Scene 04: Banshee, Bandit
Camille had felt a faint tug from the sword sitting on her belt, urging her downslope. But it was more than just blood alchemy or magic that led her this way, it was a good working knowledge of the rumors that chased her squad and the wisdom to know which to pay attention to. She had four soldiers under her command — no, five, she corrected herself, adding that stowaway — and she knew from the insistent energy that imbued her sword that two of the original four soldiers had landed south of her, upslope and still alive for the moment. Too far away for her to save if they couldn't save themselves, and Rose, Bloom, and the stowaway had all been near one another before the jump. They were likely clustered. More importantly, if they were still alive now, they'd probably be fine; enough time had passed that they clearly weren't suffocating under the snow and ice.
The sergeant-engineer, Knickers, was eccentric but reliable; he had almost as much of a reputation as she did. He might wear lipstick and talk to rabbits, but he'd operated as a rebel saboteur for a year before, she'd heard. The specialist, Mara Bloom, was known for being dismissive and dry but dependable and perhaps the equal of a guild-trained alchemist. She didn't much care for high ideals, but she wouldn't abandon her unit. The young man trooper was supposed to be a coward, but he hadn't hesitated to pull her fat out of the fire — or the icebox, in this case. And he was quickly proving resourceful. The stowaway wasn't much of a running risk and even if he were, that left her more-or-less where she started, though she'd have to ask around about him in the future.
That just left the other trooper, Dorothy Farthingale, and the most likely candidate to be the one that had landed downslope of her. Better known as Polly the Iron Gale, as Camille recalled. She was a flight risk even on the ground, pressed into service after she'd been caught and sentenced for her crimes. Polly had earned a little bit of a reputation in Regiment Alpha for being an excellent shot and skirmisher, but it was a mistake for the Coronel to put her on this mission. Her performance when she was defending 'friendly' territory — i.e. territory hostile to her as a convict — would not be what she would do if she was suddenly air-dropped into enemy territory where she had no record and no wanted posters. If she'd survived the avalanche and indeed had been the one who landed ahead of Camille, who knew what Farthingale might do?
A few moments later, Camille smiled grimly as she came across a large, lumpy indentation in the snow, fringed with small snowy bumps of debris. A series of small, fairly close, fairly deep footprints led out downslope as the snow abruptly thinned to nothing. Someone had landed here, pulled themselves out... then walked out. Someone small with short legs; that ruled out slightly-tall Mara. First confirmation of the Sergeant's fears.
She picked up the pace, walking noiselessly an inch above the surface of the snow. If Trooper Farthingale hadn't thought to try and use what was left of the boot enchantment like Trooper Lonz, she'd have been moving slowly through what remained of the avalanche, which gave Camille a crucial speed advantage in catching up. As she came to the edge of the snowy field towards the rock, dirt, and shrubbery which marked the rest of the path downward, Camille saw something curious: the snowy footprints continued up next to a wall, ended in a pile, and there was no trail in the undisturbed dust and foliage after. The person she was tracking either flew or they were very good at hiding their tracks.
She placed her hand on the hilt of her rapier and felt it subtly tugging with just a bit more force downslope. Probably safe to say they weren't flying. And if they were able to hide their tracks, they had to be moving slowly. Camille allowed herself a smile and closed her one eye, projecting her thoughts down in the direction the sword bid her go. She allowed her thoughts to become one with the warm zephyrs, lazily dashing across treetops and boulders in a vague zig-zag manner.
Elsewhere, a jungle bird let out a shrill cry in the distance behind Polly.
Some kind of lost and confused parrot, maybe? Parrots were pretty stupid and annoying, so that was probably it. It'd been a long time since Polly had thought about that sort of thing, but she'd have to remember what the wildlife was like around here soon. The jungles below the mountains were no joke and half that shit was poisonous.
The lithe woman was keeping both her eyes open for danger as she made her way down a rocky trail, fast as she could; lucky enough to end on the leading edge of the avalanche, she'd gathered her things and beat a hasty retreat down the mountain. There'd been no hiding her tracks in the snow, so she hadn't bothered to do anything but beat it double-time through there, but without snowshoes, it'd still been a frigid quagmire.
Now that she was among foliage, however, she'd taken care to wrap her boots up in bandages and was scampering quick-as-she-could, vaulting from one boulder to another and avoiding the shrubs and scrubs whenever possible. Witches had their ways; she didn't know what the hell they were, but she wasn't going to make it easy for anyone to find her.
To hell with this stupid mission; hijacking a train dozens of miles in occupied territory would have been hell enough, but during the bloodmoon? No. Fuck no. She wasn't going to risk her ass for the military that conscripted her. Hell, to hell with this entire stupid war; Duvencht could do whatever they wanted with the Marches. Wouldn't matter to her one way or the other. Wouldn't change a damn thing in her life. Different nobles, same shit; the only thing that mattered was who was at the top. Fortunately, the avalanche gave her an opening for just that.
Polly looked over at the next gap — lots of loose gravelly debris on the reddish-brown stone below and the next boulder was not quite an octometer. Bit of a hard jump to make, but... she looked at the cliff wall next to her. Yeah, she could make it.
Backing up, she dashed for the adjacent wall, sprinted a few steps horizontally, then did a sidespring onto the next rock.
A proud smirk graced her face. "Peggy, here I come."
"Peggy, huh? Side piece a' yers?" Camille's voice came out of nowhere; Polly froze, her eyes darting around. She didn't say anything. Trees, rocks, bushes. Some birds. That's all she could see.
"Yer damned good at what ye do, Trooper. We got a tough mission heada us, takin' this enemy train. Could use yer help."
Polly still didn't take the bait. Okay, it probably wasn't bait, she had to admit as she frowned. The witch had her dead to rights. But she didn't want to admit it.
"An' people accuse me a' the silent treatment."
There, a distortion in the dust — was she invisible? Polly allowed herself a smile and stood up straight — then quick as lightning, drew her rifle at a whirl of dust.
Thunder cracked, but Polly's finger wasn't on the trigger finger. As if rematerialized from the wind, Camille stood below her, rapier high in the air and tipped with blood from the swift violence with which it had whipped the weapon out of Polly's gloved fingers. The rifle clattered to the ground a second later.
"...Bitch." Polly hissed and stumbled back, cradling one hand in the other.
"Sometimes," the hulking woman admitted, shrugging her sword-shoulder. She lowered her blade, but did not relax it.
"I'm not going to die like every other one of your units, witch. I didn't sign up for that." Despite the defiant air, Polly took her time breathing and flexing her fingers — good, she still had feeling in all of them. The witch was still talking, so maybe Polly could pull something when her guard was down, especially since she seemed to be alone.
"If this operation fails, 'ere's a lot more death comin' 'n that." The Sergeant watched impassively, but there was an air of judgment now. "Loyalty. That's what ye signed up fer. And ye signed in blood. Bandit." The last word seethed with contempt.
"Oh, that's rich. A witch talking about blood," Polly snarled. "Am I supposed to be impressed? Half the regiment knows I'm a conscript."
Camille ignored her and turned her head to the side. "Lissen, Farthingale. Way I see it, ye got two options. We put our weapons away — ye first — an' we walk back up the slope t' find the others, friendly-like. We keep playin' soldier. The other option is, we stop pretendin' an' we go back t' bein' a witch an' a bandit. I seen yer wanted posters, 'Iron Gale'. Lotta dead bodies on 'em. I won't lose no sleep over it."
"And how many dead did it take to build the throne you sit so high and mighty on, talking to me, 'Banshee'?"
"'Nuff of 'em." The light glinted off of the rapier's flat.
Dark blue eyes stared into a single violet iris for a long moment. Then the smaller woman pulled back and smiled a smile of salt and whiskey. "I'll play along for now. 'Sergeant.'"
"Sounds good. 'Trooper.'"