After turning most of the bear into food for Fang and herself, Theo took the time to clean herself and her gear. The Master had sent her far afield before, had seen her roadworn and travelweary, of course- but she anticipated some blowback from the encounter with the Fearstalkers, and it would be best not to give them any potential ammunition.
So it was with clean clothes and boots devoid of the maldraxxi dirt that she exited the Banewood, pack over her shoulder, bow in hand, and Fang at heel with Seeker on her shoulder, and made the long walk to Castle Nathria.
However, she did not meet any Fearstalkers on her way. Nobles of various sorts, whom she skirted around as she had business beyond their frivolity, and dredgers whom she nodded politely to as she walked past, yes- but no other hunters, and that was a stroke of luck. She didn’t feel like dealing with them, especially after Silver had left in the middle of the night. Theo turned a corner, and abruptly her footsteps were muffled. The luxurious carpet in the halls leading to the Master’s throne room was neatly ankle deep, and brilliant bloody red stark against midnight black stone. The familiar color scheme was oddly soothing to her, and she felt herself relaxing a little.
Can’t relax too much, though, she thought, as she nodded to the stoneborn guard, who nodded gravely back to her. You never know how the hunt ends until it-
The door opened.
Theo had an instant to register the tall, thickly muscled back and wings of a red skinned eredar standing there with his sword unsheathed before her brain shrieked DANGER and THE MASTER and that sheer all-consuming fury flooded her vision red before she flung herself into the room, rapier and dagger appearing in her hands so fast they blurred.
“TRAITOR!” She snarled, in time with Fang, as the two struck at the Repentant who had somehow infiltrated the heart of Revendreth. He turned, surprised, and she recognized the face only barely: Aslis, new Censor, one of Nadana’s here in Revendreth. His face twisted in alarm-
-SHING! Went her sword as Remornia blocked the strike from behind. Theo stopped dead, the nearly musical notes of steel on steel fading in the sudden and complete silence of the room. Fang screeched to a halt on the rug, confused.
“While I am delighted to see your concern for my safety, my dear, please don’t kill Aslis. It would be a shame to lose one of the few remaining loyal eredar, after all, especially in the midst of him offering his sword to me personally!” Sire Denathrius said with an amused grin.
“Awww, I thought I might get some fun,” pouted Remornia, who floated gently back to his side. Theo very slowly lowered her blades, looking from the Master to Aslis, then back.
“You can play later, Remornia. Come, come, my dear! Meet Aslis, leader of the Resolute,” Denathrius said, as he stood and walked toward her, putting a hand on her shoulder with a friendly slap, and steering her back to his throne. “Aslis, meet my favorite hunter, Lady Theodora Evergreen.”
The two regarded each other for a moment like wary cats. He nodded, stiffly. Theo inclined her head a little. She remembered seeing him around, very vaguely, now. He didn’t seem to be very pleased to see her- or maybe he was just unhappy that she got the drop on him. Or maybe he was just grumpy.
“Aslis here was just filling me in on some remarkable attacks he and his people made on that bitch and the rest of her little band of traitors. Apparently they were stopped before they could do much damage by these Templar fellows you were telling me about.” The Master sat in his chair again. Fang trotted up to heel at Theo’s left. “It was costly, but overall, I think it served its purpose.”
“To remind Nadana that not all of us are craven,” Aslis said, though he didn’t look at Theo when he spoke, instead focusing on the Master, who smiled at him, a benediction.
“And I cannot tell you how happy that makes me. Now, you’ll have the access I promised to the lower Depths, and in return, do keep me informed of your progress, hmm?” It was a polite dismissal. Aslis bowed, spared Theo a glance she couldn’t decipher, sheathed his sword, turned, and left the throne room.
Theo waited till he left, then turned back to the throne and the Master sitting on it. With Aslis gone, he relaxed, and she let herself feel proud that he was able to do that with her. A gesture brought a dredger out of nowhere, and wine, and a tray of little fancy morsels.
“Please, eat! You’ve come in from the wilds and wanderings after all, doing my will. I heard what you did with Nemalu. Inspiring, really. Now. Tell me what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve learned, my dear. I’m all ears. Is that traitor dead yet?”
Theo straightened and began to report. The fight with Nemalu was elaborated on -he insisted on getting the details- and seemed quite pleased with the results. She told him of her idea that potentially Nadana might be corrupted, and struggled for a moment before she forced herself to add that it did not seem to be the case. Anger flickered into her tone despite herself. The Master made a soothing, sad noise, and passed her the tray. She took a little tart, because he seemed to expect her to.
“After interrogating an unwary member of the Templars, and doing some scouting, I came back here to report on my progress as you requested. I thought I had killed one of the errant souls that escaped, but a healer was close by and able to save their life, unfortunately.” Theo scowled briefly. “I intend to fix that as soon as I kill Duurm. Him and the rest.”
Suddenly, a smiling blue face with dancing eyes, like they were sharing a mischief with her, flashed across her mind. Theo shook it off, keeping her face clear of whatever emotion lodged itself briefly in her chest before she shoved it ruthlessly aside.
Yes, even him. Revendreth had to be preserved. Chaos and traitors could not be tolerated, she reminded herself. One congenial encounter did not negate that…. no matter how nice it was at the time.
“Ah! About that, this reminds me.” He stood, nodding to a stoneborne, who moved off to do… whatever that command signified. “They do deserve whatever painful death you can bring them, of course, but my dear, I wanted to tell you- you needn’t be scared to go after Nadana directly. I know part of you wishes for her redemption, and I would love nothing better than to bring her back into the fold, but I sadly doubt that will happen. But the other reason you haven’t gone after her is that you’re afraid she has your sinstone, hmm?”
Theo blinked, pausing briefly. Then she nodded slowly. “I… the Templar I interrogated said she did not have it, but-“
“-but of course he did. And this time, they actually weren’t lying, either. But they did come looking, my dear. She sent those Templar dogs after it.”
She felt her blood freeze in sheer, abject horror. No. No, it was impossible-
He laughed at her face, holding out a hand to stop her panic and smirking. “Relax, my dear, shhh. It’s quite alright. I anticipated this the day Nadana betrayed us all. I located your sinstone some time ago, just in case, and when she chose her own selfish greed for power over the good of Revendreth, I had it moved here, to the castle.” He smiled, quit smug, and a stoneborn entered again carrying a six foot tall, three foot wide slab of black rock.
Theo let herself sag for a moment in relief. The hunter moved to examine it, prompted by an encouraging nod from the Master. It was unharmed: whole, unblemished. She exhaled, slow and a little shaky, before she smiled ruefully at him.
“I have never been more glad to be wrong. I was very worried that somehow… but I should have realized you were already five steps ahead, and that you would not let such harm come to me. Thank you, Master” she said, and bowed low.
“Oh, pish. I could hardly let her do that, after all! Now, where did you want this? A secure vault here in the castle? Buried in the Banewood? Where do you think it would be safest, where they could never get to it?” He asked, as he stood and circled the sinstone. The inscriptions there were not fresh, but they were quite readable, a list of her greatest sins: those of Pride and Wrath that landed her here in the first place. Her old name served as the header, in thick font chiseled deep. He trailed his fingers over it as he did.
She hesitated. Where would be safe? Nadana was clever, and the damn Templars remarkably stubborn….
Oh. Of course.
“Master, if I may be so bold… I’d like you to hold on to it. If you don’t mind,” she added hastily, as his eyebrows rose. “I can think of nowhere safer than here, in the Castle, under your protection.”
He smiled (an odd smile, satisfied, perhaps? She couldn’t really place it, but he seemed pleased) and nodded. “Well, when you put it like that, how can I refuse? Of course I’ll hold on to it for you. And you can come get it any time, my dear. I would never use it against you. I promise.”
A promise from the Master. What more did she need?
Content, Theo nodded, and another gesture to the stoneborne bore her sinstone from the chamber. That was one thing she would never have to worry about. There was no way they could access it here, in the castle.
“You are doing splendidly, my dear. Keep instilling terror in the enemy, and they may yet see reason and come to their senses. If they don’t, however- well. I don’t have to tell you not to hesitate,” the Master said. “You’ve never flinched from doing your duty, from doing what had to be done, and I am so very grateful for your tireless efforts.” He favored her with another smile. “I’ve set aside some more anima for you, and-“
“Oh. Master- sorry to interrupt,” she said abruptly, cutting herself off.
“No trouble at all my dear, please, continue. And try this wine, it’s rather good.” He made a no go on please type gesture, sitting back at his throne and pushing a wineglass into her hand.
“Master, how did the Forsworn Kyrian acquire Revendreth anima?” Theo asked, as she took a little sip. It was old, very good, and liberally laced with anima.
…He paused, wineglass at his lips. The Sire flicked his eyes to hers, holding her with an almost physical weight of will behind the suddenly evaluating sidelong glance. “I’m sorry?”
Though his tone hadn’t changed at all, suddenly she felt her throat dry up. Theo put a hand on Fang’s head, fighting abrupt unease.
“The- The Templars claimed to have taken the anima not from us, but from the rogue Kyrian who ambushed them on their arrival.” The intensity in his red eyes didn’t fade, and she looked away despite herself, to the wineglass, drinking to give herself the excuse. “I- I thought perhaps, on the off chance they weren’t, we should redouble the security around the anima stores. It’s possible a thirstlurker or something made an entry in the lower levels that could be overlooked and utilized against us.”
She did not fidget… But it was close.
Then he smiled at her agian, all brilliant white sharp teeth, and she felt herself able to breathe once more. “Ah, of course. An excellent idea, my dear. I’ll tell the stoneborne to implement some extra patrols, and ask the dredgers to triple check the masonry.”
Theo nodded and let the subject drop as he continued speaking. Except- that wasn’t what I wanted to say. Why did I do that? I just- reacted. It’s not a lie, that’s all prudent precautions to take, but how did they get that vial-?
It didn’t matter. Chances are they were lying anyways.
The Templars maybe. But the Vindicator dealt with you fairly, a traitorous voice in her head reminded her.
She slammed the door on that thought. There was no point in dwelling on it. The facts remained unchanged, didn’t they? Revendreth had to preserved and protected. Order had to be enforced. It was sometimes difficult but then, that was what they did, wasn’t it? Hard and hurtful things for the greater good.
“In any case, I look forward to more concrete examples of your success very soon -a head or two, perhaps, to decorate the castle walls with would do,” he said, with a little wink. “I know she deserves the suffering but do remember your goal is Nadana herself. Cut off the head and the body will wither.”
“Yes, Master.” As soon as I go after Duurm. Pain cleanses the soul, after all. The first lesson, the one she taught me, the one she must relearn. I have a plan. I doubt the Master will fault me for sticking to it as long as the results are the same. She felt the anger coiling in her stomach again, welcomed it like an old friend, let it center her. Yes. Nadana had to pay for her treachery. Her betrayal of everything Theo held dear, including their friendship… “thank you for your time, and your support.”
She bowed low again, despite the way he waved that off and playfully shooed her out the door. Exiting the chamber, Theo cut all doubts and unnecessary thought away from her mind, turning it to her mission.
The mission was the only thing that mattered. The mission, and the will of the Master, and the good of Revendreth.
Thankfully, they were all one and the same.