to the normally bright red liquid wasn't all due to the shadow that stood over her. Glancing up Inari could not help but laugh. She was on her knees and Vittoria was poised to make the final blow.
"Will you confess to your crimes?"
"Will you claim what has happened to you?"
"It's not going to happen."
"Do you yield this fight!" With each question Vittoria's voice rose a touch more in frustration but her opponent, who had been so resigned this whole time, just kept smiling.
"I didn't yield to my Commander and I won't to you."
"Then accept your fate and…"
"Vit..Vittoria…" The struggling voice of her charge stumbled out, begging for her attention. She had her opponent on her knees; she could not be distracted now. Not now!
"You might want to check on your puppy, I don't think he's doing too well."
"And who's fault is that!?"
"Vittoria… hel… help…"
The Hunter's eyes' widened at that last word. Her staff still poised to make the finishing blow; she turned to find Szithlar standing with Alfren. The kanis was hefted off his hind paws by a thick tendril of shadow about his throat. That same cool look settled upon the tainted elf's face as it did his own charge.
"You will release him!"
"I am simply stepping in to protect what is mine. Step away from her and I'll let the pup go."
"I will strike her down here and now if you do not let him go this instant." Vittoria's voice was stern but commands never worked on the tall elf in the past. That they would now was beyond foolhardy. Those deep brown, pleading eyes, begging for her help pulled the hunter's attention from her task.
"I don't think you know your own situation."
"What…!?" turning her gaze back, Vittoria found Inari still kneeling where she had been. Her head bowed almost ready for the final blow that lay promised above her. The slight quirk of a triumphant smile played over the soft lines of her lips. She had Inari and next she would have Szithlar if she could just get Alfren away from him first. "I think it is you that doesn't know your situation, Mage Ramoth! You will be tried for your crimes and I will set her free from your arcane gah… ugh…"
Vittoria had turned about to hurl that final statement at him. Instead, the piercing drive of a dirk found lodging in her windpipe. Blood pooled in the slender grove of the blade then poured like wine from a pitcher over a slightly grayish hand. While she had been distracted, Inari had sent one of the still weak golems back from their rest. The heavy weight of Vittoria's staff clattered to the cobbled ground even as its owner collapsed to her knees. Slender hands wrapping about the slick wound still partially blocked by the blade. Gasping as blood drained back into her throat, she fell forwards struggling for breath and scraping for the healing potion in her hip pouch.
"Let the pup go Szithlar. It's over."
"Aren't you going to help her?"
A curious brow lifted over the dark eye patch he wore but Szithlar said nothing more. Simply dropping the young kanis, he turned to meet Inari's steps as she left the garden. Alfren, stumbling to his instructor, pained whimpering all that sounded behind them as the steps of hurrying mages came from the right.