The woods were heavy with darkness and the canopy overhead created a shield from the night sky. It was the kind of pitch blackness that Captain Theodora Emberfell preferred to work in. Where her footsteps fell quiet and where she could be dangerous to her enemies; when they least expected her.
With a huff, she pushed her alabaster hair from her eyes and glared down the hill. Her long tail twitched through the air as she shifted to gain her balance, leaning as far as she dared forward to try and get a look farther up the road. The caravan from Ralston’s Camp would be passing by this road at any moment, thinking that the cover of darkness would protect them from any others trying to travel the roads. But they would be in for an ugly awakening soon. Soon the Pracian caravan would realize that it was not only the beasts of the Atelan woods that they needed to worry about at night. Theodora had no guns to cock, no sharp clicks of steel to give her away, instead she palmed her axes and realized her palms were slick with sweat in anticipation.
It had been a long, ugly road that led her and her company to this. Not everyone approved of how they attacked caravans and blocked highways from the Pracian soldiers. For the lengths they went to in the beginning they were shouted at and talked down to. But the General forgave them and now the General was willing to turn her eyes away from the reports of overturned carriages and bodies of blue coat soldiers on the roads. It got them more supplies, it delayed battles, sometimes if they were lucky it would stop a battle from taking place entirely. Hard for there to be a battle if all the canons were stolen. When they got formal written complaints from the Pracis military saying that their behavior had no honor, the General burned them with a smile.
“It’s such a shame.” The General turned her dark brown eyes to Theodora. Her black skin glowed in the firelight as the letters burned. “Such a shame that all their letters seemed to have been burned in this latest…errant militia attack, yes?”
Her brother Francis was furious.
Theodora was thrilled.
Now, Theodora was slightly concerned. Worried about the men and women she recruited and who were waiting in the woods around her for her signal to come down. They were young and scrappy, foolhardy and bull headed Atelan’s and rebel Colonial’s both who bore grudges and didn’t like authority. Sometimes they didn’t even like her own authority over them. But the way she handled an axe seemed to keep them in line. Their wish to be of service in unique and sometimes ugly ways kept them focused.
Somewhere far off carts jumbled on the road and Theodora’s sensitive ears perked up as she lifted a hand. On the other side of the road, farther down and across the hill, her young second Seelie Mickard let her cat eyes catch in the low light and glow faintly in the darkness as a signal. They were ready then. She watched Seelie’s eyes track the motion and disappear into the underbrush again as the caravan came into view.
Theodora’s heart thundered and excitement made her mouth water. The careful tracking of the caravan was a month long work of grit, sweat, and frustration as they planned the where, when, and how of the matter. Now it was so close and Theodora couldn’t wait to bring the stocks they secured to Fort Howley, who desperately needed it.
It was a shame then, when it was all blown to hell. Quite literally.
The explosion rocked the forest just as the caravan reached a peak at the top of the hill. A brief flash of blue that resounded into an unholy brightness of red that lit up the dark sky and blew the trunks of trees wide open. Horrible screams of shock and agony filled the air and for a panicked moment, Theodora wondered if her own company was hit by the blast.
But she recovered, now was not the time for shock or to examine the explosive blaze that ripped quickly over the treetops.
“Now!” Theodora roared and bolted down the hill towards the caravan and the fleeing Pracis soldiers. “Get to the carts! Save what you can from the fire and take care of whoever is left!”
Her company made startled, half effort sounds of confused victory. Was it one of their own who’d done this? She could hear the shriek of Seelie’s voice shouting orders. Not a moment later she came into step right behind Theodora with a crossbow. Theodora hooked her tail around the woman’s leg and kept track of her second at her back as they moved forward together. This was the kind of chaos where they could easily be picked off and never know it.
Expressions ferocious, they made short work of securing the grounds. The Pracis soldiers were already shocked by the pure force of the blast and the way even the roots of the earth had torn from the ground and knocked over several carts full of ration crates. Theodora cut down one soldier as he came to her with a bayonet, eyes frenzied. She buried an axe deep into his chest with a hiss and felt hot blood spray from the wound and across her fists when she tore it back out. The sinew of muscle and flesh gaped open across his chest like a banner.
The soldier dropped face first into the ground before he even a moment to load his rifle. Her company was left busy tying up the captives and saving what supplies they could from the flames. The swift action of her militia would now save supplies and, if requested, lives. This was not a part of her plan.
They cut down who tried to fight and threw sacks over the heads of those soldiers who fell to their knees and cried out in defeat. Theodora learned a long time ago it was useful to keep someone alive for questioning and it kept the Colonial army content when they ushered the captives to their capital in Somerton. As far as Theodora knew, her militia were the only ones of the Rebellion supposed to be on this road tonight and no word ever came to her or others meant to join.
Let alone a potential arsonist.
“Who in the hells did this?” Seelie murmured into her ear, near reading Theodora’s thoughts. The fire was already going down. Fast to burn out and hot enough to do damage. Theodora tightened her grip on her axes as they moved deeper into the destruction. They stepped over burned bodies and she felt Seelie tense behind her at the sharp smell of burning flesh. It was not something for the weak of gut.
“Perhaps their ammunition blew up by accident,” Theodora suggested.
Seelie lifted the flaps of a carriage and they both frowned at the tumbled boxes of food and clothing. Her second looked at her in confusion and the bright, pearly feathers along her face fluttered in anxiety. “It’s not an ammunition train by the looks of it.”
“Then where are the attackers?”
Seelie gave a shake of her head, looking taken aback by the sheer amount of destruction wrought on the supply train. They fought in many battles and often did what they could to steal from Pracis. But they tried to keep the death and chaos to a polite minimum to be respectful to the General who already allowed them so much. What would the General say if she saw this? Hells below, what if Theodora’s company got blamed for this?
She breathed a frustrated sigh and kept her guard up as they wove deeper into the supply line. The front survived the worst of the blast but the back had been full of simple wagon keepers, medics, and civilians. Already her company moved through the explosion radius and to the far back to give the guards a proper dressing down. Theodora would have to worry about them later.
“Captain.” Seelie’s voice was filled with restrained focus, her head turned and tilted to the side as she watched the forest beyond. Her Atelan blue eyes glowed brightly and Seelie raised her crossbow, shouting above the din with the feathers along her tail and face standing out in anger. “Come out with your hands up! This train is under Colonial protection now!”
Theodora turned to face where her second watched and she caught the bare flicker of red and the movement of bushes. Seelie fired a shot and the crossbow bolt sank deep into a tree, nearly hitting the target. Cursing loudly, Theodora gave chase while Seelie reloaded. These were woods that Theodora knew like the back of her hand, it did not matter that she was an albino and her eyesight was as bad as a bats, these woods were close to the bay that was her stomping grounds. Like the hells would she let some little chit make a mockery of what her and her militia company were doing.
She ran full tilt and glided over branches and roots and wove around stones as she followed the long red braid that flashed ahead of her. They were not clumsy, in fact they ran with the easy grace that matched Theodora’s own skill. But this stranger who ruined their plans did not know the forest like Theodora did and they did not know that she was corralling them to a stiff outcropping over a stony river. Theodora could see it now, like veins, as she tapped into the adamas around her and the stone became her eyes. Her tail flicked behind her, giving her balance as she raced to catch up with the attacker.
The wind was cruel and cold and spoke of winter, the leaves were going to start falling soon, and the blue base of the trunks of the trees were beginning to seep deep into the ground to prepare for the cold. But Theodora thrived in the brutality of the weather. When she burst through the foliage to a steep outcropping, she got to see the face of the attacker for the first time and, for a moment, she was staggered in surprise.
She was a lovely woman, but young, this much Theodora could tell by the stubborn set to her shoulders and jaw. Her heart shaped face covered in freckles and her braid swept down past her knees, the tips of its feathery end almost brushing the ground. Her ears were the lovely swoop and point of a native Pracian and her body looked strong. But this was not what made Theodora recoil in instant disgust and tighten her grip on the adamas axes she held in her fists.
The woman was an Alchemist, wearing the beautifully tailored blue coat with the symbol of the Empress emblazoned on it’s back and embroidered in gold, red, and pretty rose decal. An Empress’s Alchemist. Suddenly the destruction thriving at their backs made sense. The roots did not rip from the ground on their own, they were forced to do that, they were twisted with Alchemy and abusive adamas to burst from the ground and wrap themselves around the wagons and carts. The fire burned so hot and fierce, because this Alchemist was the one controlling the blaze, tempering it in her hand with the adamas she still held and the red bottle in the other. The woman looked furious to have been led into such a trap. Theodora’s chase corralling her to the edges of the steep cliffs that ended the forest and started the sloping grasses that led to the beaches. This arsonist was in a position where she had to fight or jump.
Theodora really hoped she chose to jump.
If Francis were here he would say something haughty, proud, he would declare who he was with snobbery and stare down his nose at this little scrap of thing as he made his demands. But confused and angry to be suddenly facing an Empress’s Alchemist on her own, Theodora did the only thing that made sense. She blew her lid. “What the hells!?” she shouted. The woman had the nerve to look appalled at her language and it only made her rage grow. “The fuck is some spoiled little rich girl doing blowing up her own supply lines? What did you miscount your experiment?”
The Alchemist looked shocked, but it melted quickly into anger. A temper that could match Theodora step for step “I never miscalculate!” Her voice could be a song was it not so angry, high and ending words with soft breathy notes of a Pracian accent.
“Oh my ass, you blew half the place to smithereens,” Theodora snapped. The Alchemist pulled a knife in a swift motion when Theodora tried to step closer and Theodora raised her axes in retaliation with a gleam of a grin. Her mouth was a hard, angry slash on her pale face. “Come on now. We’ve got the whole caravan under our control now. No sense in going and doing something stupid. You could fetch a high price from your Empress and we would treat you well until we got you sent back.”
Not unsurprisingly, the Alchemist sneered. “Like hell,” she said, and lunged.
Theodora brought up her axes to block the slash of the knife and keenly moved out of the way when a mysterious potion was nearly dumped onto her tunic. She thought of her wife, neatly mending her clothes in the rocking chair by the window and despairing at the amount of holes Theodora managed into them. It infuriated her that this little red headed brat would tear apart the clothes her wife worked so hard on.
The noise of their blades clashing sang in the air and Theodora’s eyes narrowed as she studied the Alchemist. “Be fair to exchange names before I kill you!” Theodora barked.
The Alchemist panted in exhaustion. Theodora noticed that the beautiful coat was very dirty, her hair looked unwashed, and her gaunt features were reminiscent of someone who hadn’t slept or eaten well in days. Theodora noted this in her mind and filed it away for later. They were always given the impression the Alchemist’s were the coveted pets of the Pracian military. What did it say to the rest of their forces if their Alchemist’s were left to look like this?
But the brief distraction ended and Theodora narrowly dodged the swipe at the short blade. The Alchemist made a face and was now heaving. She was truly tired then and Theodora felt a sharp swell of angry pity. This was what the Pracian Empire did; whittled down their men and women until there was nothing left of them. Theodora briefly lowered her axes, the Alchemist was stumbling now. “Stop,” her voice was an easy and harsh command. She watched the woman falter in surprise at the authority of it. “You’re tired and a mess- and after that blast probably hurt. Just stop. Come with me and we will see you returned in a fair trade.”
“I don’t want to be returned,” the Alchemist snapped and Theodora huffed in frustration as the stranger lunged again. “I belong to no one!”
Theodora moved with a natural insistence of the body. A simple intensity in all of her movements during a fight. She would never be able to handle a rifle or a pistol, not with her eyesight being as bad as it was, but she could fight close range. That the Alchemist was so ready to fight this way only bought Theodora an advantage. The woman could see it, the sensitive flesh between the shoulder blades. One brutal swipe of her axe would rip her apart and the fight would be done. She’d be dead and Theodora could continue on with patching together this mess of a night.
But it felt as if no plans were destined to work out that evening. A glowing vial carded between the Alchemist’s fingers and Theodora sucked in her breath. A familiar yellow. For a moment she felt frantic, going as far to drop one of her adamas tinted axes to cover her eyes and mouth with her coat.
The Alchemist unstoppered the vial and a yellow cloud, shimmering with dust and particles, blew across them in a thick cloud. Even as Theodora desperately tried to cover her nose and eyes, the horrible smell slipped through. She struggled not to cough or even breathe, instead she stumbled blindly forward and tried to escape the danger. The woven threads of the adamas in the ground leading her to safety Theodora knew of this cloud, a thick and horrible thing that blinded soldiers on the field and clogged up their lungs. A recent creation by the Alchemists and a dirty, ugly trick to use in a fight.
Stumbling forward, a breath of fresh air stung Theodora’s face and, careful to feel with her feet, she moved towards it and hoped it wasn’t straight off that cliff.
A keen sense of danger lit Theodora’s senses. If the Alchemist woman was confident enough to use the gas, then she was probably wearing a mask and goggles too. She would be able to maneuver and could pose a serious threat in a fight and leave Theodora dead on the ground. Careful, Theodora’s ears swiveled, listening and letting the panic subside into sharp focus. Her long tail swept the ground, feeling for vibrations.
Footsteps. Running. The light and practiced step that was so familiar. The Alchemist was running away.
Daring to uncover her mouth, Theodora put her fingers in her teeth and whistled hard. The earth under her rumbled, a distinct response that made the forest come alive around her. The familiar heavy breathing, the deep growls that shook the roots of trees. Theodora went to it, breathing in fresher air. “Get her Marigold!” She shouted.
The footsteps stumbled and Theodora smiled at the sound of shocked screams. Marigold wasn’t a typical companion. Most would opt for hounds or, sometimes, hawks and ravens. But Theodora wasn’t content in the ordinary.
Her tail swept the ground again, back and forth, feeling the rumble in the earth and moving towards the sound of the screams rising into hysteria. Every noise was met with a roar that shook the air and made Theodora’s ears swivel back. Confident she was no longer in the cloud of deadly yellow, she uncovered her eyes and watched.
The Alchemist was trying to get up a tree. But nothing in that forest was a better climber than Marigold. The several hundred pound bear rocked back onto her feet and with a single deft swipe of the paw, had the woman back on the ground. The red head struggled underneath, utter panic on her face as she tried to crawl away. “If you move they just get hungrier,” Theodora drawled.
“What the fuck!” The Alchemist’s voice cracked, bravely putting a hand on Marigold’s snout and trying to shove the gaping mouth full of razor teeth away. “What the fuck?!”
Theodora meandered over, smiling as she leaned on the bear and pat her shaggy brown head. “No, Marigold. Don’t eat her.” The bear obeyed, but stayed with one huge paw planted on the woman’s chest to keep her pinned. “Well it looks to me like, despite all your tricks, that you’re definitely going to have to come with me now.”