There was no way he was one of the Fearstalkers. She’d never a soul like that before. The darkhound broke free of the ice and growled agian.
She removed the bat from where it sat on her shoulder. The little creature squeaked inquisitively.
“Seek,” she said, soft and dangerous, to it and her hound. She let them smell the blue on her fingers.
They both bolted after him, hound baying and bat squeaking, as the hunter drew her bow and smiled.
Now the chase. And then, when I catch him -and I will catch him- I will figure out exactly what he is.
Silently she raced after hound and bat and fleeing mage, deeper into the shadowed Banewood.
The assassin blended into the shadows of the Banewood like a tiger in the reeds and just as silently. Lifetimes of practice made her stalking more of an art, and she knew this forest the same as her own reflection. The darkhound at her side kept pace eagerly, not baying yet, but clearly eager. Signs of the trail were obvious, even to a child. Bright blue splattered the forest floor and made her laugh, silently, as she pursued.
This, she loved. This was when she felt the most alive, and-
Unhappily, her thought was interrupted by a high pitched voice. “Hey! Lady Evergreen!”
Scowling, she looked up. An messenger imp floated there, wings beating. Theodora sighed. “Yes? I’m busy.”
“Master needs you, so get unbusy, yeah?” he replied snarkily. “He wanted to talk to you at the party but you ditched, so I’d get moving.”
She was running toward the castle halfway through his message. The hunt was forgotten, for now; there was nowhere on Revendreth they could hide from her, after all, and no way for them to leave. But when the Master called, you came.
Calling her power to her and letting it cloak her in red, she put on more speed.
Theodora slowed in the entryway, steps muffled by the plush carpet. The long walk to the throne room was a chance to slow and catch her breath, make sure she didn’t have sticks in her black hair, straighten her back, no mud on her boots. Her darkhound stood closer to her, a perfectly trained heel; the bat went to her shoulder. The Lord Chamberlain stood at the doorway, black and arching gothic architecture reassuring, the bloody pools cast by the stained glass painting her in red then black then red as she approached. He was talking to a woman, an eredar, and the sight of her made Theodora smile just slightly.
She was red-skinned, crimson as a ruby, as the light through the windows, tall and regal, spine straight as a board. She wore an elegant, sweeping outfit of velvet and leather and silk that accented her best features, with styled hair that accented her long, sweeping horns. Jet hooves contrasted with the red in the best sort of way. A pair of wings on her back, batlike, kept themselves politely folded, though from the side they must be grand indeed when unfurled. No weapons today; she must be here on court business, from the outfit.
As she came closer the Lord Chamberlain said something, huffed, turned, and left- floating away in the style of the court, though Theodora considered that little showoff a waste of anima. She slowed just a hair to be sure he wouldn’t cross her path (they weren’t friends) and stopped to bow low to the woman just before she entered.
“Lady Nadana. You look lovely this evening. Attending the party?” she asked, politely, as Nadana smiled back at her, a quirk of the lips. It was not often Theodora made the effort for courtly mannerisms, but Nadana had trained her well.
“Yes. I see you didn’t.” It was just a touch dry, not precisely a reprimand, and a teeny bit amused. “Working?”
“Hunting. I prefer it to-”
“-Simpering idiots, I believe was the phrase you used the last time you had to deal with Baroness Frieda, and Lord Stavros, and I think you also called Castellan Niklaus an overgrown schoolboy convinced that whacking the bushes with sticks makes him a swordsman.” The smile grew just a tad. “He choked on his wine when he heard, my sources say.”
Theodora felt herself blush faintly. “…Er-”
Nadana put a brief hand on her shoulder. “Relax. It’s just us right now, Theo, and you’re not in trouble, not from me at any rate. But, you should guard your tongue just a little more.”
The venthyr bowed again to the eredar, accepting the correction. “Yes, Lady Nadana.” When she straightened, she flicked a glance to the throne room. “Are you waiting for-?”
“No, I just finished. It went…” A complicated expression flickered across her face, making Theodora tilt her head. “…Well.” And Nadana smiled. After a moment, Theodora nodded.
Something about the smile was off, but there was no time to press.
“I believe the Master is expecting you. Drop by sometime after, should your work permit. We haven’t had tea in a while.” Nadana nodded.
“Yes, Lady Nadana. I shall. If you will excuse me,” she said, with a smile to go with the formalities she usually despised.
It was a good meeting.
The Master was waiting for her. He called her right up to his throne, and she knelt, but he raised her up with a hand under her chin to stand in front of him. Warmth settled in her gut. And he thanked her for her tireless efforts to secure Revendreth from enemies both within and without, complimenting her handling of a thirstlurker invasion some days before and the completely natural seeming death of a suspected rebel supporter, “killed by spiders in the Banewood”. He didn’t seem to give a damn about missing the party, and even gave her a conspiratorial wink when he mentioned it in that oblique fashion of his.
Then, he’d offered her his own cup -filled with anima laced wine, a delicacy and an honor- as he got down to business.
There was something going on in Bastion. And he needed his most trusted servant, the arrow in his quiver, to go investigate. The reports from the spies were incomplete and he needed eyes on a gaggle of strange invaders. Theodora promptly told him of the strange soul in the Banewood, in case there was a connection, and disquiet crossed his features for a moment before he told her he had faith in her abilities to retrieve that errant soul after she reported on her targets. She bowed very low, honored by his trust, and vowed not to disappoint him.
“Oh my dear,” he’d said, with a wide smile, “you never have.”
Then he’d gifted her two large bottles of pure anima, sweet and potent, to get herself there and back- and, he added, a little extra on the side, as a reward. It was quite the gift, in these trying times, enough so that her eyes went wide and she nearly objected. He’d told her to hush, and take what she had so richly earned as his faithful soldier. Loyalty was priceless these days, after all.
At the mention of Renethal and his betrayers, her fists clenched. Sorrow crossed his face for a moment at the memory of his prince -practically his son!!- spewing lies and trying to kill him. All she could do to help was swear to find out what was going on in Bastion, and report back as soon as she could. At that, he smiled again at her, gratefully, and stood, telling her he had work with the Lord Chamberlain to do, and he knew she would not fail him.
She left the chamber with renewed determination to support him however she could.
After all, he practically WAS Revendreth, keeping them together through the drought. He was the Master. How could she not?
What in the Master’s name is going on here, Theodora wondered, watching a knock-down drag-out fight between an assault regiment of the rogue Kyrian who called themselves Forsworn, and a group of odd strangers. They fought hard, hard enough that they’d taken out several of the Forsworn and currently were engaging one of those massive constructs, and she frowned when she saw that. It turned into a deeper one when she paused and squinted, looking at the figure in the back, like a bipedal bear sparkling with purple magic… and holding a vial of Revendreth anima in her paws.
How did they-?! And how DARE they! In the middle of the drought! She halfway drew her bow before she stopped herself. No. No. Stealth, and observation, those were the names of the game… even if fury thumped in her chest. As much as she wanted to shoot these impudent outsiders dead where they stood, her orders were clear. After several minutes of watching, she saw something that made her gasp.
A symbol, emblazoned on gear, on tabards: a gold cross on a white field.
The same logo that mystery soul had worn!!
On the heels of that revelation came a second one, much worse than the first.
Purple magic flared, and something happened, something she could feel in the air, and Theodora watched in shocked horror as they opened a portal to somewhere and toppled into it, just as an explosion destroyed the construct and sent pieces of it and them flying through.
And it remained, flickering power, behind them, a threat and a promise.
She sat back, well hidden behind her bushes and trees as cover, reeling. Her shock coalesced into a plan in moments, though. She was a professional, after all.
Theodora had to find that soul.
It had the same logo. It would know, and it would tell them what was going on, one way or the other. She would find it, and bring it to the Master, and he would know what to do.
Mortals crossing into the Shadowlands, making doors that stayed open- impossible, but the proof was in front of her. How? Why? Theodora shoved back her unease. Those were impossible to tell, but also not hers to figure out. The Master knew the ways of the Shadowlands far better than she did. Her job was to bring him what he needed to save them all.
And that means I must return to the hunt.
Filled with singleminded purpose, she slammed back the rest of the anima bottle and drew her magic to her.
In the Banewood, in a clearing with two dead bears, she knelt over a smear of blue, picking up the leaf it coated. Her bat sniffed it. Her darkhound whuffed at it, sneezed, then started to search, mouth open, for the scent.
A wraith in the dark drew her longbow, and nocked an arrow.
The darkhound suddenly growled, and shoved his nose to the earth.
“Good boy. Seek. Seek!” she urged, and he surged forward, her following close on his heels. The forest flashed by, hunter and beasts doing their best to make up for lost time.
The soul had no woodscraft, that was clear. Her quarry was intelligent- his trail went through water and over rock when it could, but then, it hadn’t occurred to him to make sure he wasn’t leaving tracks in the muddy bottom of the creek, or smashing a widowbloom growing between the rocks as he ran. Even beyond these signs, which stood out to her like neon lamps, she was no mundane tracker, and woman, hound, and bat all had his scent. The speed pushed her hood back, sent her hair flying behind her as she leaped over a log and landed perfectly. Her red eyes glowed in the dim of the woods, and all of her was shrouded in the gloom as she came on.
It was a focused, relentless, terrifying pursuit, by a being with lifetimes of skill and the stamina to keep this pace for hours.
And then, as what passed for dusk on Revendreth drew near deep in the heart of the Banewood, she heard a metallic CLANK in the distance, and voice, a muffled shout of agony. She smiled, feeling the sweet thrill of victory. Down a slope she went. At the bottom was the soul she sought. He looked up, did a double take, and frantically tried to yank his leg out of the trap he’d stepped in. The metal teeth of it were closed around his calf and biting deep.
When he saw her, he snarled his way through the pained disbelief and swore, “Oh shit fire, not this again…”
Poor fool, she thought, almost distantly. These whole woods are trapped like that, thanks to the Fearstalker. It wouldn’t have mattered; I would have caught up to him no matter what, but those hurt, quite a lot. Ah well.
“RrrAUGH!” he cried as he actually did succeed in pulling free, shredding ghostly flesh and muscle to do it, and turned to flee again. She felt the terror on the wind, the despair, and savored them with a slow growing smile, drawing her bow.
A shaft pierced the other leg, expertly placed through the muscle and embedding itself in the dirt. Her quarry fell down, shredded leg unable to support him, other pinned to the earth. He made a reaching motion, and she fired a second time, piercing him through the hand and nailing him there as well. He jerked, trying to look at her, as her hound leaped forward and suddenly he found himself face to face with it, the nose an inch from his own, teeth as big as fingers. She approached calmly, third arrow nocked.
Even as impaled as he was, he wasn’t blubbering with terror yet, though despite the blue color that face was nearly ashen with pain and fear.
“You people have spine,” she allowed, taking a slow circle around him, looking closely. She crouched by his side and he twitched. Her darkhound snarled, a definite threat against sudden movements. “But if you think you can reach me before my hound rips your throat out, you’re wrong. Be still.”
She reached for his tabard, holding it up. The symbol caught the fading light, and she smiled.
“Just as I thought. You,” she said, matter of fact, “have explaining to do.”
“I ain’t tellin’ you a god damn thing,” he snapped back, angrily, glaring at her.
“Not to me. To the Master. And everyone talks to him eventually.” She drew a pair of cuffs from the large hip bag she wore, and with care for his injuries but not his pain, she grabbed his free hand and knelt on his back. It wouldn’t do to have him unable to answer the Master’s questions, after all. The ratcheting of the metal was loud in the sudden relative quiet, filled with his heavy breathing and the sounds of the forest, along with a strangled cry as she yanked the arrow out of his hand and secured the binds, checking them. He braced himself better when she pulled out the one in his leg, and secured his feet as well.
There would be no more running now.
She rose, dragging him upright with her, ignoring the pained noise that went with this- and then paused.
Her darkhound was facing east, sniffing the air.
She tilted her head. “…What is it?” Theodora asked, dragging the soul with her. He stumbled, but her grip was iron and kept him up without thinking, or even looking at him. The darkhound whuffled, looking at her, and then growled. He sniffed the ground, turning in a circle, then looked east again.
Slowly, Theodora turned to the soul.
“…Who else is here? Besides you?”
In response to her question, he turned his head, drew in an audible snort and spit on the ground near her feet. His gaze slowly rolled upwards, providing her with an unhindered view of his defiance and contempt. “Fuck you.”
She regarded him, silently, an owl at the mouse in her talons, for a long minute.
“Brave. But stupid. I think there is someone here, besides us. Someone you know. You were coming this way for a reason. Maybe you found some sign of your…. Friend?” she said, trying the word like it was foreign.
He looked away, and said nothing.
“…Very well. I have another idea. Though I warn you, you’ll like it much less than simply telling me,” she growled, and threw him down on the ground hard enough to knock the wind from him and rattle his skull. Her hand closed around his throat- and her other reached for the knife in her boot.
A scream split the forest.
A third, tapering into a choking sobbing noise before, abruptly, it cut off.
Theodora hefted the now limp soul back up from the ground, wiping a bloody hand on her thigh. Grabbing the gaping slashes that the trap left in him and digging her pointed fingernails in the wound was perhaps crude, but there was a certain vicious satisfaction at getting a little bit of revenge for his earlier shenanigans. The knot on his head where she’d whacked him with the pommel of her knife would hurt, quite a lot, when he woke up- but that wasn’t her problem.
The cuffs clanked as she took the dagger and drove it into the middle of the chain links, pinning the soul to the tree. It went deep, to the hilt in fact, and wouldn’t be coming out without some work. Theodora took off her red scarf, gagged the mage -no sense in giving away the game immediately- and nodded to herself. With the trap set, she turned to her hound and made a motion with her hands. He melted away. She took to the trees, vanishing above, into the darkness of the upper branches.
There was infinite patience there. Sticky fragrant resin clung to her black leather gloves as she crouched, immobile, unseen. Minutes passed; how long, she could not tell. It didn’t matter. Her task remained no matter how long it took.
Then, she heard it.
A soul entered the clearing, carefully, warily looking around- but he did not see her, high above and shrouded in darkness. He was no mage, either. Broad shoulders, powerful arms corded thick with muscle, a square jaw, brown hair to the earlobes, blue eyes- though all of it was shades of cool cerulean right now. He wore heavy armor easily, without conscious thought, and stood a few inches over six feet in booted feet. The man was built large, and made larger by the plate he wore. That, she thought to herself, is a front line fighter, a real soldier, or I will eat my bow. Looks like he ought to have a warhammer, or a sword and shield.
But every armor had weaknesses.
And he wore a tabard with the same infernal symbol.
“Jander! Janderius!” he hissed, running forward, ostensibly to save his friend. He didn’t lose that wariness, looking around even as he moved; not just a meathead, then. Still, he didn’t see her as he yanked the dagger from the tree with sheer brute strength and caught his companion in his arms as “Janderius” flopped down. He lay him gently on the forest floor, and the mage made a pained noise, then hissed, muffled through the gag. The soldier checked him with practiced professionalism, careful of the wounds, hands lingering over the cuffs. He scowled at that.
“I’m here. I have you,” he reassured the mage, who didn’t seem to be reassured at all, and instead was trying to get to his feet and spit out the gag at the same time, but really only succeeded in wiggling madly. “I heard the screaming, and I wasn’t going to leave you behind. Templars don’t leave their own.”
Templars, she noted. Janderius.
“Stop moving, you’re hurt- why are you pinned to a tree? What happened? Let me get that gag off-”
Above, two red eyes narrowed. She tensed silently. And-
The soldier removed the cloth.
Janderius blurted “God dammit Jarrick, it’s a trap!”
-and she dropped down from above as her darkhound burst snarling from the side.
They weren’t unskilled at all, these “Templars”. He was already throwing himself over his comrade and then rolling both to the side as she struck, a second knife, longer and more of a dirk, in her hands now. Instead of a blow to the skull it grazed his back, glancing off the armor. She turned as he whirled to face her, viper and mongoose, the dirk flashing in the dark as he grabbed for an arm.
He was trying to throw her away from them so he could pick up his friend and run. He even managed to grab her wrist, her blade skidding off the bracers and armored gauntlets, and yanked. Then he staggered, off balance and nearly tripping over Janderius as she seemed to dissolve into a swirl of red mist, leaving his momentum nowhere to go. She reformed ten feet from him as her darkhound snarled and bolted into the melee. Powerful jaws clamped around a leg, teeth grating on steel. Theodora lunged into his guard, leaving hers open to do it, sacrificing it for speed.
He danced back- and clocked her.
It was a good, strong punch, the kind that sent men his size tail over teakettle or caused concussions and one hit knockouts, and it snapped her head to the side with the force. It hurt, of course; but it was a good pain, a cleansing one, bringing focus and clarity. The moment in time was frozen for a mere second, Jarrick the soldier between herself and the mage, the pain in her mouth and jaw blooming beautifully.
Then she turned her head, slowly, licking bloody teeth and lips where he’d split them, and smiled a terrible grin. In that moment she was a nightmare.
He put up his fists in a guard and narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Are you Scourge? Alliance?”
“…They’re always so defiant in the beginning,” she said, matter of factly, at odds with the terrible terrible grin. “You’ll scream too, soon enough.”
The darkhound clamped onto the armored leg pulled back, and she lunged for him again.
She could have shot him, easily; but she wanted one in better shape than the mage was. If she had to trade a few blows for that, so be it, and really… it had been too long since she had such a spirited hunt. I wonder if they’d let me have these two again, if they come to the Fearstalker. Give the soldier a shield, a sense of false hope so they last a little longer. They’re really quite skilled, these Templars. The Master will be intrigued.
He beat her darkhound around the head to try and make him let go as Theodora closed in. But unarmed, a human was no match for a venthyr in pure physical strength. He tried to dodge. It wasn’t fast enough.
She kicked him in the chest and sent him flying away, crashing into a tree headfirst with a sound like a wooden mallet hitting a raw steak. The bark there splintered from the force. The soldier staggered to his feet almost immediately, a tough bastard, and looked up just in time to catch the flat of her blade with his temple and sprawl down. Fang shook the leg like a terrier and lunged for the face before being kicked off and then circling, growling, looking for his opening. He dragged himself up a second time.
“Stay down,” she said flatly. Behind Jarrick, Janderius looked to be desperately trying some sort of magic that wouldn’t come. Jarrick took up the defensive position again, now with a split cheekbone and lip to match hers, the eye on that side swiftly swelling.
“No. We defend our own,” he said, and his voice was iron.
She tilted her head at him. Now, how was she supposed to subdue him without beating the shit out of him with that kind of attitude? Then she backed up.
“As you wish.”
There was a dawning realization on his face as she drew her bow and strung it. He dashed forward to stop her.
And then Janderius screamed again, cut off, as the darkhound pounced on him when Jarrick went forward, and closed his jaws around the mage’s ghostly blue throat. Jarrick managed a pivot on a dime and yelled, “Jander no!” as he moved to tackle the beast.
That was when Theodora, red power swirling around her, hit him over the head with her longbow, the iron-hard wood making a loud CRACK! As it did. Jarrick staggered, slumped, fell to his knees-
-a second CRACK! Laid him flat on the forest floor, unconscious, as his friend watched in horror.
Theodora smiled, triumphant, walking slowly over to Janderius, who could not move- the teeth of her hound currently made divots in the tender flesh of his neck, but hadn’t pierced it yet. He could only look on as she drew another set of cuffs, and secured Jarrick, hands and feet alike. Hoisting him over one shoulder like a sack of beans, she turned to the mage.
“Now, we shall see what the Master has to make of you,” Theodora said, and reached down to pick up the mage by the throat. She squeezed as he struggled, until he hung limp and unconscious- but not dead, of course. Then she slung him over her other shoulder.
“Fang, come. We’re going back to the castle. These two have a place in Pride’s Prison… and I must report to the Master on a job well done.”