Chapter 7: Civilization, at last!

This week we finally get out of the bug-infested woods. Whew!

_____________________________

 

*Flip*

Catch.

*Flip*

Catch.

*Flip*

Catch.

The well balanced throwing knife flipped end over end, ending up handle-first in Leliana’s outstretched palm. She almost wished she would miss once, if only to have something to break up the monotony of walking. “What idiot invented walking anyway,” she yawned. “should’ve evolved wheels instead of legs I’m just sayin’.”

After a hideously safe couple hours of walking, she was slowly descending into madness. The city was a lot further than it looked from the foothills. The trees encroached right up to the road and grew thick, with a wild underbrush and an extremely solid canopy. She let her mind wander for a bit, wondering if she’d really seen some of the things she’d seen in the last few weeks. Spiked cats, flying ships, radiation-eating worms the size of cities.

Well, she knew that last one was real, if only because she’d been inside the mouths of more than one. But still, her education had been remarkably void of some of the greatest parts of the journey so far. A steady diet of warfare and covert tactics and boring crap like that was all she’d known for ten years – they wouldn’t even teach her to drive the buggy they did have. What a bunch of bastards after all. Leliana heaved a sigh into the empty air, slumping her shoulders and plodding along, hands practically dragging in the dirt. She crested the top of a small hill…and promptly fell over, slack jawed and wide-eyed.

The small rise overlooked an enormous bowl shaped valley with a river tumbling down from the same mountains she was leaving. The main tree line stopped a few meters in front of her, though scraggly bushes and saplings dotted the rest of the fields as far as she could see. The landscape looked like a warzone, pockmarked with craters and corpses and burnt greenery and what she could imagine used to be a few buildings of some sort. In the middle of it all grew a thick clump of buildings; concrete and brick and mortar for the most part, though there were definitely stacks of lopsided wooden hovels decorating the far end of town near a sheer edge.

About 100 feet from the the outer streets of the town was a line of stone boxes with slanted roofs. As she drew nearer, she watched the roof of one of the pillars roll to the side, revealing a familiar, rounded steel tube narrowing at the tip.

“A canno-” An air shattering kaboom punched the question out of her. The shock wave hit her bones, like she’d run skeleton-first into a wall.

Two more pillars flipped their tops as a few uniformed men rushed up the first with a steel ball and a bag to reload the first.

BOOM

BOOM

An acrid tang flooded her mouth as a sickly cloud of smoke enveloped her.

Blinking back tears, she looked around for whatever they were shooting at. A spiked lizard 20 feet high and half as tall popped out of camouflage, trying to avoid the cannon fire. Gore geysered up as a steel ball pierced its shoulder, hurling it to the ground. The beast fled, shrieking over its shoulder and disappearing into the trees. A few smoking craters marred the grass where it stood a few minutes ago.

The uniforms atop the pillars finished reloading all three cannons and flipped the tops back into place.

“Hot slag that was loud.” The young woman moved and massaged her poor, ringing ears, running her face into a wall.

Oh. Not a wall. A very tall man with very impressive muscles.

He crossed his arms sourly as she bounced off him face-first. “Name and business.”

*******************************************************************************

Twenty minutes later, Yani Lana was waved on through the gate dismissively. “On your way then.”

It’s not like she was infamous or needed an alias, but it still felt pretty cool wearing a new identity, like the old spy novels she was allowed to read. Not the most creative name, obviously, but it was a rush job. She’d be more exotic next time.

Her first impression of this new town was…smelly. She watched a balcony door fling itself wide open as a dour woman in a black garb lugged a bucket outside and tossed the contents over the rail into a gutter next to the walkway. Yikes.

She wandered the streets for a few hours, allowing the crush of the crowds to smother her in noise and smell and sweat while she aimlessly drifted. She stopped at a street stall to buy a handful of candy at one point. The sweet and sour drops melted in her mouth. It was as amazing as she’d always imagined. Tingles ran up and down her arms and she allowed herself to bask in the sun, floating lazily in the ocean of humanity. Several times the retort of the cannons split the air, but it was so much less shocking when you weren’t standing in front of them.

Finally, the shadows lengthened and the sky darkened. The streets drained surprisingly quickly. She selected a loud, clean multi-story building with bright windows running around it and figured it was a likely place to find a bed.

Heat and light blasted her as soon as she opened the door, and she took a step back. The night air was cool and dry, and the air inside hot and humid to a ridiculous degree. “C’mon in miss, take a seat anywhere and I’ll get to ya.” She followed instructions, sliding into a chair by the door as a tall, dark-skinned woman set what must have been 10 pint glasses onto a nearby table. Not a drop spilled. The server was suddenly in front of Leliana’s, er, “Yani”‘s table. “What’ll ya have dear.”

“I’m looking for a room for the night, does this place rent beds? How much is a beer and a plate of food?” Some consistency in pricing would be nice someday.

The woman must have been used to these questions, rattling numbers off quickly.

“The drink and dinner are 5 dollars together, the room 15. Unless you need help warming it.” She eyed Leliana up and down for a minute, then stood and wiped her hands on a rag. “We got thorngills or hare soup for meat, or you can have a plate o’ veg with bread. Think about it and I’ll be right back.”

So 20 including dinner, that was less than she was expecting. Although what the hells was a thorngill? She definitely didn’t want vegetables for dinner, she’d be starving by midnight. Holding the bag under the table, she counted 20 coins without looking then secured the bag behind her. She parted with the money as the other returned. “Hare soup, please. And an empty bed.” She got a quick smile and a pint as the poor waitress dove back into the crowd.

Moments later, a steaming bowl of soup and a numbered key were dropped in front of her, and she fell on it like an animal. The soup was gone in less than a minute. Mmmm, it was good though. She nursed that beer for about a half hour when the door nearby creaked open. She felt a cool breeze and turned, suddenly staring into a set of criss-cross scars.

What the.

Antros recoiled, eyes wide and hand automatically resting at his hip.

She laughed. “Hey you.”

Advertisements

Chapter 6: A Cry for Help

Hello internet friends,

Here’s chapter 6 for Lead Heart – any feedback is definitely appreciated as I’m always hoping to learn something,

_____________________________________________________

A strange wooden ship, like the Galleys from her history books, glided smoothly into the sunset. It was difficult to make out much detail while staring into the setting sun, but she didn’t really care about that for now. It was a flying freakin’ ship, how long had that even been possible. How many times did she watch the birds enviously while she plodded along. Off in the distance she made out a bit of geometric shadowing on the horizon, probably a city, in the path of the airship.

Well that’s perfect, she needed to go there anyway.

She dropped a couple of branches before realizing it was about bedtime. She’d spent all day crossing this valley to get another glimpse of that amazing ship. Well, she was out of steam, so at least falling asleep wouldn’t be a problem. Leliana munched a bit of smoked meat while she surveyed the surroundings and picked a spot to nap. A couple of firs entwined their limbs with each other making a few cozy nests where she didn’t need to worry about falling, She picked a spot and made herself comfortable, or as comfortable as you can be in a tree with no blanket, and drifted off.

The next morning was cool and clear, with a brilliantly blue sky overhead. The sounds of the early morning woods were becoming a music of sorts, something to look forward to. Though, compared to waking up in silence on a steel mat to stare at some concrete, it was likely literally anything would become music to her ears.

“SOMEBODY HELP”

A panicked cry for help cut the air. The sound had carried quite a distance, but she was pretty sure it came from the direction she was already headed. Might as well check it out and see what was up.

A few minutes and a few miles down the scraggly dirt “road” she found an interesting situation.

Two women hid behind a tree in front of her, and a younger man crashed to the ground just as she came into view. Three men loomed in the shadows, one sidling down the path while the other two joined from the forest. Cruel grins and missing teeth marred their otherwise hideous faces. She almost gagged just imagining the smell.

“Heh heh heh, ain’t you a firecracker. Too bad you’re such a little-”

“You leave Leon be, you..you cowards!”

The younger of the women grit her teeth and gripped what appeared to be a kitchen knife in both hands. Her mother, Leliana guessed, was as white as snow and stood tight-lipped, wide eyed and silent.

The boy was a teenager, or had been recently. He scrambled to his feet with balled fists. “Fine, just take it!” He heaved a bag and hit one of the men square in the chest with a clink, though the robber ignored it outright.

“Oy kid, that’s not enough. What about them things you said about my mother? I’m hurting real deep inside, I’m gonna need some…healing.” His greasy face looked the two women up and down with a sick grin, before scowling as he spotted the newcomer.

“Who the hells are you?” His cronies noticed Leliana for the first time with a start, the lankier of the two moving toward her.

She glanced over to the uptight mother; well she was useless. “Hey,” she waved to get the others girls’ attention, “how much money is in that bag?”

The young woman was bewildered. “What!? I don’t know, like 100 silver dollars I guess, what the hells does it matter run away!”

“Is that a lot? How much food would that buy?” She had no idea what a silver dollar was, but if it was equivalent to the dollar notes the quartermaster carried, it was enough for a few comfy days in town at least. Some actual bullets might be nice. “Never mind, I’ll figure it out.”

All eyes were on her now, so she might as well use that to her advantage. The loudmouth had a knife in his belt, but the other two appeared unarmed So she targeted them first. If they were comfortable robbing people bare-handed, they were either stupid, strong, or had something to hide.

She sauntered as she closed the distance to the tallest of the three men, hips rocking side to side. “What’s your name big boy?”

His face held the same, “Did I step in something?” expression while his mouth opened to reply, not even changing as her fist drove his front teeth from their sockets. She followed it up with a couple knocks to the head and then swung him into the stabby guy who was advancing with his knife. The two smacked together, flying into the overgrown weeds next to the road from a heavy roundhouse from Leliana. The third, and biggest, moved to crouch in front of them with his hands ready.

They rose after a minute of yelling and bleeding and drooling. The last thing she wanted was to give them time to regroup, so she stalked menacingly at the big guy standing and almost missed the toothless one raising a hand to point at her. She barely had time to gasp and duck aside at the last second before –

*BAP* *BAP*

The gunshots set her ears ringing and the big guy still on his feet cowered out of the way. “Oy you idiot, watch it!” He fled aside, leaving Leliana and the gunman clear.

Damn, she’d bet on the other one having the gun.

She faked left, then dodged right a few steps and slung the knife from her vest pocket at the big guys’ face before ducking left again.

The small guy hopped up in front of his friend and plucked the blade from the air, landing with a tucked roll to keep out of the way. This forced the other to stop shooting momentarily, giving her time to close the distance – large hunting knife at the ready. He pulled the six shooter back hastily but missed and took a knee to the groin as Leliana heaved her full weight into the strike. She tried to lash out with the knife, but bowed backward just quickly enough to prevent being skewered by the second assailant.

Her larger knife deflected his blows easily enough, but he had two, including the one she’d thrown earlier, and he was fast. Once, twice,thrice the hot sparks flew as she blocked just in time. He wasn’t the only one she had to worry about though, and she was forced to split her focus to keep him between her and the one with the gun. The other big guy kept trying to get-

“Gotchya!”

His arms encircled her from behind, yanking her off her feet into the air. She huffed and went limp to try dropping to the ground, but his meaty fists grabbed hold of her hands before she’d slid all the way free.

Leliana flipped backward and used his face to launch herself at the ground, expertly breaking his grip. She caught herself on both hands and used the forward momentum to jump onto the knife guy feet-first. He’d relaxed when his friend grabbed her a moment ago and didn’t brace for the weight of the impact, so he tumbled backward and grunt as the air whooshed out of him. Leliana was caught off guard by how easy he was to knock over and fell forward, tucking into a roll to bound back up facing the trio again.

She was surprised to see the gun-wielder lying face down on the ground, that little kitchen knife sticking out of his back near the neck, and the young man holding the firearm 2-handed.

“Get back!”

The atmosphere shifted and other two raised their hands in a gesture of peace. “Aye kid, you’ve got the gun now. Let us grab that meathead on the ground and we’ll leave.”

They advanced slowly, the young man uncomfortably shuffling backward at the same time. “Fine, but I’m..I’m warning you!”

Leliana watched suspiciously, monitoring the two and counting back how many times the gun had already been fired. Hmm. She caught the one on the ground looking up at his team, the smaller man giving an almost imperceptible nod.

She narrowed her eyes and ran to catch up. She was about 10 feet away still when they stooped to pick up their friend, the small man palming a knife as they rose. She knew it! The two others covered his movement. She bounded forward in two strides and yanked her knife out of his hand as he pulled back. The two large men made way for the throw. The teen caught sight of the knife and fired wildly, gunshots ringing in the still morning air. An explosion of blood erupted from the the small guy.

He screeched and yelled incoherently, grasping at the other two and they carried him hastily into the forest.

Leliana smiled and moved toward the trio. “Good thinking, getting the gun. You three alright?” The youth swung the weapon in her direction, his panicked breathing running ragged. Sweat dripped off his face like he’d just taken a swim. “Relax, I’m the one who saved you remember?” Besides-” she reached out to grab the gun as he fired. Well, clicked.

“It’s empty.”

She pocketed the gun and sheathed her own knives, setting off toward town again. “And by the way,” she kicked their bag up off the ground and poured its contents into her own, the three watching in shock. “You’re welcome.”

Chapter 5: Camping

Lazy smoke curled around the campsite as Leliana’s eyes slid lazily down. She slumped a bit and then jerked up, slapping at her cheeks to help wake up.

“Smoking meat is so boring, ugh, why does it taste so good.”

Three of the legs she’d swiped from the tiger the day before hung from a makeshift wooden rack to dry and smoke so she didn’t have to waste any. The last one had been devoured, having been the first meat she’d seen in months. She stood to yawn and stretch, jumping a bit as the fire crackled behind her.

Dammit fire.

The dense forest was a cacophony of freaky noises as it turned out. She almost wished something would show up to fight just so she could stop jumping at her own shadow. Well the campfire seemed to keep most of the irritating things at bay for now, so she tried to relax. She cast her eyes around for something to do. The small pile of debris next to the dead tree she’d used as a chair reminded her that she already crafted as many sniper shots as she had material for, another 10 or so. It wasn’t a lot, but she didn’t need a lot.

She ran her hands across her pockets briefly, and discovered a shattered glass tube in a small leather pouch fitted to her belt. Well scrap, there went the last antidote she’d taken from the lab. With an irritated sigh, Leliana realized it was about time to try her luck in town to refresh some supplies. Hopefully a small town. Bigger cities were cheaper by far, and had access to more variety, but that convenience was nestled among too many police for her taste. The only “family” she’d ever had used her as a convoy guard during their regular trips to the nearest towns, and the police were by far the worst part of the trip, pushing and shoving and demanding her about while the quartermaster sat in a steambuggy lying about on pillows. Well, okay they were all bastards.

Though, she recalled the disgruntled mercenary earlier and his…advice? Being a muscle for hire would probably be pretty easy money. It was probably more likely to find that kind of work in the bigger towns. More people, and more need. Though in her experience, a lot of people underestimated just what she could do based on her outward appearance., so she may not even find any buyers. Antros’ bulging muscles, scarred eyes and gravelly voice probably got him all kinds of work.

 

Then again. If she were still in reach of the facility, she couldn’t afford that kind of leisure.

She’d run for a week after she slipped out, and had kept moving the same direction ever since. The mountainous path was her best bet due to the limited driving space for the buggy, meaning they’d have to follow on foot. Not many people back there would expend the effort of walking on their own legs, not while they could invent something to do the work for them.

Leliana snorted and laid her dirty blonde head on the now-empty bag. It smelled like crap, but at least the sand from the river had done a good job removing the viscous blood.

Come to think of it, she could probably dye her hair with blood, would that just make her smell like a snack out here though? She felt herself drifting, crackling fire and the buzz of the insects dragging her into unconsciousness.

Lelianas eyes snapped open after the cracking of a twig all too close.

The cold remains of the fire and the ever so slight brightening of the sky hinted at the time passed while she slept. The crisp air felt good and she filled her lungs quietly, holding it in for a second before jumping off her back into a crouch. The atmosphere was pleasant, the early morning birds chirping and a slight breeze rustling the canopy above was normally a nice wake-up.

The guttural growl behind her, however, THAT wasn’t her favorite.

Frozen in place, she slowly formed a plan, casting her eyes around the vicinity and making a checklist.

Knife? Check, she couldn’t sleep without it.

Something for cover? This big log she was using as a chair seemed fine. Check.

She heard up a faint scuffle as whatever it was eased forward in the tall grass beyond the clearing. Nerve to fight off a scary forest monster?

That was a negative.

Clawed feet scraped against rock as the animal leaped from its hiding place, carving a jagged gash in the soil she’d been sitting on moments ago. She felt the breeze of the swipe against the nape of her neck, heard the snapping jaws as it tried grabbing onto her while she darted away. Leliana tucked the blade in her left hand safely under her arm, vaulting over the fallen tree and turning just enough to toss her throwing knife from a vest pocket before raising the knife as she landed. The knife dug into the terrifyingly close face of a gigantic black cat, which halted its charge and sprang back in surprise. The panther had gorgeous, jade-green eyes and narrowed, slit pupils looking hungrily through her. A line of sharp, bony spikes dotted its spine through the velvety black coat, which itself looked clean and smooth.

The clean coat was bad sign for her. This one was either too young to know when to back off, or good enough at killing not to care who it went after.

She kept the 30-inch blade between them, the log protecting her lower half. The cat was pacing on the other side, waiting for a gap in her defenses to open up. Though, that didn’t seem quite right. It wasn’t advancing or prowling or stalking, it was just walking back and forth…directly between her and the smoked elk legs hanging over the fire.

“Ohhh, that’s what you want.” She giggled and stood a little straighter. This slag sucking-

Swapping the knife to the other hand, she took a few steps back and plucked one of the newly made bullets she made yesterday. The barbed point stuck out an inch or two from the tip of the narrow, 5-inch bullet. Hopefully this cat had never been stung by the giant fire wasps further south and this was going to be a big surprise, enough at least to run it off. She made a mental note not to throw all her weapons away or have them stolen in the future.

Her grip tightened on each weapon, and her stocky frame launched over the fallen tree. “No! Bad kitty!”

A feral hiss set her hair on end, but therewas no way she was giving up this much meat. She caught a heavy paw with the flat edge of the knife, deflecting those sharp claws away from her face once, but was forced to retreat as two new swipes breezed by less than an inch from her eyes. She feinted in and jumped back, leaving a deep cut between two clawed toes. The scariest sound she’d ever been subjected to leapt from the cats’ mouth and she went on the defensive under an angry onslaught. She wouldn’t have called it holding her own, but she did manage to just avoid a brutal death by mauling as she slipped out from under leap after leap of a snarling hellbeast.

She ducked right again and again, the panther seemingly getting faster each time, until they were actually just running in a circle. She sliced at it with her own blade, cleanly cutting the air as the cat let the swing go by.

Those beautiful green eyes watched the sharp knife in her right hand as she hefted the rifle round in her left, then chucked it as hard as she could. Barbed wasp stinger pierced deep into its left eye as it turned back to face her and the cat went wild. Spitting and clawing and screaming in a fit to dislodge the bullet.

Leliana bound behind the dead tree to avoid the maelstrom of murder going to town on the campsite, though she couldn’t help feeling a little bad. The fire wasp venom wasn’t going to kill this big, beautiful hunter, but it sure was going to hurt. Well, it was trying to steal her food, she couldn’t feel that bad. The panther probably got to eat meat everyday, but it had been months for her. The yowling grew more frantic and panicked, the smoke rack and campfire in shambles, and the leopard smashed through the thick underbrush as it fled.

That was a lot of noise and blood she just threw out into the wilderness, and she had learned that to be a good way to meet new friends. Friends with teeth and claws and appetites. The sun was basically up, so it was time to go. She tossed the weapons where they belonged and crammed the legs into the bag, sealing it tight. A once-over of the camp confirmed she wasn’t missing anything, she took a step to leave when-

“What the hells!?”

The clearing around her turned black again, just a few seconds before brightening again. She watched a patch of inky blackness move away in confusion, before realizing it was just a huge shadow. Unable to fight the curiosity, Leliana climbed the tallest tree to check it out. She popped out of the canopy and blinked in the early sunlight, eyes adjusting just in time to watch a ship smoothly gliding over the top of a huge hill.

A ship? What the FU

Chapter 4: Hunter

Leliana stared intently on her quarry below a lofty branch in a tall tree.

He wished he could see what she were staring at. If it were a deer or a bunny or something harmless he could just drop her now. He had enough tranquilizers on him to put her to sleep for a week if he needed. The same thick underbrush keeping him hidden for now was a two-edged sword of sorts, keeping him from seeing anything ahead. If it were something dangerous, or even another hunter, he’d risk losing a big payday. That just wasn’t worth losing patience over.

Let’s see those bastards in town call him a coward when he stamped their face on a wanted. Nah, waste of money. It was a good fantasy to pass the time though, what the hells was taking so long for her to make her move. Rat hunkered down to wait from his vantage in the brush. The girl had been moving extremely slowly for about an hour now and had finally stopped; she was setting up for some action, whatever it was. The bag was tied around her shoulders and slung to the back while she’d readied a big knife and fidgeted with something else in a sleeve.

Finally, about damn time.

He flicked a spider off his face and started blowing some of the insects and creepy crawlies away so they wouldn’t bite him when he hopped out of hiding. His contact told him she was a trained spy and soldier. If he missed his shot, he needed the leeway to get out of there without being paralyzed by some inconsiderate insect.

She waved her arms in slow circles, probably testing for wind he’d imagine. No respite in this forsaken jungle girly. As if proving his point, a drop of sweat slid off his greasy hair into an eye, causing him to blink fiercely. He blew his hair back and it stuck to the sides of his drenched head again, though agitated several bites and made his cheek itch like crazy. Once he turned this one in he was going to buy a ticket to a nice, frigid city and buy a lifetime supply of meat. No bugs, no sweat, no rotten cabbages to throw. He allowed himself a small pity session as he rose to one knee and pulled a smooth tube from its place around his waist, flicking a switch to lock it into the blowgun configuration.

He readied a sleep dart.

A flick of her wrist caught his attention then, the silence dotted with the flicking of leaves against whatever she just did – tap tap taptap.

Thunk

A small throwing knife impaled itself almost to the hilt into the meat of his thigh. He almost sucked down the feathered dart at his lips in surprise, catching it against the back of his throat just in time. “AAAAH” He smashed his hands into his mouth to muffle his screams and yank the poisoned projectile out just in time to hear a blood stopping roar. His bones shook against the impact, his vision vibrating in his head and bile rising to his throat.

A pissed-off tiger bounded to the top of a fallen tree in front of him, jade green eyes locked onto him as it issued another challenge. The blood smeared all over its face told him it was probably eating, and cats are not one to share as far as he knew.

Rat’s lanky form leapt back in panic, instinctively shooting his dart into the face of the monstrous animal. He shrieked and bolted as it ran after him, weaving between small trees and pulling branches to swipe at the beast as it chased. The dart was dosed for a human, it was unlikely to put down a tiger – but if he were lucky, it would slow the thing down at least. He yanked a bead off the belt around his chest and bit down hard, dropping it onto the forest floor. The whining buzz and angry growls gave him an idea of how much time he could expect to buy with this trick, and bounded up into one of the trees he knew to be painfully poisonous.

Rat gasped as the spines dug into the exposed flesh of his hands, gritted his teeth and climbed about 10 meters to settle on a thick branch. He plucked serrated spikes out of his hand as blood spattered everywhere, then grabbed a vial of a green slime and spread it over his poor hands. The fiery pain of the cuts lessened immediately, though he knew he’d probably be sick for a week with how much poison he’d just taken.

That stupid, good for nothing worm-bait girl was going to pay for-

An enormous yelp brought him back to his senses, as the tiger had almost leapt to his own height but had been unprepared for the pain of the armored tree. Below, it ripped the barbs out of its paws, blood flowing freely. Pissed was an understatement at this point.

He pulled on some gloves after another coating of slime and flipped the switch on the blowgun again, returning it to the flaccid form it normally took. He cracked it into the air above the beast like a whip, yelling to add his voice to the cacophony. He really didn’t want to waste anything else just to frighten off a cat.

A few minutes of his one-man circus eventually persuaded the tiger that he wasn’t worth the effort, and its eyes sagged heavily as it departed with a final roar.

Rat sat in the tree for probably another half hour, waiting to give the venom time to get fully incorporated into the tiger. It would be fine in a day or two, and he should be back in town well before that. He drew a hissing breath as the tree’s venom finally overpowered his weak antivenom. The antwood was going to make his life hell for the next couple of days, but it wasn’t threatening enough to blow his supply of antidote. Hells forbid he had to kill another nest of snakes to make more.

He dropped gingerly from his perch, rammed himself face-first into the jungle floor, and wearily headed back to town. He needed a new plan.
______________________________
Leliana wiped a bloody knife on the fur of the elk she’d just de-legged and listened to roar of the tiger in the distance. That cracking was enough to tell her it was still harrying that creep she spotted tailing her a few hours ago, but it was best not to press her luck. She sheathed the blade and grimaced as the animal legs spread blood all over the inside of her bag. Ugh, that was going to suck to get out.

Chapter 3: Tactical Retreat

Hello Internet:

Chapter 3 of Lead Heart is up! Sometimes you just have to GTFO.

_________________________________________________________________

The merchant was jerked from the bench violently in the same instant Leliana hauled ass to the treeline. There would be a few seconds of confusion and she needed it to disappear. She recoiled as the tree inches to her left exploded in a burst of shrapnel and splinters. Holy scrap, that sniper was quick. The telltale retorts of pistol fire followed soon after and she saw puffs of dirt and bark popping up all around her.

She sprinted about 100 meters into the trees and bolted up a short evergreen. She hopped back and forth from branch to branch and only stopped to rest once she was high enough to confirm the hit and dismantle her rifle. A fight had broken out near the storage tent and a few burly men were vanishing into the distant woods. Likely his bodyguards, having pocketed any money on his person. She could also see a line of armed men sweeping over the ridge she’d been hiding behind a minute before.

Time to go.

She stowed the rifle parts and tested the heft of the bag. It’d have to do. She yanked the three bombs she acquired earlier that day and pulled the pins, hurling them to the forest below. Then she pulled back a solid branch and used it to slingshot herself away from the advancing troop.

Her gut hit the back of her throat as she sailed through the canopy, narrowly missing a couple of solid hits and scratching her arms to hell. She grabbed a branch to slow her momentum and dropped onto a young tree below. The limber sapling hooked the canvas bag and absorbed most of the speed from the fall, dropping to the ground with a grunt and a roll. The tree snapped back into place and the cacophony of breaking twigs made her wince. Almost simultaneously, the bombs exploded in unison and she was rewarded with shrieks and howls of pain and surprise. Leliana vaulted once more to a low hanging branch and swung up into the tree next to her. They’d still probably be able to tail her, but it would take a lot longer to spot the trail and she’d be long gone by then.

Thirty minutes later, Leliana strolled through a bit of fern whistling tunelessly. She’d lost a good power stone, but at least she put some mercenaries in their place. She still heard the occasional gunshot in the distance but who knows what they were shooting at anymore.

The flicking of leaves had her instinctively jerking her head back, yanking the quivering knife from the tree next to her and sending it tumbling back at the thrower before her mind registered anything was amiss.

“Nice to see you again.”

That gruff hello put her heart into her throat. A throwing knife flashed into her right hand, her left raised to block.

Even if she’d forgotten that grating voice in the last few hours, the ugly criss crossed scars across his eyes were extraordinarily memorable. The look of incredibly calm rage was pretty adorable if she said so herself.

It was less adorable as it was flying her way though.

She twisted aside and shoved his incoming bulk against a tree, then bounced back a few paces to put some distance between them. She was mildly impressed as he caught himself before he fell and caught the second knife she’d sent sailing.

“Here to shake me down some more for your pig owner?”

His eyes narrowed. “Don’t play stupid, you know damn well Creet is dead. Watched him sprout a new orifice in front of my eyes.”

She smiled again. “Revenge, then?”

“Dead men don’t pay for revenge.”

She stepped back as he bounced off the tree and crossed the clearing in a single bound, avoiding the sweep of his leg but catching his fist with her face. He used the confusion to latch onto her and heaved her up over his head, throwing her backward at the nearest tree. Leliana curled up mid-air, hitting the tree feet-first and kicking off of it to plant her boots in his teeth. His grunt of surprise made her giggle as he toppled like a felled tree.

She crouched into a fighting stance as he rolled to his feet.

“You’re pretty good, why are you screwing around with petty thievery and potshots anyway.” He leisurely stretched and flexed his arms, spitting a gobful of blood into the soil. “I just wanted to kick your ass for losing me a week of pay, but now I want to kick your ass for wasting that fighting skill.”

Leliana scoffed. “You mean take money from lazy bastards to protect their idiocy? I’d rather fight for myself. I don’t take orders well.” She rushed him then, keeping her center of gravity low and vaulting at the last minute. She grabbed his hands, outstretched to absorb the incoming blow, and crossed them over his shoulders, pulling him off-balance as she landed behind him. To his credit, Antros let himself drop backward, his own weight wrenching his hands free of her hold. He rocked back as he hit the ground and catapulted himself back up, landing a kick that tossed her backward onto her back. She sprang back to her feet, but he raised his hands briefly.

“Sure, sure. Don’t take orders, but don’t really get a chance to eat or relax either. Nothing like a cold pint to wash away the stink of an old, rich bastard.” He wrenched the knife she’d thrown earlier and sheathed it in his own vest. “It’s been fun, but I need to get back and find me a new bastard to keep alive. Next time I see you on a job, I won’t just be here to kick your ass though.”

“Hey you warned him, it’s not my fault.”

“You shot him. It’s literally your fault.”

She laughed. “Okay, that’s fair. I’ll be sure to look for that handsome mug next time I need to fence something.”

He laughed, or coughed, she wasn’t sure which, and strode from the clearing.

Whistling low with appreciation, leliana respected the silence and haste with which he’d vanished. “I’ll have to bring that man some flowers.”

The muted shouts in the distance gave her an idea of the kind of lead she still had over the rest of her persuers. Antros had a point, though. Dead men don’t pay, and there were a lot of armed thugs combing the trees now, angry about a paycheck they’d never see.

Her stomache growled furiously. Dammit, he was right about that too. She imagined it would be too much to chance the idiots behind her leaving all their food unprotected at the campsite.

She nursed a swollen eye as she dragged herself into the forest. Time to hunt.

Chapter 2: The Second Swipe

Hello internet,

Here’s chapter 2 of Lead Heart!

_________________________________________________________________

Leliana was irritated.

“My dear, that rock is worth more trouble than gold, I’m doing you a favor!”

Hells take his insufferable smug face and his insufferable stupid guards. Fantasies of daring assaults and widespread carnage filled her eyes if just for a moment. At least until she remembered the two score pistol barrels pointing her way.

Glaring daggers at the little weasel in front of her, Leliana untied the heavy bag behind her and let the metal core slam to the ground with a clang.

She noticed someone in the crowd she recognized as she replaced the pack and stepped away. “Antros, you’ve picked a real winner here. I hope you got paid up front.” Her lazy tone didn’t bother to hide the irritation she felt, her eyes barely turning to address the tall, dark and ugly to her left.

Her clean-shaven opponent mouthed a small o and squinted, turning to look behind him. “Have you met?”

A rough bodyguard stepped forward before answering. “We’ve seen each other in a professional capacity.” His deep voice grating her ears. “Meaning I’ve professionally seen her swipe enough junk to know there’s no way she found this piece lying on the ground.”

“Tut tut number 4. We can’t brigade about the countryside insulting nice young ladies,” he wagged a finger at Antros. “Run along little girl, I’ll be here for a few days if you find yourself in need of… Well me.” He flashed his most winsome smile and whirled with a flourish, waving her off.

The emotion drained from her body, replaced by a coldness she was all too familiar with. Images unbidden welled to the front of her mind.

“Run along little girl”

She took a slow breath.

“Are you just letting her walk free?” Antros frowned. “I’ve seen her at work and she’s definitely the type to retaliate. I don’t think-”

“I don’t pay you to think, number 4. I pay you so I don’t have to worry about letting little urchins run freely about their disgusting lives.” The dripping sarcasm washed over the gathered crowd. Scattered snickers grunted out of the men. “Am I wasting my money? Number 4?”

“Stupid brat.”

Phantom fists rained down around her, causing her to wince. The hiss of her own sharp intake of breath snapped her from the memory. The heat returned to her cheeks as she found the clearing silent, and staring.

She smiled.

“Surely you’re not afraid of a little girl, number 4.” Leliana emphasized the stupid name.

Antros’ frown turned into a scowl. “You’re the boss, forget I said anything.” He crossed his arms and stepped back to his place by the tent flap

Leliana backed up a few paces, watching the stone-cold faces with their stone-cold firearms. The guards lowered their guns at a wave from the trader, closely monitoring her retreat. She ran backward a few minutes, until she was far enough away to trust they probably wouldn’t shoot her in the back, then turned and sped down the road. Clever, to set up a faux trading post in such a clear, flat field.

The setup was good, she gave him that. The hired muscle wore carefully crafted colors to give the impression of multiple trading groups. It seemed legit at first glance. Looks like the actual traders were finding highway robbery just as profitable as she was.

She entered the treeline and immediately fell to the forest floor. Slowly, she crawled back to the edge of the clearing, hiding on a slope. Pulling the collapsible scope from her belt she ducked low and peeked up just until she could see the group. She groaned immediately.

“Of course you have a sniper. Everyone has a sniper.”

Grumbling to herself, she let her sack fall to the ground and stayed out of sight of the sharpshooter. There was no way she could kill them all, that would be foolhardy. She couldn’t just leave though, that would only encourage him in the future. There was no way to build a reputation if three dozen crappy mercs started tattling about your cowardice. She fumed for a moment, remembering the unwanted memories forcing themselves upon her. He was definitely paying for that.

It wasn’t hard finding a vantage point they weren’t watching – almost every eye in camp was staring down the road she’d used. Leliana skirted the camp carefully, settling behind some tall grass in close proximity to the forest beyond.

Unzipping the hidden pocket on the inside of the sack, she slowly pieced together her own rifle. A prize from a hundred years ago at least, the sleek, black, long-barreled rifle was like a sister to her. A sister that could kill someone at a thousand feet. Digging a small trough into the hillside and under the grass, Leliana settled in to get comfortable. Watching that cowardly old buffoon laughing behind his guards set her on edge, but patience was a fundamental virtue in this game.
__________________________

Leliana snapped from a trance-like state, the crunch of boots on gravel smacking her awake. The normal patrols were back in rotation; still, they were a sloppy bunch. They were probably used to bullying travelers unable to retaliate against a force this large, and that was fine by her. A lazy dog is a good dog.

Her breathing was slow. It felt like every part of her body were asleep, but she couldn’t move to ease the fierce tingling now. Fidgeting while stalking a camp of armed mercenaries was a fantastic way to get shot.

The unseen guard stepped a few paces in front of her, allowing her to make out the thick wooden shoes and the irritating camo pattern of their pants. Who the scrap wears brown camouflage to a forest. He looked like a huge pile of-

Oh, that weasel bastard was comfortable. His stupid white teeth were biting into a huge chunk of meat across the table from Antros.

She smiled.

The young woman took a few steadying breaths and selected one of her improv bullets – the quietest, a wasp stinger, because she could afford to waste one and because the poison would finish the job if her aim were off.

Her? Miss? She snorted softly.

The gravel crunching stopped and her heart followed suit.

Woops. She chastised herself mentally.

An intense minute of sweating later and the guard continued his round.

This needed to get done. The longer she lingered the greater the chance of discovery. She dropped the makeshift bullet into the chamber and slid it home, then readied her bag for a panicked flight. Okay, now time it right.

Still feeding his face, don’t want to shoot through that hunk of meat. Nope, jerks in the way. Not yet, not yet…grabbing a drink, perfect.

Smooth inhale. Sight down the barrel. Smooth exhale. His head tilted as he gulped at the wine.

FIRE.

Serialized Stories

Hello internet friends – Kris here!

Whew! It’s been quite a delay since our last entry. Tina and I have taken up going to the gym, lots of crafting projects, and other general non-keeping up our blog type things. This is pretty sad though and I’ve been wanting to get into a serialized story to help polish my skills whilst my super-long-take-20-years-to-finish novel is in the works. It’s a working title.

So here’s the first chapter of what I hope to be at least 15-20 chapters of the story of Leliana, a feisty girl who generally likes to shoot first and ask questions never.

Lead Heart

Chapter 1: The Swipe

Leliana stalked between the rows of jagged teeth. A shadow slinking in the darkness. The gargantuan demophant had more than enough teeth to hide her approach, still, it would hurt her pride to be discovered prematurely. It wasn’t difficult to find a hiding place among the reeking yellowed spikes. She took a moment to breathe slowly, coiling her muscles, ready to spring into action the moment she heard her cue.

There was a team of stocky men with picks and machetes and shovels flailing away at the back of the creature’s throat. She visualized them now; marking their progress over the last 2 hours, she’d stowed her spyglass and headed in when she realized they were basically done.

“AH HA!” A gruff cry of delight, followed by a sickening squelch and rushing air.

She Smiled.

Palming three sleep bombs, she vaulted off a few teeth larger than she was and scattered the explosives to surround the small party. Using her own pick, she suspended herself from the roof of the dead demophants’ mouth to get a better view. A yelp escaped from the mercenary hired for protection as one of the bombs hit him square in the mouth, the other two landing behind a group of idling specialists and the actual diggers in the very act of freeing the creatures’ first heart. Everyone froze and turned to face the burly guy nursing a loose tooth.

Woops, bad habit.

The mercenary was the first to react, eyes bulging as he noted the object which had smacked him a second ago and shrugging a large metal shield into his left hand, right hand instinctively grasping the small arm at his side. One of the specialists cowered as he pulled his colleague in front of him with a whimper, the latter yelling in outrage and wrenching himself free to throw himself backward, hands protecting his head. The dig team recoiled against the inner wall of the throat of the monster they were performing their macabre surgery upon, one fellow falling into the breach they had just opened up with a cry.

Leliana found an odd glee in allowing a second of realization before actually springing herself on her prey. She waited, all eyes on the bombs. When nothing happened, the mercenary called for everyone to get out of the mouth as quickly as possible, leading the charge. The other dozen or so men scrambled to follow, slipping back and forth on the slimy tongue.

Tapping the detonator on her wrist against the ceiling, she set the bombs to spewing shrapnel and sleeping poison in a large radius, simultaneously creating a haze of fog. The mercenary slumped to the floor mid-stride, most everyone else following suite. She shook the pick free, folding and storing it in her belt on the fall down. She landed on the unfortunate mercenary who’d been riddled with spikes full of the potent poison and took the opportunity to toss his gun among the creatures’ teeth. Even if it took only a minute to find, that was a minute not chasing her down. She leapt between a few of the specialists, sliding and hopping over the diggers into the tight quarters of the first heart’s chamber.

Allowing herself to slide around the unconscious brute to the opposite side of the chamber, she unclasped a thin, flexible knife and filleted the human head-sized chunk of metal that was the power source to the first heart from the wall. Stowing it inside the lead-laced canvas bag on her back, Leliana tied the bag quickly and slid back out the entrance of the cavernous mouth.

She lowered herself to the ground and snuck back through the workers’ camp, lifting a few bombs from a sleeping guards’ belt. He probably wouldn’t find enough work to use them after today anyway. The stealthy rogue spent a few moments scattering the collected firearms into the underbrush surrounding the clearing; they were too trashy for her to bog herself down with, but they were still deadly enough not to want them close at hand when this lot woke from their bad dream. The ground beneath her trembled, a distant thunder caught her breath.

Holy scrap that was close. She vaulted into the nearest tree and raised herself high enough to make out the towering monster slowly walking in her direction. Seeing a living demophant took her breath away every time, and she took a moment to admire that monstrosity crashing in her direction. The fact that each tooth was only about as big as she was gave evidence to this one’s young age. The single, wide fluorescent green eye fixated hungrily on the corpse below. Time to go.

They could only see irradiated plants and animals so she wasn’t afraid of being seen or eaten. They bunched their fat, serpentine bodies and bounded forward in a thundering explosion of movement which easily splintered trees and would displace an entire lake’s worth of water. Those posed a lot more of a risk. It was common knowledge they flocked to the death of their own kind, feasting on the body for days. It was also common knowledge that this was a bad time to be sleeping in the mouth of the dead one. Common knowledge to her, anyway. There was only one close enough to worry about for now though, and that was easy enough to work around. She dropped to the forest floor, setting a brisk pace for herself opposite the direction of the still living carnivore.

Two hours later she was facing a problem.

A large clearing full of people seemed to be a makeshift trade camp. She’d been planning to head to Imperious or Triad or some other city to sell off her stolen prize, but if she could get rid of it now there’d be no reason to stuff herself into one of those terrible places. The crowds, the smells. The guards. She’d almost give this thing away for a ham sandwich to be honest, it was definitely worth something, but it was also toxic and heavy. If she were being honest with herself, she only took it because someone else had been trying to get it first.

If it were a trap though. That would be real irritating.