((TW: Animal death.
Theo’s payment for her loyalty isn’t what she was hoping for.))
The red swirl of anima could barely keep together long enough to reform and disgorge a smoking, charred humanoid, who crumpled to the ground. The pain from being blasted by the Light laser on the bridge during her assassination attempt on High Ferverent Duurm outside Dawnskeep was overwhelming; every cut and rip in her clothing marked an opening where the flesh beneath lay blackened and flaking. There was a short, strangled, airless noise of agony as Theodora Evergreen lay in the ashy dust, dirt sticking to the raw burned flesh.
Have to- get- up.
They’ll come. Damn them. Damn them!
Have… have to… get up…
One hand twitched, clenched, fingers making furrows in the thin layer of grey that covered everything in the Ember Ward.
Like a disjointed puppet, Theo rose, waves of hot and cold and agony agony making her sway- but rise she did, and took one step forward, then another, fleeing the battle. Only ages of mortal lifetimes of combat gave her the self discipline to make her body work, despite the wounds. A third. A fourth-
Gasping for breath, Theo felt the world sway in shades of grey, and clung stubbornly to consciousness. How long she lay there was unknown. It took all her effort to not pass out, until she heard a noise, far but coming closer.
“…Fang,” she croaked. The barking intensified with a desperate edge to it, and now she heard something much much closer indeed, the squeaking of Seeker and her little wings flapping around. Marking me. My location. Good girl, Seeker, good girl. Paws thumped the desiccated earth, and then something warm and wet shoved itself into her face, followed by something…
Cloth, that clinked like-
Glass! Anima! Fang brought my bag with the anima!
“Good boy, Fang,” she managed, barely audible, slurred. “Good boy- give it- here-” and she groped for it with one burned hand. Touching anything hurt abominably, but she grit her teeth and fumbled with the flap until she felt cool glass beneath her hand and dragged the flask of anima toward her. Fang crouched and shoved his head under her arm, whining when Theo groaned at the contact, wedging himself there and then standing, slowly, lifting her off the ground. A small weight on her head told her Seeker had landed. Getting the cork out of the bottle was impossible- with her burns, she couldn’t grip anything very well. Theo whacked the neck against a rock, breaking it open instead and cutting her lip on the broken glass in her haste to drink. A second flask followed, and then all three of the vials she had with her.
“Fang. Shelter. Get me- darkness,” she mumbled, as she felt the nectar of Revendreth begin to work its magic.
I cannot be exposed here. If they don’t find me and end me, the elements will.
Supported almost completely by her faithful hound, Theo stumbled and dragged herself to the nearest shelter she saw. It was a hollow something dug out under a fallen stone wall, ten feet across and six feet down.
“Darkness,” she said, with overwhelming relief. Sweet, blessed darkness to rest and heal in. “Fang. There.” He turned toward it and tried to ease her to the ground.
She half stepped, half toppled inside, and promptly passed out.
Theo’s dreams were dark and muddled as the anima knit her flesh back together and soothed the raw weeping burns. She woke several times, nonsensically, mumbling like someone in a fever dream. After the second time, Fang came and sat next to her with his great blocky head on her chest to help keep her down. Seeker hung by the entrance, on guard.
When she awoke with her mind clear, it was to Fang, licking her face.
“Beautiful boy,” she murmured, and the licking increased rapidly as he tried to crawl on top of her and stick his nose in every part of her body that had been scorched. “Ow, oh, Fang, baby, please, still sore- still sore, get off, you lunk- thank you,” Theo said, as he stopped licking her and instead burrowed as close as he could to her side, looking up at her with big blue eyes full of worry.
“I’m ok, buddy. I’m ok. Thanks to you. And Seeker. You saved me again. Bravest, dearest brother mine,” she said softly, and turned her head to kiss his nose. Seeker came from the entrance, squeaked a loud scolding at her, and crawled into her hair. “Watchful sister dear. Thank you. Both of you.”
Theo let herself lay there for some time, systematically cataloging the hurts that remained and the ones that were healing still. All over felt… tight and stretched and hot, like a terrible sunburn, but with incipient ache and tiredness beneath it that went bone-deep. It is a miracle I had the presence of mind to call on my anima and get out of there. If Fang hadn’t found me with that anima… If I had stayed in the Light another few seconds…
Her hand clenched into a fist.
But I am alive, and they will learn that the next time they try to kill me, they damn well better finish the job. I’ll come for them, and then Nadana, and they will know atonement.
First, though- I need more anima to finish healing. The Master will surely give me some. I hope he is not too disappointed; but then, I also need to tell him of the Maldraxxi being here, and the Light weapon, in case they try to turn it against us more strategically than frying me like an ant under a magnifying glass.
She drank all the water in her waterskin and, there in the dirt and the darkness, stripped off her filthy, bloodied grey layers and her shirt to get a better look at the damage.
…Not as bad as it could be. Some of the burns didn’t even scar, and the worst ones are still a bit raw but no longer… charred. Arm is working where I took that hit. Legs are working… “That son of a bitch,” she muttered, looking at her chest.
Above her heart was a straight, newly healed scar, where a dagger had pierced her chest.
“Figures,” she muttered disgustedly to herself. Some of the other wounds from the fight also remained, physical reminders of the work she needed to complete, adding to the history of violence written on her flesh. But none were crippling, even if some still pained her. I am functional I’ll be fine. She threw aside the ruined grey layers and rummaged for a spare cleanish shirt.
“Well, the Lord Chamberlain will likely take some jab at me, but it will have to do,” she said to herself. “He can piss off; I’ve bigger worries and more important work to do.” Fang sniffed the old clothes, sneezed, and moved to steady her as she slowly exited the hideyhole. Seeker cheeped from her shoulder.
Venthyr, hound, and bat exited the hideyhole.
The trip to Castle Nathria was laborious. Theo found she had to stop and rest frequently, and it took her much longer than normal to make the trip. Fang and Seeker kept by her side, guarding and guiding. She breathed her first sigh of relief as they left the perpetual blinding midafternoon daylight of the Ember Ward and entered the soothing clouded semi-gloom of Revendreth proper; she breathed her second when she saw the winding road up to the Castle proper. The majestic gothic spires stood like black teeth against the sky, red windows illuminated from within, and above stoneborn flew patrols assuring the safety of all below.
Here in the shadow of the Master, she was safe.
The three of them walked along the side of the road, passing carefully cultivated widowbloom bushed in artful sculptures, with blooms the size of her head; a gaggle of minor nobility dragging a soul behind them, going somewhere; and a carriage driven by a dredger moving at breakneck pace, the red-eyed black horses heaving as they ran.
They turned the corner.
And Theo gasped in abject, complete horror as her stomach plummeted to her toes.
A red river of anima, roiling and coiling like a monstrous living thing, hemorrhaged from Castle Nathria into the sky- into the Maw. Her bow dropped from numb fingers in her shock. She even felt a little faint, helpless to stop the travesty that worsened every second she watched.
So much anima- that’s- that has to be- thousands, millions of tithes- billions of souls worth- how- what- why-
Rage coiled in her heart.
It must be them. They did this somehow, those damned Templars and Nadana, that bitch, that traitor, what have they done, how dare they, how else could they have- I have to tell the Master!
Without a word she scooped up her bow and flat out ran up the road.
Fang and Seeker kept pace with her, which was good, because she did not stop. Not for the noblewoman she pushed out the way, the horse and rider she dodged around, the dredgers she simply jumped over, the stairs she took three at a time with such swiftness it left the Stoneborn guards staring in her wake at empty air. She cursed her own weakness, the aches and pains of her failed ambush, and pushed herself faster, faster, worn boots pounding the plush carpets and nearly slipping around a corner as she took it.
“Oy, Miss Ev’rgreen, wot’s all th’-” started a dredger, but she was already fifteen feet away and bolting for the huge, engraved, elegant, extravagant double doors that marked the entry to the throne room. She slammed them open; he wasn’t there, so she simply kept running forward to the slightly less ostentatious door that marked the entry into his war council chambers. It was left cracked open, presumably for easily accessed servants and refreshments. She could hear words beyond it-
Theo exploded through it, battle-worn and furious, the handle hitting the wall with a BANG! that made the war council all jump, cutting through the conversation without the slightest fuck seemingly given as she said in one breathless burst: “Master! Master! The anima, Revendreth’s anima, is flowing into the Maw!”
The council exchanged looks she couldn’t decipher as Fang and Seeker finally caught up at her heels. Theo ignored them with the ease of practice and kept talking. “Sire, Master, I saw it on the road up from the Castle, it’s- it’s- so much, everything, all of it, going into the Maw! I don’t know what they did but we have to stop it! Call the Stoneborn to rally to the lower levels! They must have found a way in-”
“Theodora, dear, please, please, breathe,” Sire Denathrius said, rising from his chair with a look of grave concern. Behind him, Remornia made a curious noise, and the faces of the council -Graal, Kaal, Altimor, Stavros, the others- morphed into a careful, guarded neutrality that was utterly unreadable. “Come, everyone, let’s put a pin in this conversation about my wayward traitorous prince and adjourn to the throne room. We can talk there. Kaal, be a dear and send for the Resolute and our other guests, will you? I think they may want to see this. Come along, Theodora,” he said, and gestured for her to follow. She did so immediately, keeping behind the large floating sword.
The council filed out behind her, lingering on the edges of the throne room. Plush chairs were strategically placed for that, after all. Theo had long since dismissed them as unimportant and focused on the Master of Revendreth as he took his seat, Remornia hovering to his left, and leaned forward to regard her solemnly. In the periphery of her awareness, the council members exchanged odd looks with one another.
“Now my dear, you look terrible. What ever is the matter? What’s all this about anima flowing into the Maw?”
“Master, I don’t know how, but there’s- just look outside, there’s- it’s all loose, just bleeding into the in-between, being sucked down toward the Maw,” Theo said, tripping over her own words in her haste and her horror. “We need to sound the alarm and get to the lower levels and look for intruders and the breach so we can seal it before we lose anything else. It’s- it’s a disaster, Master. I don’t know how those stupid mortals managed it,” she added darkly, “but when I find out-”
“Ah!” The Master snapped his fingers. “I know what you’re talking about now.” And there was something odd, he didn’t seem alarmed, or even furious; in fact, he was smiling, that wide reassuring slightly mischievous grin of his, this particular one with an edge of smugness to it. “I meant to address this with you personally and privately, but I suppose we can do it now.”
What is he..?
“Theodora,” he began, in a tone like he was starting a lesson of some sort, “tell me, how great of a threat is our traitorous prince?”
Theo blinked, caught off guard by the subject change, antsy to get going- they needed to move and move now, stop the flow at the source! But she made herself stop pacing and face him, setting into the same attentive stance he’s seen on her a thousand times before. The hunter hesitated, then answered, “…The greatest. We have to come together in this time of drought and support one another under your guidance. He’s not only a lying bastard, he’s a thief as well, taking anima from hard working, loyal venthyr and giving it to his rebels, sowing division, turning us against one another, all for his own selfish schemes to seize power. He has to be stopped, for the sake of Revendreth.”
“Good answer!” He smiled at her warmly, approving. “Yes, precisely. He is a piece of worthless, ungrateful vermin and will be eradicated as such, along with his pathetic rebellion and whatever mortal refuse see fit to throw their lot with him. But to that end, to secure my rule, my place as the Master of Revendreth, my reign everlasting, certain necessary sacrifices have to be made. Certain allies must be embraced as long lost brethren. Power must be consolidated into the hands of those wise and responsible enough to wield it correctly, don’t you agree? Now- ah! There’s Kaal, quick as always. And there’s some of our new allies.”
General Kaal held the door with a face that suggested she didn’t like the duty for four tall beings armored in black, with feathery ebony wings and sightless helms masking their faces. With them came six of the Resolute, following behind.
Her bow was up and strung with an arrow nocked before her brain finished screaming Mawsworn! at her in warning. Fang immediately bristled at her side, ready to leap as she pulled the string back-
The Master put his hand on her bow, startling her out of the automatic response, and gently pushed it down. She stared at him, uncomprehending. What? Wait… what?
“Allies, my dear Theodora. Allies. The Jailor has lent his hand to our cause here. All he asks is… appropriate reimbursement for the armies of Mawsworn and other fantastically deadly, utterly loyal soldiers he has sworn to our aide.” Her eyes widened. Theo’s mouth opened and then shut as he continued speaking.
No. No. What? This- This doesn’t make sense- the anima- allied with the Jailor? Since when? He is the enemy of ALL the Shadowlands! Why? For power? I- I don’t understand-
The mawsworn marched in and arrayed themselves with the Resolute behind them, flanking the throne her Master stood in front of, speaking eloquently. “Besides, there is plenty of anima for those who deserve it, who are true and loyal servants of myself. Have I not been generous, Theodora? Not just in anima?” he asked. “Your tower, your hound, your bow, lenience for your eccentricities- I gladly granted you those and I would gladly grant you more! You are my most loyal hunter. Never have you flinched from your duty, even when it was hard. In these times of trial, when it’s hard to tell who to trust, such service should naturally be rewarded.”
Theo kept staring at him, as memory came faint as a dream, speaking words she did not want to hear.
“Theo, something is wrong! Something has been wrong in the Shadowlands for a long time..”
“No matter how many souls your master chooses to waste, we will see the natural order of the Shadowlands protected. That is our purpose, and one such as you will not deter us from it!”
“Your cause is just, in your mind. I don’t think anything I can say right now could convince you otherwise, but still. I wanted to convince myself you aren’t a rabid wolf, but a hound with a cruel master, backed into a corner.”
Ice slid down her spine, horror crawling up it in the wake. Her stomach turned. Theo felt her breathing quicken. She swallowed, mouth suddenly dry.
No. No. No, that- they were wrong- this can’t be-
“After all, there will be much work for you soon, my dear! I believe the Shadowlands needs a firmer hand on the reins than I see currently,” he continued, oblivious to her stunned silence. “Two of the five houses in Maldraxxus fallen to ruin, the other three bickering like crows over a corpse? How are they supposed to protect the Shadowlands like that? Bastion, ever so righteous, facing an insurrection from within their own ranks! Ardenweald withers on the vine. With the Jailor’s help, I can rule all the Shadowlands, Theodora. We can help them! We can bring order and peace and security! And when I do stand triumphant, with the skulls of rebels and traitors and dissidents alike crushed beneath my feet, I want you at my side. Tell me what you want from this, my dear. Pick anything you like! A private forest in Ardenweald, perhaps? I can make that happen.”
The Master smiled at her, that same winning grin as before, but not reassuring at all- it was all teeth and red eyes, now, with his voice like velvet over an unsheathed blade. It was so convincing.
Theo spoke without thinking, her brow furrowed, trying to make the world make sense again.
“But what about Revendreth?”
The silence that fell then was more complete than when she first barged in, and much more charged… with danger. Theo felt it prickling up her arms. The council members simply watched the proceedings, and she had the sudden sinking realization that between the Master and Remornia in front of her, the Mawsworn and Resolute behind them, and the council members arrayed around the room… she was surrounded. And no oneseemed as shocked as she was about anima flowing into the Maw.
No one even seemed bothered.
Fang shifted closer to her, looking around, sensing the change in the air. Theo fought to keep panic at bay. He- He’s the Master, this- what is he doing? Nadana can’t be right, that’s not…
“Oh, my dear Theodora,” Denathrius said, shaking his head and chuckling. “You see… I am Revendreth.”
He turned, and Remornia flew to his hand. In one fluid motion he channeled red anima down the blade to the tip of the sword and touched it against Theo’s sinstone, sitting where she had left it in trust by his chair.
Every muscle in her body seized up, locking in place. Her bow clattered to the floor. The gut-level aversion every venthyr had to the idea of their sinstone being used against them came crashing down on her mixed with the nauseating realization of just how wrong she had been. It was almost a good thing she was frozen- it prevented her from being physically sick, but not from screaming in her mind as her body simply, suddenly, was not hers any longer. She fought, she thrashed, but nothing happened. Not even a twitch.
Only her panicked eyes could move, darting around the room, and then not even that as Denathrius said, almost gently, “Look at me, Theodora. Very good. I had such high hopes for you. But it seems your association with some of the less loyal members of the court has clouded your judgement. I’ve got just the thing, though. Resolute. Mawsworn. Here. Take this,” and he gestured to Theo grandly with his free hand, “and her sinstone to my brother in the Maw. Tell him it’s a gift. She’s a natural killer and will serve him well, if he can bring her to heel. Or she could be entertainment for those who do. I don’t really care. I have no use for tools that don’t work anymo-”
There was a sudden, rippling snarl.
Fang leaped for Sire Denathrius’s throat as Seeker flew at his face. Huntsman Altimor, in the left corner of the room, rose and fired his crossbow almost as fast as Theo could. In the same moment, without looking at him, Denathrius’s hand shot out and intercepted Fang midleap by the throat with iron strength. The crossbow bolt hit Seeker, who gave a shrill scream as her shredded wing sent her into a corkscrew wild spiral. Altimore fired again and missed as Seeker fled out the window while Fang struggled and whimpered in the Master of Revendreth’s merciless grip.
Theo screamed, and no sound emerged from her frozen body.
“Hmmm. Seems that like attracts like,” he said, casually, and started to squeeze. Fang’s struggling took on a frantic edge, choked cries of pain echoing through the throne room, and Theo screamed and screamed and screamed as he kept squeezing until sharp nails punctured the darkhound’s throat, digging deep, curling around something as blood dripped onto the carpet, red on red. Then he flung the dog away with a crunching, tearing noise.
Fang spasmed, gurgling with his last breath through the gaping wound where Denathrius had ripped out his throat, and was still.
“Get that out of here. And clean this up,” he ordered, turning away and waving to the council with his bloody hand. “Come now, everyone, let’s get back to what we were doing before we were so rudely interrupted.”
The council rose as one and walked past Theo, still frozen… except for the tears running down her face.
Then the Mawsworn closed in.
Later, a small figure watched with a puzzled frown as Theodora Evergreen left Castle Nathria, walking oddly woodenly ahead of a contingent of Resolute and accompanied by actual Mawsworn.
“Now that just don’t seem roight,” Rendle muttered to himself. His eyes narrowed. “That don’t seem roight t’ me at all…”