Pieces of white porcelain patterned in green thorny vines lay like shattered stars against the only black, plush carpet of Lady Theodora Sabia Evergreen’s tower at the castle. She stared at them, numbly, knowing she needed to pick them up or at least call a dredger, and yet.
How funny it is, she thought, distant, that the whole world can change in mere minutes. That absolute disaster can disguise itself as a normal day…
The spilled tea was Nadana’s favorite, laced with anima. The waste was…. shameful, and yet, she could not bring herself to feel sorry.
She barely felt anything at all, just the words, ringing in her head, over and over and over…
Nadana had asked for tea time. And Theo had arranged her schedule to account for it, giving the hunter several hours to catch up with the eredar who had been her salvation. She cut off her hunt early to head back to the castle that day, stopping to check briefly on Bones, the massive three headed doglike beast that was the newest addition to her hunting team. If she could temper his anger and bloodlust, he’d be quite the asset, she thought, as she climbed the stone stairs. She’d left Fang in the stables to sleep after thier romp, and kept only the small bat with her.
Her home was a small tower off the beaten path of the main castle to call her own that overlooked the Banewood and was close to the stables. Most importantly, it was far from other members of the court, who tended to cluster around the big ballrooms and the bustling parts of the castle. Theo made an effort to tolerate them, because they all served the Master in thier own way and were important to maintaining Revendreth in this time of trial. But that didn’t mean she liked them much.
Now, she nodded to a passing dredger as she walked toward her rooms and got a gruff nod in return. Theo paused in the hall, remembering something. “I put Bones in the stables. Don’t try cleaning after him yet,” she told him. “He’s not trained, and he’ll probably eat you. I’ll handle it.”
“Roight you are, Miss. ‘Preciate the heads up. Should we get extra meats for him an’ ya other boy, then?” The dredger asked. “Can deliver ‘em to his stall?”
“That would be appreciated,” Theo said. “Thank you.”
A little bit of common decency went a long way, after all. They may be “merely servants” but they had a job to do just like she did. The casual practice of abuses toward them was not something she could change, but she could ensure her own conduct was as it should be.
“Can do. Have a good evenin’, Miss,” he replied, and she kept walking.
The door to her room was slightly ajar. It wasn’t unusual for Nadana to arrive first, as Theo was often out and about beyond the castle, and Nadana stayed closer to home. She swung the door open, saying, “Sorry, Lady Nad-“
Sire Denathrius, sitting in one of the two chairs at the table in the living room, smiled at her. Theodora froze. What in the-?
“My dear girl. No apologies needed,” he said. “Indeed, I’m sorry to intrude. But I have some… distressing news. I felt it my obligation to deliver it personally. Please, sit.” And he gestured to the opposite chair.
Samantha was dead. They told her that when they brought her here, groggy and still hurting from the mortal blow that ended her life- apparently the dead can still feel. She was dead, and imprisoned on top of that, as insult to injury. She was dead, and they had told her that her “penance” for her misdeeds was about to begin.
Then they -the strange, ashen skinned, red eyed beings who called themselves “venthyr”- left her to her thoughts, alone but for the company of her thoughts and simmering anger at her imprisonment.
Some undeterminable time later, the door opened.
The woman who entered made Samantha do a double take.
She was well dressed, and hooves clicked on the stone floors of the prison. With black hooves, black curling horns, keen eyes, crimson skin and massive bat like wings tucked nearly primly behind her, she strode confidently into the room and dismissed the short stocky servants with a nod.
So she’s in charge, then? wondered Samantha.
As if triggered by the thought, the woman -creature? Woman, probably. Her sense of taste was far too elegant otherwise- turned and regarded her.
Samantha looked much the way she had in life, but in ethereal shades of blueish white, the form of her soul solid and unyielding. The red magic that held her kneeling and bound to the floor didn’t give as she shifted, watching, wary, silent.
“Hello,” the woman greeted, with a smile. “My name is Lady Nadana, of the Court of Harvesters here in Revendreth, in service to the Master. Welcome to your afterlife…. and the last stop before your eternal damnation.” Her tone, polite and even welcoming at the start, sobered suddenly, intoning the words that followed with a sense of ritual. “You have been judged and found guilty of your Sins, Samantha Montag: Pride and Wrath. You must be cleansed and repent, or your soul will be cast into the Maw, where a fate quite literally worse than death awaits you.”
She walked over, as Samantha stayed silent.
“I will be your guide, and yes, your jailor, to that end, one of several you may face during your time here. You can address me as Lady Nadana.”
Samantha narrowed her eyes as the woman came closer, taking her measure. Still, Samantha said nothing.
“I prefer to be considered a shepherd, on your path to-“
Nadana got just a little too close.
Samantha lashed out suddenly, teeth snapping short of Nadana as the magical red bonds yanked her back. Nadana hardly flinched, and as in on cue, everything tightened, holding Samantha stretched painfully.
“Hmmmm. I expected as much, really, from your sinstone,” Nadana said.
“Fuck you,” Samantha managed, with a grunt and a pained smile. “You think I haven’t seen torture before?”
“Oh my dear girl. Not like this you haven’t,” Nadana assured her, and something about the tone sat ill at ease in Samantha’s chest. “Now, you wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a chance of repentance. This is the first of our lessons. Pain cleanses the soul,” she said, softly, and took a strange statue, like a bat of some kind, and sat it next to Samantha.
Samantha inhaled sharply when threads of red began to gather to it from her blueish body.
Then, the pain hit, as sudden and blinding as a brick to the face, all consuming, every part of her in wretched agony that made her spasm.
Nadana watched her for a moment, then nodded, turned, and left the chamber. She paused just in the doorway.
“Goodnight, Samantha. I shall see you soon. Take this time to reflect, hmm?”
And she was gone.
Damn whatever this sorcery is, Samantha thought viciously in the space between agonies. She never had any magical ability and knew little about it, but the red forces that held her bound seemed tailor made to the task of “repentance”. Her lips twisted at the memory of the word.
She did what she had to in order to survive. To look out for herself. To be the best, and then no one could ever hurt her again. What did she have to repent of? Living while others died? Being on the “evil side”? Being good at what she did, the best at what she did?
Fuck them. She did what she had to. There had been no choice. No one else ever looked out for her. She had to look out for herself.
When she got out of here, she was going to show them real torture!
But there was something to be said for the sheer versatility of the red magic. On a whim, it inflicted pain unlike anything she’d ever felt- beyond physical sensation, undiluted, as if the essence of it was injected directly into her whenever her captors and that bitch Nadana damn well pleased. The kind that whited out all thought for hours, ought to send her convulsing if she had a physical body. It could carve strips from her spirit’s flesh and heal them; it could make her feel things akin to a mortal body, without ever having to worry about inconveniences like passing out or dying.
….It was- formidable. Here, alone, Samantha could admit that to herself, though she shoved away the unease that followed it. And somehow, they were taking something from her whenever the pain came. She could feel it in the brief rests. That bat statue collected the red threads. Then they came and replaced it, and the pain began again.
It didn’t scare her. No. She wasn’t scared.
But… it was concerning.
She focused on her breathing, trying to conserve her strength for the next round. It hurt, it hurt so much, but she would find a way to survive. She always did.
Time was measured by the entries and exits of those who came to torment her. Often, it was Nadana. Sometimes it was others. In between, she was simply left alone, with nothing but the memories of her life and her mistakes for company. The waves of pain came and went without warning or pattern. How long had she been here?
She found herself listening for the distinctive sound of footsteps, and hated it when she caught herself. The periods of boredom were almost as bad as the pain, given the isolation. It had been…. she didn’t know how long it had been since she saw blue sky and smelled pine trees.
Samantha shook herself abruptly, alarmed. No. She would not be getting emotional, thank you very much. She could last. She would last.
And if she ever got out of here-
When. WHEN she got out of here, that bitch Nadana would be the first to go.
“Good evening, Samantha.”
Speak of the eredar.
Lady Nadana swept in, still well dressed, apparently ageless for the number of visits she’d done.
“Piss off,” Samantha croaked, and braced herself just in time.
Their tactics changed, eventually. It was honestly only smart; Samantha might scream, but she hadn’t yet given in, and many who came to visit with little statues that collected red threads of thier own seemed eager to make her hurt, as it produced more.
Nadana came with little statues, but her visits were different.
She was sitting in a plush chair in the wide open room, a tray of goodies and tea in front of her. She seemed to be reading some novel. Samantha’s eyes had trouble focusing on the cover to see what it was.
It was probably an after effect of the pain.
The eredar did this a lot, to what purpose Samantha couldn’t tell. The torture she knew involved things like knives. Not sitting in an upholstered chair watching someone like a concerned aunt, or reading out loud to them, or eating a fucking finger sandwich. The sandwiches didn’t look quite right, but it seemed to be well enough for her captor.
“…Do you want some?” Nadana asked.
It was both kindness, and a ploy. They both knew that. In the power struggles between the two of them, the simple yes or no question marked a line in the sand. Nadana knew that she knew. And she asked anyway, an outstretched hand to make the first chink in her defiant armor. She clenched her jaw, and looked away. Giving in even once would start her down the slope of capitulation. She wasn’t sorry. She was the One Who Walked in Blood, the greatest killer of her time, and she would not be brought low by fragrant tea in a fragile, floral teacup!
…But she was so thirsty. So, so thirsty, and cold too. Freeing, even. Whatever magic they worked on her the last several sessions returned mortal sensations to her ghostly spirit and it was astounding, how the limitations of the body could reduce anyone to begging. Hot tea would warm her. Give her strength to resist more.
No. No, she couldn’t give in.
But, she realized, stomach dropping, she wasn’t sure she could last, either.
It was later- time had no meaning anymore, so just “later”. Shivers wracked her. Being this cold hurt, sapped her strength, fogged her mind. It had to have been years since she was warm, or could lay down. So tired. Hungry. Thirsty… I want to lay down…
It was an empty hope. Here, there wasn’t even the promise of oblivion. Only more pain.
The well of anger and spiteful endurance was running thin.
How long has she been here? How long would she be here?
She struggled against the creeping despair. The red magic didn’t give. Samantha summoned the strength to look up, when more red flickered in her vision.
Teacups. They had roses on them, twining thorny vines and spiky leaves. Nadana sipped from one almost daintily. She was dressed warmly, her cloak black velvet, with a teapot, cups, and assortment of finger foods beside her as she sat.
“Do you want some?” Nadana asked, just like always, kind enough to twist the knife and kindle the last embers of resentment in her. Samantha hated her the most, out of all of her “visitors”, Nadana and her fucking tea was the worst-
Nadana rose, taking the tray with her. A knee jerk spasm against the magic that held her barely made the prisoner move, as Nadana crouched in front of her, setting down the tray with hardly a rattle.
It smelled good. It looked good. The steam was warm. Samantha’s stomach clenched in hunger. Her dry mouth worked, trying not to give herself away and failing.
“I won’t insult you by pretending you don’t know how this works,” Nadana said, settling there, infuriatingly calm. “All you have to do is ask.”
She wouldn’t. She couldn’t.
She grit her teeth hard enough to hurt and shut her eyes and tried to focus on anything else other than the smell of food and warm drink in front of her. It was how she’d handled the previous attempts, refusing to engage. It even worked, for a time. Nadana ended up sitting there with her in a mockery of companionship for an hour. Sometime during that she took out a book, content to wait.
But eventually, Nadana rose.
“Well. I think that’s all for now, then, since you insist on clinging to your pride. I hope it sustains you while I am gone,” she said, conversationally- not even spiteful, which somehow was worse. She reached down to pick up the food and drinks.
Both of them froze, Nadana in mid turn toward the door with surprise, and Samantha with horror at the word that slipped out despite herself- despite everything. It hung between them, quivering.
It was too late to take it back, too late to mitigate the damage. It was almost a relief to give in, and she hated herself for that much as she hated Nadana at the moment.
Nadana turned fully toward her, tray in hand, and smiled. Damn her. Damn her. The eredar came back to where she was chained kneeling on the floor and looked down at her.
“Please, what?” She asked, mildly. Desperation warred with hate, humiliation, fury, and pride causing the prisoner to find new strength and raise her head, glaring back with what remained of her defiance. Nadana didn’t flinch, just held her gaze, waiting, one eyebrow arched.
One of the collectors that constantly leeched strange red energy from her glowed a little brighter, and then dimmed.
The prisoner looked away first. Her shoulders sagged as the frustration, and defiance, went out of them for just a moment. She licked dry lips.
“….Please, Lady Nadana, may I have some tea,” she enunciated, voice raspy with disuse and screaming, through gritted teeth. It was clear enough to be deliberate but not quite pulling off sullen and sarcastic like she had half-hoped.
Nadana immediately sat again with the tray and said “Of course, dear.” Her tone wasn’t demeaning in any way, but it grated like sandpaper on a burn wound when coupled with the shameful relief the prisoner felt, and couldn’t seem to shake.
The collector pulsed again as Nadana poured another cup. Samantha had a faint hope that one arm would be released, but that was soon dashed when Nadana made no move to do so and instead held up the cup to her lips.
It was a fresh blow to her pride, and she hated it, and she hated, hated, hated Nadana- but did not protest.
“Slowly, now. It’s still hot. Let me know if you want more. Once you get some tea in you, we will see about food,” Nadana murmured. Samantha had trouble lifting her head enough to swallow, and she helped, a hand cupping the chin. “That was very well done, dear. I’m glad we are finally making progress together.”
Cold fear slipped down Samantha’s spine even as she drank the tea from the cup in Nadana’s hands, and she shivered. In response, Nadana smiled, and draped her own cloak over Samantha, before pouring another cup.
And the world began to crumble around her, as the Master mournfully explained that Nadana had proven herself to be a craven traitor, not just to Theodora but also to himself, his court, and Revendreth. At first, she protested- there had to be a mistake! Not Lady Nadana! Not the eredar who had saved her, taught her everything she knew. Impossible. It had to be a trick, or some kind of illusion. There was no way Nadana would ever betray Revendreth like that. She knew it in her heart.
A cell was an improvement over being chained to the floor. Of course, the red magic still bound her to this place. Samantha only tried to bolt for the door once, since being moved here; the aftermath had been… persuasive.
Samantha hated that. She hated that she was persuaded. But it had been so long since she could move freely. Even a little space was… welcome. She actually felt grateful for it.
At times, she raged against the feelings, spates of sudden pride making her vicious some days when Nadana visited. But more and more, she wondered about her captors. Particularly Nadana.
She knew damn well that Nadana was rewarding good behavior, reinforcing it. That didn’t make it less effective. And… it hurt so much to resist all the time. Surely, better to give in a little, save her strength for if she ever got out of here. If they ever gave her an opening. Asking never failed to make her angry, but it was a dull anger, these days, instead of the nearly unbearable fury that made her want to scream, throw things, kill people, or all three.
After the tea incident, Nadana did something that stopped the cold, leaving Samantha with her cloak, and was gone for a while- and she couldn’t decide if she preferred the simple pain over the isolation or not. But then Nadana returned, and with her came a small change. She was allowed to sit cross legged on the floor, instead of that stretched kneeling position. The eredar made her ask for that, too… but it was such a relief.
It was then Samantha discovered a change in herself. Her form, spirit, whatever, was getting… less distinct. More wispy, the features of her face blurring, all of it becoming more…. malleable. And that, that was downright terrifying. Terrifying enough that after another indeterminable age of Nadana and pain, she actually asked Nadana what was happening to her of her own accord.
Then she’d been moved to this cell. This cage, part of her thought, savage with impotent fury. It was, of course. There was no denying that. A large one however, a cube fifteen feet on each side, made of the same black stone as the place she’d been chained, with wrought iron magical bars. But then it was still much better than chained to the floor… though she had no idea why Nadana moved her.
Samantha didn’t know if this was supposed to be a good thing or a bad one.
Did I make her angry? I said please… I asked, she thought, pacing. Why did-
Footsteps. Nadana’s. She knew them as well as she’d known her own heartbeat… when she had one. Samantha perked up, fought it back down, and instead stood warily in the middle of the cell.
The eredar came around the corner. Was she ever NOT put together? Wondered Samantha. She didn’t open the door yet, but was followed by one of the short, squat servants that came and went, studiously ignoring Samantha in her cell. She blinked.
He was carrying a tray- not with tea, this time. Instead, on it lay two daggers and between them, a rapier style sword, all of them sheathed in black leather. The daggers were large and wickedly curved; the rapier sharp, thin, piercing. Samantha backed up a step before she realized she’d done so.
“Relax, Samantha,” Nadana said with a small smile. “I may hurt you -pain cleanses the soul- but not with these. They have another purpose.”
Samantha narrowed her eyes a little. Yet- there was little choice but to trust her. Whether she was lying, or telling the truth, the ability to resist would be… limited at best.
“Now, attend. You asked me at our last meeting what was happening to you.” The eredar looked at her, forthright, hands clasping in front of her. “The answer is progress, though it took quite some time to get there. I explained our purpose when you arrived, but I think you may be in more of a mindset to listen now,” and Nadana gave a grin with a mischievous edge. Both of them remembered the abortive first attempts at escape, resistance, and fighting back.
“Samantha. We all want you to find your repentance,” Nadana told her, very seriously. Samantha felt her hackles rise a little at the word, but Nadana kept talking. “That unfortunately means, often times, we must be as a surgeon: breaking an arm to reset it, cutting the flesh to excise the cancer. When we say pain cleanses the soul, we are being quite literal. You are now malleable enough that we at a point where we can begin to work together and tackle the problem head on.”
“…And what does that mean?”
“It means that I am going to ask you some questions you may not want to answer. You will answer them, eventually, and how much pain is involved in that process is up to you. But we must get to the heart of where your anger and your pride come from. Only then can we expunge it.”
The spirit set her jaw and backed away. “What questions?” she asked, even more wary now. This was different, and she didn’t like it at all.
Nadana gazed at her steadily, unyielding, no pity there, but an odd kindness nonetheless. “Why did you become the One Who Walks In Blood?”
The title hit Samantha worse than a physical blow. She swallowed, anger rising along with the memory.
“I know the how. I know it was either yourself or the rest of the village. I know the soldiers asked you to lead them there, as the forester who knew the area. I know they threatened you. But why did you cooperate?”
“Oh, fuck you, you sanctimonious-!” Samantha snarled, moving forward-
The pain cut her knees from under her and drove her to the floor, twitching and screaming.
These visits continued for some time: Nadana, the servant with the blades, and the awful questions. They only got worse. Prying into her bloody decisions, the steps that led her on the road she left ankle-deep in red behind her. She came, and went, and left Samantha alone with the fresh open wounds of her past for ages before she returned, and asked again.
“And why did you decide to work for them?”
The words barely registered to Samantha, curled into a fetal position, breathing in heavy gasps. One hand clenched on the black stone floor.
“Bitch,” came out, hoarse and whispered.
“Manners, Samantha. I want to help you. Let me help you. Why did you decide to work for them, when you knew who they were and what they did?”
“The money was good,” she snarled, and then choked on a scream.
“Don’t insult us both by lying. You’ve many sins, but greed was never one-”
Something felt like it was rising in Samantha, as Nadana talked, poked and pried at the open wounds in her soul. Something was coming, something was-
“I WAS ANGRY!”
And the red threads coming from her suddenly coalesced, morphed, twisted, gaining shape and substance, as Nadana got quickly to her feet and reached back for sword and dagger.
“There you are,” she said, almost to herself.
And then she simply disappeared from in front of Samantha and reappeared in the cell, attacking the strange monster that came out with a strike so fast it blurred crimson. Samantha dragged herself out of the way, shock and fear giving fresh strength even as she felt weirdly drained, while Nadana parried a tendril of reddish-black and the thing, the thing that had come from inside Samantha, attacked again. Nadana was too fast, however, and Samantha felt her eyebrows rise as she noted the woman’s form.
Nadana was… good. Very, very good with sword and dagger, likely as skilled with the two apart as they were together. Wow, she thought, somewhere in the back of it all.
The eredar sidestepped a rushing attack and backed away, circling. Then she lunged forward, and the strike pierced the creature clean through with that rapier blade. It shrieked, in a voice a few steps to the left of Samantha’s own, and then exploded.
Nadana relaxed. “And that, my dear Samantha, is why you are here.”
“Rage,” the other woman said softly. “Your rage, made tangible. You admitted to it. This is where our real work begins, dear. How do you feel?”
What kind of a stupid question was-… Wait. Samantha paused. She felt… lighter. Exhausted, very very tired, but…. Lighter.
“…I feel… better,” she said, slowly, unsure. “Like…”
“Like you were carrying a great weight, and it has been removed.” Nadana smiled a little. “Yes. That’s because it has.”
“….Pain cleanses the soul. Literally. You- You told me that. I didn’t think…”
“Of course not. You couldn’t, at the time. Your pride is very strong, tied with your anger at your treatment by that village. You didn’t deserve the status of outcast, the label “cursed”. But,” And Nadana’s face firmed, pitiless at the delivery of the next words, “ neither did they deserve to be slaughtered like beasts at harvest, and with less mercy.”
She flinched. Because…. The words range as truth, and she felt it, for the first time: the reality of her sins, crashing down. Samantha hung her head and looked away.
“Now. That is enough for this session, I think. I will return, and we will continue.” Red swirled around Nadana again, and then she was back at the opposite side of the bars. “You did very well today.”
Samantha blinked and looked up, confused. “I did?”
“You did. I shall bring tea the next time, before we begin.”
“Oh. Uh.” Samantha’s brain struggled to keep up, but she did manage, as Nadana turned, a small, quiet, “…Thank you, Lady Nadana.”
Samantha waited quietly in her cell. The floor was littered with… bugs? Bugs, by the look of it. All of them pushed as close to the bars as she could manage. And she waited, utterly still, because soon…
A squeaking noise came to her. She held the breath she didn’t need anymore. There, in the high arching stone rafters, a flutter of movement.
Come down, little friend. Come on down. I have bugs for you. Bats like bugs, don’t they? Come closer…
“…Samantha, dear, why do you have a collection of dead bugs in your cell?”
The flutter went out of sight. Samantha sighed a little. Damn. But then she looked at Nadana, whose quiet approach this time rendered her unnoticed till she spoke. The eredar’s head was tilted at her curiously. Samantha stood on wispy not-quite-legs-anymore and tried not to look sheepish. Much of her form had faded into a torso, head, arms, and the ethereal sort of floating bottom half common to many souls here. The older they were, the less distinct, and Samantha had been here for…. However long it had been.
“Um,” Samantha said. “It… uh. Well. I. I was…”
Nadana arched one eyebrow, waiting.
“…Trying to get the bat to come down,” she admitted.
The eredar blinked.
Samantha pointed up. Nadana looked, face quizzical, till she saw it. Then she looked back at Samantha.
“I see… somewhat. Do you… like animals? I know we discussed your time at that cottage in the pines fondly.”
There was only a small hesitation before Samantha nodded. “Yes, Lady Nadana. I had a few dogs before, and I raised an orphan wolf once. I fed the ravens by my house. I like cats. I was good on horseback. Animals were… nicer to me than people.”
“I see. Well. Perhaps we shall encounter some wildlife on our walk today,” Nadana said, and then to Samantha’s shock, opened the cell door.
“Our- our what?”
“Walk, dear. The thing you do with your legs? Well, you’ll float, I suppose, but the principle is the same. Come along.” And she gestured out of the cell, as the ever-present red tendril of magic binding Samantha transferred itself seamlessly to Nadana’s hand.
“We aren’t going to-?” she managed to ask, as she very hesitantly stepped outside the bars. No pain hit, and she forced herself to relax.
“Not today. You’ve made much progress, Samantha. I am proud of you. Think of this as a reward for good behavior, and a chance for us to talk freely,” Nadana said, as she led the way down the hall. Other cells passed by, other rooms, occupants in various states of repentance.
“…Where are we going?”
“Outside, past the castle grounds, down to the forest. You have a special fondness for the evergreens, as I recall. Here in Revendreth we have a forest known as the Banewood, which can be somewhat fraught, but do not worry. I shall protect you. There is little there that could harm me,” Nadana said, and indeed, she was wearing not just her elegant velvet cloak but also her sword, daggers, and a robe effortlessly walking a line between fashionable and functional.
“You- You remembered?” Samantha asked, stunned, bashful almost in her hope.
“Of course, dear. Now, let’s be quiet till we get there; we don’t wish to disturb others. Then when we arrive, you can ask me any questions you like about myself, Revendreth, whatever you want.” Nadana smiled back at her. Samantha returned it, though she was still a little confused as to what prompted this, and a bit wary despite herself.
Yet… she found that she trusted Nadana. The eredar never minced words, but she never used cruelty when kindness would do. She never broke her word once given, or lied- even when a lie might be preferable. If this was meant to be a torment, Nadana would have told her so. Even then…
…Pain cleanses the soul, and Samantha knew she had much work to do in that regard.
The castle the prison was under (and now her ideas of escaping seemed worse than laughable, she’d’ve been killed before she reached the stairs) was huge, dripping in rich furnishings, shades of mahogany, ebony, and crimson. Other venthyr and even a few of the eredar like Nadana passed by, and greeted Nadana, though they seemed to ignore the soul following her. That suited Samantha, when once it would have been infuriating. What use did she have for recognition, anyways? She did not particularly want them to see her, flawed creature that she was.
And oh, was she flawed. Worse than flawed. A monster- a murderer. Nadana had helped her see, though it had taken ever so long. Now the spaces between visits were occupied by memories like knives of a shattered mirror, reflecting what she’d been to who she had become, driving into her heart.
She made herself sick.
She deserved the pain.
So she did as Nadana requested, and kept silent through their walk. Down the lushly appointed halls of the castle, out into the courtyard where red lanterns sat atop gothic lantern posts and beings of stone sparred one another relentlessly. Soldiers stood guard, beyond thorned bushes with strange massive roses and trees with blueish-indigo leaves and grey bark. In the courtyard, various venthyr could be seen bedecked in finery, some in front of hanging cages with other souls in them. The sky was perpetually dark and clouded, except for in the distance to the west, where beams of light pierced it.
It smelled like rain, and she felt the wind on her soul, and for a moment emotion welled up in her. It had been so, so very long.
Nadana took her along the stone cobbled path, to a giant lift machine that took them farther down. The neatly fitted stone turned to more ordinary cobbles. Carriages careened by, driven by black haired, red eyed steeds. Ruins loomed overhead. The path took them farther down, and then the trees began. Samantha inhaled quietly, though she didn’t really need to.
Halfway down, a carriage slowed, and a venthyr noblewoman poked her head out.
“Nadana! Darling, you missed the last dance party!” she said, laughing. “What, were you busy with this errant soul? Everyone knows you’re very particular about your wards but really, just a bit of pain does the trick.
“Yes, actually. This one is nearly ready to petition the Accuser for Judgement.” Samantha blinked as Nadana spoke- the who for what? “I’ll be at the next one, Alira, promise.”
“Hahaha! I’ll hold you to that!” The venthyr withdrew her head back into the carriage and it sped up, passing them by.
Now what did that all mean…?
The pines were a little scragglier; but they towered above, with blue-green needles over a forest carpet of purplish fallen leaves. The sounds of it were different than an earthly forest; but then, this wasn’t an earthly realm, she was dead, and really, it didn’t matter. Samantha hardly noticed the red bond tying her to Nadana as she moved forward a little, tilted her head up, and for a moment just breathed in the smell of the pines.
Nadana smiled, quietly.
They entered the forest together.
“It has been a very long time since I have seen… Forest. Thank you, Lady Nadana.” The spirit turned to her and smiled. Nadana chuckled.
“Well, I will admit I wanted to give you something you would enjoy as your reward. You have worked very hard, these ages past. Now, you have questions, I’m sure,” she said, a not so subtle prompt. “About who we are, why we do what we do.”
“I… some,” Samantha allowed, a little hesitantly. They’d wandered far deep into the forest, glimpses of lumbering bears and wolfish darkhounds crossing their paths, though neither tangled with Nadana and her ward.
And slowly, Samantha did. About the Venthyr, the place they were in -Revendreth- and the forest, about the nobility she saw, the statues all of the same man, their purpose.
“…and so you see, the Sire of Revendreth is really the Sire of us all, and it is by his will and grace that we prosper. Always remember that, Samantha, and do as he asks,” Nadana finished.
Samantha nodded, slowly, processing. “…What is the Accuser you mentioned? And the Judgement?”
…Nadana stopped walking.
“Ah. Well. That does bring me to the reason for this visit.” She turned around, looking Samantha in the eye. “Your time here is nearly at an end, Samantha.”
Oh. Oh, that… Samantha felt her heart drop. “…I- I see.”
“When a soul has repented, they are brought to the Accuser, and Judgement is passed. There are four options. More time may be needed, to properly cleanse the sins incurred in life. The soul may be found worthy, and sent back, to find a new place in the Shadowlands now that they have repented. As a last resort, the soul may be found irredeemable, and cast into the Maw and damnation until the end of time.” As Nadana spoke, Samantha felt herself grow more and more wooden. Fear clenched her heart.
I don’t want to go, she thought. I don’t want to… end like that. “I- I guess it’s what I deserve, though,” she said aloud without thinking, her voice cracking.
“I beg your pardon?”
“T- The damnnation,” Samantha made herself say. Now the forest walk made sense. One last gift, before… “I- I did so much harm, Lady Nadana, I- I… I killed, and I tortured, and I did it for the worst reasons, because I was angry and stupid proud, and… scared, under it all. I was the One Who Walks in Blood, I left cities ankle deep in it in my wake. It’s only fair that… that it should end in my own, I guess.” She looked around, taking in the forest anew. “It was very kind of you to… to take me here before- well. I’ll always remember it.” She turned to the eredar, and smiled, though it felt tight with unshed tears. “Even when… what comes, comes, I guess. I’ll remember this. I know I deserve the Maw. It’s ok. You can send me there.”
Nadana stared at her with a hard, unreadable expression. “…Is that what you think this is? One last hurrah, before I send you into the Maw to have your very soul flayed to bits as you cease to be in agonizing fashion? And you’re going to let me?”
“Lady Nadana, I won’t resist. I can’t, for one, and for two…” She sighed. “You helped me see. I know what I am.”
The eredar sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose for a good thirty seconds before she drew herself up to her full height, towering over the soul. She fixed Samantha with a glare.
“Do you think you are the only One That Walks in Blood? There are souls here responsible for the deaths of millions. For the collapse of entire planets. Imagine: not just one that walks in blood but an entire Legion, leaving behind them worlds in ruin, worlds shattered literally into shards. If those creatures can be redeemed, and some of them have been, there is hope for you yet, Samantha Montag. This defeatist apathy for the placement of your soul is not the strong drive you had in life to survive. Despite all your flaws, there were – and are – many virtues that have yet to be properly refined.”
…Whole worlds broken? Samantha thought, stunned into quiet. By- by what? How?
Nadana was still fixing her with that look, and seemed to expect a response. Samantha fumbled with her words until she found them.
“…I. I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t let me finish. That was three options. The fourth… is that you become one of us.” Nadana watched her carefully now, and Samantha felt the weight of her gaze.
“A venthyr. Called to serve the Shadowlands, the Master, and the cause of redeeming the so called irredeemable. You will be reborn, and have a place here, in Revendreth. Indeed, the Master charged you to me for that express purpose; occasionally we get a soul that we decide to devote particular attention to. Your talents in life served your own pride and ambitions. In death, they can serve something higher… if you want. It is not the road all are offered, and many do not wish to take it, for it involves a hard heart at times. I never enjoyed causing you pain, Samantha, yet it was necessary for your repentance to hurt you dearly, over and over. I do believe, though,” and she smiled a little now, breaking through the stern face, “that it was worth it. You have grown very much as the Master and I had hoped.”
Wild hope bloomed in her chest. “Is- I could-?”
“I have been allowed to offer you this path, if that is what you wish. It will be an adjustment. You will have a new name, body, and task in life. Again, it is not for all. You may wish to be reincarnated in Ardenweald, for a long restful sleep, or fight for the Shadowlands in Maldraxxus as the premier archer you were in life. It is not a decision to be hastily made-”
“Yes. Yes, I want to,” Samantha said, cutting her off, and making Nadana laugh despite herself. “Oh, Lady Nadana, I- I don’t have words for it. For this. I won’t let you down, or this Master, either. I don’t mind serving now. There’s a lot to be said for service freely given, I think, and if- if he’ll have me, if you’ll have me… yes,” she said, nodding.
“Well. Perhaps I should have expected that.” And Lady Nadana smiled at her, fondly. “Come, Samantha. We still have our walk to finish. And then, I shall petition the Accuser upon our return.”
Fingers fumbled with buttons; so long it had been, since she’d worn clothes, but she managed the tailored shirt after a few moments. Then a coat, somewhat formal in the style of the nobility and on the masculine side, supple dark brown highlighted in gold and crimson. High waisted pants, more buttons, socks, thigh high boots. marveled at the textures and colors and the sight of her own hands.
Her own ashy grey hands, fleshy, alive. Well. Mostly. It was all a little fuzzy on the specifics, but then, did that really matter?
She stood and looked at herself in the full length mirror, adjusting her sleeves. The colors were akin to those Nadana (“just Nadana, now, dear, if you like. We’re equals, after all, under the Master.”) wore, and she gathered that was a connection that would be important. She took a basin of water and brushed her black hair out of her eyes. The short simple style could also be pulled back into a little stubby bun or ponytail, but for this, she thought she’d keep it classic.
After all, she was meeting the Master. She wanted to look her best. Especially if it reflected on Nadana.
The newly born venthyr named Theodora Sabia Evergreen looked at herself there, memorizing the details of her new face. It wasn’t a bad face; not the prettiest, as she understood Venthyr standards, but not ugly, either, and there was character in the aquiline nose, the strong cheekbones. It would do well. Quite well.
Inhaling (how she missed breathing!) she nodded firmly to herself, checked her coat one last time, and strode out the door.
Confidence, Nadana had told her. Remember he is the Master of Revendreth, the Sire of us all, but you have nothing to fear from him… as long as you do not merit his displeasure. And he is eager to see how you have progressed.
The walk to the throne room was long enough to give her the jitters nonetheless.
A man -the Lord Chamberlain, her mind supplied, remembering the coaching Nadana gave her the night before, a crash course in the who’s who- sniffed audibly as she approached, and looked at her as if she was a bug in his dinner. Then he turned.
“Theodora Evergreen, former ward of the Prime Censor, Lady Nadana,” he announced, then stepped back for her to enter. When she did, he closed the door.
The largest Venthyr she’d ever seen, sporting horns and cloven feet much like Nadana, turned from where he sat on the floor, surrounded by a stumbling litter of darkhound pups. He wore the finest armor; a sword hovered, oddly watchful, at his shoulder. He was easily twice her size. “Ah, the much vaunted protege of Lady Nadana’s,” he greeted, with a disarming smile. She blinked in surprise, taken off guard by the appearance. She’d expected a man on the throne behind him, not…
“Ah, y-yes, Sire.” She remembered the words. “My name is Theodora Evergreen, chosen to reflect my new life in service here to Revendreth. I hope I meet your expectations.” And she bowed low, in the style Nadana showed her.
“I do believe you will,” Sire Denathrius said, the sharp toothed smile only growing as a puppy gnawed on the toe of his boot. “Come, please. Lady Nadana told me of your particular talents, and I anticipate making good use of them. To that end, here. Pick one.”
“Pick a hound,” he repeated, slower, with a glint in his eyes. “Come now, dear girl. I know what you were in life. You’ll serve me -and Revendreth, of course- much the same in death, but for rather a better cause, and without your sins hanging over you. I shall start with putting you in contact with the Fearstalkers, I think, though that may change. I almost decided on a gargon, but I remember how you said you raised an orphaned wolf, and you have a fondness for canines. So, pick. It will be your hunting companion, as you once had, and a mark of my favor.”
Theodora nearly stammered in surprise. He knew a startling amount about her- but then, Nadana said he knew the sins of all. Yet, a mark of his favor right from the get go…
“I- I’d be honored to accept, Master,” she said, bowing low again. “I have not done much yet to earn such confidence, but I promise I will.”
“Oh, of that I have no doubt, my dear. Of that I have no doubt…”
But the evidence was damning. After all, the Master saw all that occurred in Revendreth. How could he not know of Nadana, helping the two strange souls escape? Actually killing a stoneborn guard to do so?
By and large, Theodora loved her new lease on (meraphotical) life. However, she quickly discovered that most other Venthyr simply grated on her nerves. That was fine; her loyalty wasn’t to them, but to Revendreth, the Master, and Nadana, of course. It was loyalty that led her to turn down Nadana’s offer of a soulbind. She was far too blunt-spoken, and ill-suited to court politics that the eredar found herself often mired in. As a soulbind, she would be a weakness, not a strength; but the offer warmed her heart and she told her as much.
Relearning the bow, the sword, the dagger was invigorating. She found much common ground with the stoneborn that often served as sparring partners. Nadana did as well in her free time, sparse though it was. Theo was even matched with her in swordsmanship, though Nadana was unparalleled with her daggers. With the bow, however, Theo quickly distinguished herself and earned the admiration -and envy- of the other nobles. That led to predictable fallout, as jockeying for the Master’s favor seemed part and parcel of Revendreth.
She didn’t care. She had that favor, apparently, though she did not know why. She did know she would live up to his and Nadana’s trust in her, or die again trying. At first, she spent time with the Fearstalkers, though that relationship had quickly soured over several sharp words. Distinguishing herself on her own had not been hard, however. And so to the Master’s delight, she took up the mantle of problem solver.
That generally involved solving problems by putting arrows in eyeballs, but it was effective.
And through it all, Nadana taught her the ins and outs of society needed to survive: the dances for ballrooms, the way to subtly turn a compliment like a knife, court intricacies. Theo was not particularly interested, but applied herself diligently nonetheless; she trusted Nadana knew what she would need here in this new place, even if it was not what she preferred.
He had his suspicions, but didn’t want to burden Theodora with them. After all, she and Nadana were close, and while he’s sure of Theodora’s loyalty -she is his hunter, and her commitment is proven to be beyond reproach- he didn’t want to hurt her with this knowledge. So he let the escape happen. And now that it had, they could follow Nadana’s trail to the rest of the rats in the cellar.
The damned rebels are only good for one thing, Theodora thought, and that’s target practice. Still, I suppose I ought to be grateful they were as stupid as they were, and so easy to find.
She looked up at the tower that would become her new home, gifted to her by the Master himself for a job well done, her darkhound (now grown) at her heels. Nadana smiled. “Well, I suppose I’ll rent out your room then, since you don’t need it anymore, Lady Evergreen,” she teased.
“It’s probably drafty,” Theo said in response, smiling.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Nadana chuckled. “I am proud of you, Theo. I knew you would be an asset to us all… and I am glad to find myself your friend, as well. Come. Let us look at your new domicile, that you traded a manor for. I still can’t believe you did that. Actually, I can, it’s very you, but still.”
Theo made a face. “As if I want a manor. What use have I for excessive amounts of servants and pressure to put on parties and maintain the rosebushes? I need a defensible base, close to the stables, with plenty of room, where I’ll be far from the court and the other so called “hunters” like Altimor. I can’t be tempted to skewer them if I’m far away, you see,” she added, and opened the door.
Inside was richly, if somewhat sparsely, appointed. The furnishings were thick soft leather on the chairs and the chaise lounge in front of the fire. Rugs were crimson but patterned with the blueish leaves common to Revendreth under her boots. A rack for hunting gear, another for weaponry, an eating area should she choose to entertain. Theodora knew the bedroom was up the spiral staircase, as was a study library combination, a guest bedroom, a room for her animals, and then an open area at the top much like a deck, to look out and survey the area and the Banewood beneath. All of it was very much to her style and taste
“Oh, wow,” Theo said, looking around. “I thought it would be… but this…”
She turned to Nadana.
“Thank you, Nadana. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” she said, earnestly. “Everything you did, all the time you spent… I didn’t deserve it, but- but I owe you everything. Even if I’m moved out of your wing, if you ever need anything, anything at all, I’ll do it. You have been the greatest mentor -and friend- I could have asked for,” Theodora said, voice a little husky.
Nadana blinked, taken aback, and perhaps a little flustered. “I, well. It was my job, Theo, but… I too am glad we were able to be friends. I do not have many I trust, but I count you among them, for what that is worth.”
Theo smiled, a bright thing, even there under the sky of Revendreth. “Nadana, it’s worth everything. Come on in. I asked them to give me teacups with roses on them, like the ones you have,” she said, and closed the door behind them.
Of course, he did not expect her to go after Nadana. Not after, well. She might be emotionally compromised. It wouldn’t be fair to ask her to hunt down the woman who had been torturer, redeemer, mentor, and friend. No, no, he would ask the Fearstalkers. They were adequate. The Master of Revendreth had given her a sad smile before he patted her on the shoulder, and told her to take whatever time she needed to process this. No hunts would be laid on her until she felt ready.
And then he had left, leaving Theo alone, with cooling tea in the teapot, and empty teacups.
She didn’t remember shattering them. She knew she did, because the evidence was there on the floor, but she didn’t consciously remember it. The veneer of numbness muffled all thought, the great, gaping grief of betrayal that sought to consume her.
Was it all been a lie?
Everything she taught me?
Everything she said?
Something prickled through the numbness. Not grief, though there was plenty of that. Theodora had not felt the like of it in a long, long time, but she knew it well. The red hot, simmering rage, coalescing in her chest, drove her to stand, fist clenched, and scrub her eyes on her shirtsleeve until they were dry.
This was not the time for tears.
This was the time for action.
The Fearstalkers won’t be able to hunt Nadana like I can. I will petition the Master, ask him to forgive me my wrath, and then declare this hunt. I will bring her back to Castle Nathria to repent of her sins, just like she taught me, because I have not forgotten her lessons, nor my own loyalty, even if she has. I will drag her to the feet of the Sire for her repentance. That would be justice.
Justice, and happily enough, revenge.
Leaving her heart shattered on the floor along with the rose teacups, Theo began to mechanically pack for her hunt. After all…
…She would not be returning until either Nadana was captured or dead…. Or she was.
There was simply no other option.
“Fang. Come,” she said, slinging her backpack onto her shoulder, and walked out of her tower, not bothering to close the door.