Chapter 60: It begins

The Southern section of the city was abuzz the following morning. Their absence had been noted by the sentries during the shift change and things had taken a decided turn for the worse once the watch was put on high alert. Leliana, Teena and Karina crouched low behind a false wall; a thick sheet of scraps they cobbled together into something cohesive. The thing would’ve fallen apart in a stiff breeze, but it did the trick to hide behind.

Leliana’s body is taught, ready to spring. The intense charcoal smoke taking over the pleasant wood smoke tells her the city has shifted into work mode. Gingerly stepping over the sprawled forms of the sisters, she climbs to the top of the wall for one last look to the mountain pass. Soldiers swarmed the slope from the mountain down to the city gates. They were reinforced by a whirling fleet of airships hanging low in the sky and separated into squads of 25, each dug in and ready to fight.

She was impressed.

She’d only spent a couple of weeks with the monks. Watching the city take them as such a potent threat made her feel…proud. The feeling quickly passed when she remembered she was supposed to be making sure those monks weren’t slaughtered today. “Teena. Karina. Looks like they’re getting ready to start.” She prodded the other two to wake them up. “There’s a big cluster of ‘em testing Gungrave’s defenses.”

“Already?” Teena stretched and yawned, then bounced to her feet with a smile. “Wow is it almost noon? I feel great! What’s the situation Leli?”

Leliana groaned. “There’s law enforcement everywhere, they’re definitely looking for us. They’ve been banging up and down the streets for hours now, I’m actually impressed you managed to get some sleep.”

“An experienced woman of the world takes her sleep seriously,” Teena nodded. “It sounds like we’ll need you to run some interference once we get kabooming. Think you can handle it?”

“Of course,’ Leliana scoffed. “These guys are amateurs, they all look like children.”

“Aren’t you, like, a teenager?”

“I’m a professional” She sniffed.

Bangs and clangs closed in on either side of them as the army engineers pounded their way through the defenses looking for abnormal sound signatures. “Alright you two, what do you need me to do?” Karina cut in.

“You’re my escape plan!” Teena said. “You still have that grappling hook?”

Karina blinked.

“Remember all the times we used to go rappelling? This is the perfect time to do that!”

“That wasn’t rappelling, I was saving your life!” Karina whisper-shouted. “This is a terrible time to do that, every armed soldier on that field is going to be staring straight at us!”

“Hmm,” Teena stroked her pigtails, “I suppose you’re right. I wonder what the concussive force is like inside one of these barrels is? Maybe if we plug it with some debris and jump in the end…” Karina’s deathly glare stopped the thought in its tracks. “Alright, alright. We’ll revisit the idea.”

Distant pops and booms signified the beginning of a major conflict, stunning the girls into silence.

“Right. Shoot now, plan later.” Karina said.

“Let’s goooo!” Teena bounced into her springy sprinters and clutched the cannon controller she’d configured earlier that morning. “Go!”

Click

The whir and grind of the gears pinning the giant guns to the wall was oddly satisfying, methodical and mechanical and chaotic all at once. The ground tremored with each cannon locking into place. Nine barrels spanning three hundred meters of wall stood at attention, awaiting orders. Pressure gauges flipped into the red all the way down the line as the steam chambers opened up, and the high pressure hiss elicited a squeak from the current operator. “Ohmygosh they’re so cool!”

The world fell into a stunned silence around them, all the search parties having stopped banging around to watch the guns curiously.

BOOM

It was the single loudest thing Leliana had ever experienced in her entire life. She picked herself up off the ground, the world swimming in front of her like she’d had one too many to drink. There was a chorus of squeals and the sound of metal shearing metal underneath the city street they were standing on.

BOOM

Leliana smiled as she managed to keep to her feet this time. That smile flipped upside down as a score of soldiers and mechanics tore around the corner toward their former hiding place. The scrap wall Teena had haphazardly welded together lay in a pile at their feet, and the trio of saboteurs were exposed for all to see.

“Leli!”

“On it!”

Leliana kicked up pieces of debris from the cluttered ground and slung it at the newcomers, knocking more than a few to the ground as the rest tried to take control of the situation. Commands were issued and firearms were drawn, though it was no time at all before Leliana closed the distance to use their numbers and unwillingness to shoot each other against her foe. The air was thick with the smell of gunpowder and sulfur as she bounced between the upper wall and the lower streets, tossing soldiers and knocking around engineers like a demophant in an orphanage.

Teena used the cover to make some adjustments to the enormous cannons currently shelling the battlefield. She modified the angle of attack on each until there was a solid wall of explosions a scant hundred meters from the base of the mountain. Panting, sweating, and covered in grease, Teena returned to where she’d left her sister. “I think we’re ready. You still got it?”

Karina retrieved the flare gun Leliana entrusted to her earlier that day and pulled the trigger, shooting the projectile high over the wall. The dark-blue ring was dazzling against the smog hanging over the city. “The rest is up to them,” she said. “What do you say we get out of here and grab some ice cream?”

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Protector Atreides’ eyes flew open when the flare lit up the city below. They’ve done it? Cannons exploded over and over, though he was slowly coming to realize they weren’t shooting at him. Uniformed soldiers below cried out, in pain and confusion, as they were attacked by their own town. The cannon-fire gradually shifted until it formed an explosive barrier fifty meters wide. Atreides leapt into a tree for a better vantage point. There was just enough room between the mountain and the explosions to get his people out of the pass and into the foothills.

“Brothers!” He raised his voice, quieting one hundred others. “We are blessed today. Our friends have provided us a boon. Let us guide the people to safety beyond the walls.” Men and women split neatly into two groups, bisecting his small army into two bands of nearly three score each.

Warrior talents and soldiers went first as the Alpha band. Electricity crackled and heat shimmered as dozens of warriors flew down the slope in the blink of an eye. Almost literally, in a few cases. Vea was the first to the bottom, and he was happy to see it. She was a master of herself, and a guiding force for the more volatile troops. Vea plowed through the vanguard of the city’s forces with a sonic boom, men and their weapons scattered in the unexpected assault. Sergeants bellowed and soldiers rallied and soon the rest of the band clashed with a chaotic front line, throwing the pitched the battlefield into disarray.

Gungrave didn’t have as many talented as he did, the Protector knew, but the war brothers were vastly outnumbered. Attrition was his friend today. He grit his teeth. This was it. “Omegas, take your people and keep to the base of the mountains. The foothills become passable just a few miles East where we can take refuge from the city.

I only pray those guns will remain on our side.”

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“What do you mean, the wall is shooting our army? Then STOP IT!” Mortimus screeched.

The aide dared not wipe the spittle from his face. “W-we’re trying, Overseer. They don’t respond to remote shutdown, the COD has no idea what’s going on. We-”

“Then get boots on the ground?!” The words echoed around the empty war room as the building itself lurched with another volley of cannonfire.

The aide opened his mouth, then closed it as an older gentleman sprinted through the door. He sported a long, gray beard, braided and tucked into his undergarments. “M’lord, we can’t get control of the South wall. The reports are that they’re being rebuffed by a…a woman? Requesting authorization to mobilize the suits, sir. We need to stop those cannons.”

A crystal chalice exploded into pieces beneath the overseers gloved fist. “Do it! Do it immediately!”

“Not so fast, Gregory.”

Silence fell like a blanket as Lilith sauntered into the room. “Soldiers beaten by a woman, you say? Sounds like my cue.” She snapped, and the two brutes behind the war table fell in step behind her. The overseer caught up to them at the stairs to the roof.

“Lilith! You can’t just up and leave when the going gets tough. Isn’t this why you’re here?!”

“I’ll take care of that big, bad girl for you Gregory, don’t you fret.” She smiled. Mortimus stepped up the stairs, bouncing off the well-muscled chest of a brute. Lilith flipped a parting wave without bothering to turn around.

Five minutes later, her polished chrome spacecraft hummed smoothly into the air. She was getting fond of the smell of ozone that permeated the cockpit when the vehicle whirred to life, but the taste of victory on her lips was suddenly overpowering.

This was the end. This was the day she’d lay so many problems to rest.

It was time to go back to making money hand over fist as humanities champion. “We have unfinished business, girl.” The shiny vessel crept forward until she could hit the throttle without boiling the roof of the Overseer’s mansion, and then she was suddenly over the battlefield.

“There you are.”

Chapter 59: Setting up

Hello internet

Chapter 59 of Lead Heart is ready for your enjoyment!

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Twilight was brief and early over the city of Gungrave. The mountain range that divided the continent ran straight North for hundreds of miles before branching West. It was a little nook of that split in which the city was founded. It made for an ideal defense position, but sacrificed some daylight to achieve. A bird’s eye view of the wall showed it for the pentagram that it was, with the fifth point being closest to the only pass through for hundreds of miles in either direction.

“Trust me, as long as we have a wrench and clipboard we’re invisible,” Teena reassured her companions.

This fifth point was the section of wall Teena was trying to get into, leading the trio through a maze of dark, twisting sidewalks. There were plenty of street lamps glowing merrily across most of the city, but they were much less prevalent in this military section.

“I can’t see a thing,” Karina complained, “how do you even know we’re going the right way?” She glanced at the sky, but the stagnant air allowed the smog to blot the sky, obscuring the moon most of the time.

“I memorized it on the tour of course. Weren’t you paying attention?” Teena marched in her springy sprinters, head held high and a large pipe wrench slung over one shoulder. The other two followed slowly, constantly looking over a shoulder or jumping at shadows.

“I don’t think it works like that in the real world…” Leliana said. “We should probably find a section of wall to bounce outside and skirt around, don’t you think?”

“I think that would be an excellent way to meet the literal army sitting outside the South wall, madam.”

The checkpoint came into view as they rounded a corner, and Teena shushed them with a wave. The two manning the gate eyed them up and down, but didn’t draw their weapons. “Evenin’ fellas,” Teena’s bored, deep-throated accent came out of nowhere, and Leliana nearly giggled. Teena whipped out a purposefully-illegible scroll and tossed it to the men, “routine maintenance on the S-13 matrix tonight, seeya in a couple’a hours gents.”

“Wait a second,” the shorter guard stopped her with a glare. “Ain’t never seen you before, shorty. And maintenance don’t happen at night.” His hand dropped to a heavy baton in his belt.

“New policy, thought they’d warned you o’course.” Teena waved the wrench to punctuate her sentences. “Supposed to cut out the civvi’s picking up on the wall’s inner workings or some such nonsense. Never listen to the guy out here working the blasted thing o’course. Can’t see a blasted thing in all this darkness and besides, you ever wondered how you’d go about rerouting an L-joint at fifteen-hundred PSI without coming out of it like a cooked chicken? COURSE you ain’t! But bosses are bosses and I need to get straight through here, lads.” The wrench wagged back and forth and the guards parted reluctantly, allowing her to clank noisily through the narrow gate. Karina and Leliana, doing their very best to look as though Teena were completely normal, hurried through on her heels.

“We’re going to verify this with HQ,” called one of the men, almost as an afterthought.

“Course, course! Tell ‘em Netty sends her best!” Teena waved back, not bothering to turn around. The three marched in silence for another five minutes until Karina couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“I have got to give you some lessons,” she patted Teena’s head affectionately, earning a swat on the wrist.

“That was amazing.” Leliana laughed. “But what do we do when they send someone to check the story out?”

Teena laughed it off. “They won’t, he just needed to feel macho. You never put a thinking man this close to top-secret technology anyway, he might write some stuff down and make a fortune selling it to your enemies. You have to get the dumb ones who don’t ask questions, or send for verification.” She stopped several times as they walked, checking gauges set on top of a thick pipe running alongside the walkway. It was mirrored on the other side, forming a sort of frame for them to walk through. “Ah, I think this is it!” They turned down a nondescript ‘tunnel,’ where thick, coated wires and pipes twisted impossibly into the darkness. The moon peeked at them for a moment, and Teena’s eyes sparkled as she drank in the view.

“How can you tell?” Leliana had been looking around for any signs or markings, but had seen nothing but the forest of tubes and the occasional squat bunker. Teena screwed up her face while they delved deeper into the darkness.

“Hmmm. I don’t know for sure that we’re here, but I have an educated guess based on some tertiary factors that I think will point us to the right place. We’ll be somewhere, at least.”

They spent a couple of minutes getting their bearings, and so Teena could describe, at length, some landmarks to the other two. The huge, twin pair of steel pipes just under the top level of the wall? That was the main steam-line that was kept pressurized by boilers elsewhere in the line. “Never stick your furnace where you’re expecting to get shot,” she nodded wisely. She dove into the black cavern under those pipes without hesitation, providing the others a continuous stream of technical jargon to follow. Time and distance lost all meaning in that pitch black maze, nothing but small glow-sticks to see by.

Finally, Teena stopped.

“This is it!” She squeaked. “We saw this one on the tour yesterday!”

“So what do we do?” Leliana hesitated.

We don’t do anything, I’m afraid. I wasn’t kidding when I laughed about looking like a cooked chicken earlier, one wrong move and any cracks in the pipe will cook you like a hot dog!” She hopped out of the sprinters and climbed in and out of sight for the next hour, disappearing into the steel labyrinth for extended periods at a time.

Leliana spotted the moon through the gap in the pipes above them every once in a while. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get a sense of time, at least. She heard Karina keeping track of the watch schedule under her breath. The clang of boots on the walkway overhead receded into the distance for the fifth time before Teena popped out next to them. “I’ve got it!”

“You rigged it already?” Leliana asked.

“What!?” Teena Gaped. “No way, this thing is gonna take hours, they really leaned into the function over form mentality on this one,” she clucked her tongue.

“It is taking hours!” Leliana replied.

“Oh.” Teena said. “Still, I think I figured it out! If I reroute these command lines to the panels in my backpack, the remote operators won’t be able to shut us down before we get a chance to cause a ruckus! I’ll need to find the manual shutoffs for the hydraulic fluids too so we can isolate the guns from outside interference and then all they can really do is shut off the steam boilers, and that’ll take a good chunk of the wall out of commission until they can get down here and unscramble my genius handiwork.”

“Ah, nice…” Leliana nodded, unsure if she were brave enough to ask for a simpler explanation.

“The tour guide said these things could be rigged to fire continuously remotely. This,” she tapped a couple of buttons on the face of the cage hiding the enormous cannon, “is the manual operation interface. If you guys help me rip off some of these panels, I think we should be in business!” The moon had almost sunk the mountains by now, and the sky was beginning to brighten in the East.

“How long is this going to take?” Leliana asked, ripping a thin sheet of metal from the panel.

“Oh hours and hours,” Teena replied. “They’re sloppy, but they’re not stupid. Help me get to as many as we can and we’ll signal the others at noon!”

“Are you sure we have that kind of time?” Karina was looking anxiously up and down the street, listening for signs of life.

“Nope!” Teena giggled. “You run lookout sis! If you see anyone, scream like an eagle!”

“Eagles don’t scream,” Karina said flatly.

“Shriek like a sky eater!”

“I can’t!”

“Oh fine, just come tell us then okay?”

Karina grumbled, but paused before stalking into the shadows. “Teena. You’re not going to k…kill all those people out there. Are you?”

“WHAT!? No way, are you crazy? I said ruckus, not slaughter!”

Karina slipped out into the night, leaving Leliana with one energetic engineer. Teena rubbed her hands together and yanked a blue wire from the panel. “Alright Gungrave, show me what you got!”

__________________________________________________

The grinding of the elevator was loud. Embarrassingly loud. It also liked to jerk back and forth randomly, a nauseating dance nobody asked for.

Is this really the best they have? Lilith scowled. It was true that thing they found a few years ago had propelled them decades, centuries into the future of technology. But she’d put more than enough of it to market by now for them to have reverse engineered an elevator, at the very least.

She sighed, stepping into the empty top floor of the hotel. The quelling of the riots had been inconvenient, but smart…for Gungrave. She paused at a South-facing window to admire the moon as it sunk beneath The Watchers. “You’re out there somewhere, girl. Make your move…”

Chapter 58: Accidentally progressive

Hello internet

Chapter 58 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it!

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“Captain.” Geoff, the scrawny teen she’d appointed runner, sprinted over the broken down warehouse doors. He had to take a minute to catch his breath. “Police Chief Rotham is at fifth and Cannister flying the white ribbon, ma’am. Officer Gently ordered me to fetch you!”

“Police Chief?” Leliana narrowed her eyes. “White ribbon? Sounds like a trap, eh?”

“I’m not sure, ma’am. I met Riggs and Staples on my way here, they both said the shooting stopped all at once.”

Damn. They were a few hours from controlling a full twenty five percent of the city after their wild recruiting successes overnight. This fool better not be trying to ruin my plans. She allowed herself to be escorted through the decimated streets, shattered glass and craters revealed all too clearly the struggles they’d fought through. She walked up Fifth avenue for about a mile. She noted with mild amusement that the intersection was just down the street from the original site of the protest. Gods, that was yesterday! Leliana felt as though she’d aged at least a year since that first demonstration. She crouched behind the brick-and-wire barricade next to Gently.

“Alright, I’m here,” she whispered. “What’s the situation?”

Gently frowned. “Dunno, cap. Suits stopped shootin fer awhile and then ol’ Chief sends me a sharp dressed lad waving the white flag, askin’ for a meetin’ to discuss our terms. Do we have terms?”

Leliana clapped him on the shoulder, thanking the man before she sauntered into the intersection. This had been a particularly tough nut to crack, Gently’s crew had been stalled here for hours. The air was sour with burnt gunpowder and sulfur, and the street had been chewed up into gravel by this point. Gently had a good head on his shoulders though, that’s why she’d assigned him to attack the barracks and security offices.

She arrived at the midway point and stopped.

“Well?”

Several faces peeked out from the stone barriers on the other side, disappearing immediately. She wasn’t kept waiting. Police Chief Rotham stepped smartly out into the street, the white ribbon around his shoulder flapping gently in the wind. The man had red-rimmed eyes like he’d had a rough night, yet that didn’t detract from the overwhelming sense of authority he exuded. He came to a stop two meters from her, hands crossed over a cane so she could see them both. “Good morning.” He called. “I am Police Chief Rotham de Victor. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with, today?”

A million cool sounding names whizzed through her mind before she halted that train of thought. No no, remember the last time I tried making something up. Outwardly, she wiggled her own empty hands and crossed her arms. “Leliana. Just Leliana.”

He gave a small bow. “Leliana. You are behind this sudden rebellion, are you? It’s never gotten quite so out of hand before. You must be a skilled orator.”

“Thanks.” She ignored the statement. There were two dozen men behind the chief, all armed but not aimed at her. Despite herself, she glanced behind and noticed her own men affecting a similar stance. It welled an odd sense of pride in her. Good job, guys.

“I’ll get right to it, then.” He clapped once, and a young man came to stand behind him holding a pen and notepad. “What is it you want?”

“Uh, want?” She looked behind her, dirty clothes hanging off lean frames that hadn’t eaten since yesterday. “Ah, we want…better food! And better pay!”

“Yeah!” The Poors’ chorused.

“Yeah, we get scat to eat around here, it’s damn unfair. And cleaner air! And tear down those gates – we ain’t children, we don’t need no damned curfew.” She mentally ticked the short list of things she remembered hearing the men complain about, hoping it was enough. She put on a look she hoped was intimidating. “We’re human, after all. We deserve to live like one!” More disgruntled affirmations from the men. Word had gotten around to the other companies about her meeting, and there was a growing crowd of the Poors residents listening in.

“Alright.” Rotham nodded, flicking a hand at the young man who started scribbling furiously. “Done. Shall we stop all this, then?”

“…What?” There was a stunned silence that quickly broke into an excited clamor. “W-wait!” She had to stall. “It’s a trap, obviously! Nobody would give in that easily after what we’ve done.”

The silence fell again.

Rotham stood a little straighter. “No trick, I assure you. Men, holster your weapons.” They obeyed at a wave from the chief. “I’ve been authorized in the name of the Overseer to approve any reasonable demands. These are reasonable, I think, and perhaps long overdue.”

No, no.

She felt a little bad, trying to sabotage the needs of all these people. But she had an agenda to keep! While she stumbled over her own thoughts, Rotham upped the ante. “I’ll have crews to dismantle the gates within the hour.” He sensed her hesitation and latched onto his advantage with expert precision. “In good faith, I also tell you this. Confidential information until now. A grave danger approaches our town, even now. A monstrous plague, and an army of vagabonds! Both, individually, would pose no problem. Together, they could spell our doom.”

He leaned over the cane to stare into their faces, her little force paying rapt attention.

“I think it only fair, with these concessions, you use the arms you took up against Gungrave once again, this time in its defense, beyond the wall.”

It fell deathly quiet. Leliana started to believe she’d be able to turn this around.

“Any man who takes a post will be paid five red galleons per day.” And just like that, she lost them.

Leliana was suddenly in the middle of a smiling, laughing group of men and women, hugging and thanking her before running over to offer their services. She smiled and waited until the streets were a chaotic mess of bodies, then melted back into an alleyway to make her escape. “Dammit. DAMMIT!” This was the OPPOSITE of what she was going for.

It was all well and good for the residents of the Poors, and she was happy for them…kind of. Tomorrow hung over her like a black cloud. “Better find the other two.”

Climbing to the top of a multi-story shopping plaza, Leliana got a good lay of the land. The garage they parked the buggy in was pretty close, actually. That meant the industrial shopping district Teena ran off into was just a bit South, toward the mountains.

The mountains.

Dammit.

Sigh.

She drifted aimlessly uphill, dodging potholes and breathing fetid air, unwashed bodies and smog mingling into something more powerful. There was no concept of the passage of time while she ruminated on how horribly she’d failed.

“OY! You come down from there RIGHT NOW!”

“That sounds familiar.” Leliana followed the crowd to the scene of the commotion. A fat, squinty-eyed man clung gasping to the bottom of a… giant, metal man?

“Whoa!”

The design was rather crude, almost more of a stick figure, but impressive nonetheless. And there, dangling from the jaw, was her tiny, pink-headed quarry. Teena was wearing a big pair of goggles secured with a leather strap and hung onto the metallic surface like some pink-haired monkey. She was elbow deep in the neck, yelling at the poor man sliding down the metal shin. “This is amazing!” She was ignoring his desperate attempts to get her away. “I think if you substituted these Atlas cogs for a set of three-and-one it would give you better torque, even if the speed was marginally decreased. Do you need to turn the head that fast anyw- LELIANA!” She suddenly spotted her friend looking up from the crowd.

Everyone paused to look around.

Then Teena was airborne, giving something of a tiny warcry all the way down. “Woooooo!” Leliana’s heart skipped a beat and there were gasps and screams from the onloookers. Leliana shoved her way through a myriad of gawkers, vaulting into the air to catch Teena.

Whoomp

Teena wrapped her arms around Leliana’s neck once she was safely in the other girls’ arms. “You won’t believe the things we’ve seen here it’s so WONDERFUL I’ve bought so many things it’ll be such a shame to blow it all up!” Most of the crowd was dispersing into the market, though many were alarmed at that last remark. The proprietor whom Leliana assumed was in charge of showcasing the metal giant stomped over to glare them down. “She with you!?” He was still yelling. “This one has been up my arse three ways to Sunday! The guards is already on the way so you stay right here!”

“Ah, you’ll be fine,” Leliana slapped the man on the back, tossing him to the ground. “Let the guard know if she’s caused any damage to your toys, they should be able to spot you the money.”

He sputtered and spat, but wasn’t to his feet in time to stop the two girls from retreating.

“Sooo, how did your riot go?” Teena sang once they were alone.

“How did you know that was me?” Leliana jogged generally downhill, away from the crowded upper market to get their bearings. “Where’s Karina, anyway?”

“She was right behind me, I thought? Ah, there she is!” Karina padded down the street the same way Leliana had just come from, rosy cheeks nearly as red as her tangled hair.

“Damn, you’re a mess,” Leliana said, “you alright?”

“Fine,” Karina replied breathlessly. “I was just trying to finance my sisters’ impossible spending habits. How did your riot go?”

“Waaah!” Teena fell flat as Leliana’s arms went limp.

“How did you both know it was me?”

“Well we left you alone for more five minutes in a crowded metropolitan area,” Teena was nodding sagely. “Something like that was bound to happen.”

Karina laughed. “It was Teena’s guess, since we didn’t see you the entire day.”

Leliana sighed. “Not good. Or… good? I led an army of oppressed lower class against their oppressors, but the city up and gave in to their demands just a little while ago.” She looked away. “Now they’re sending those guys to reinforce the pass.”

The other two gaped. “That’s…” Karina hesitated.

“We’re supposed to make fewer armed guards, not more!” Teena shouted.

“I know, I know. I was going to shoot off that flare soon! Damn.” She punched a fist into one hand. “I should’ve just taken the time yesterday when all those ships were buzzing around away from the mountains.”

Teena grinned evilly, tapping her fingers together and glancing around all shifty-eyed. “Speaking of yesterday,” she said quietly.

Karina’s eyes narrowed, and Leliana got to one knee to listen.

“I did some reconnaissance, and I came up with some ideas about how we could reroute one of those wall turrets to allow manual control. I bought everything we need!”

“Reconna- now wait just one blasted minute,” Karina crossed her arms. “Is that why you dragged me on that stupid tour?”

Teena giggled. “Yeah, well the important bits I needed were just the teensy in the middle,” she spread her two index fingers just a hair’s width apart, “but you have to admit the rest of the tour was REALLY interesting!”

Karina was stupefied. “But…That’s what you had me lugging all the way across this godsforsaken pit of a town?” She crossed her arms and huffed. Teena giggled again.

“Gentlewomen. Step into my office.”
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Lilith pressed her fingers into the bridge of her nose and sighed. “You lost control of a quarter of the city and opted not to inform me?”

The Overseer bristled. “Now you see here, this is still my town Lilith. I don’t require permission to end an uprising when you say we’re about to be overrun by, by monsters!.”

Well, noon didn’t seem like too early to start drinking after all. Lilith poured herself a glass of wine and stared out at the city. “Where to next, girl?”

Chapter 57: The Distraction

Convincing a few tattered residents of the aptly named “Poors” to fight turned out to be surprisingly easy.

“Fall back!” Leliana yelled at her little contingent of outlaws. The team ran for cover as a tempest of bullets chipped away at the concrete walls they hid behind. She took a quick head count, hoping she’d called the retreat in time – a second contingent had come in a lot faster than she’d anticipated. Fourteen out of fourteen heads accounted for. Perfect.

Damn.

They had almost pushed the uniforms back another block before the second group joined the fray. Bullets rained down in a steady stream from two sides, now. Something needed to be done about that or her little rebellion would be stopped in its tracks. “Anybody got any bombs left!?”

The two youngest members of the gang had been too afraid to use the ones she handed them in the beginning. A suspiciously Jovi-like voice shrilled in the back of her mind: these kids aren’t even old enough to wield a bottle of spirits, WHY ARE YOU GIVING THEM EXPLOSIVES?! She shook the voice away, pocketing the two small shrapnel grenades. Then she motioned for Bruiser and Cow, the gang’s second and eldest, respectively, to keep up a volley of return fire to buy her some time to plan.

She pulled the rest in for a huddle. “Alright listen,” her voice hoarse from yelling, “I’m going to get behind those guys and scatter them. Turn their attention around, maybe get ‘em to chase me.” She looked into each soot-stained face, each eye full of determination, to be sure she had their attention. “When the shooting stops, DO. NOT. FIRE. This whole thing is waste of time if we get put down like dogs before we even leave the Poors. We need to beat the bastards, blast the number three warehouse open, and get armed. Really armed. Then they’ll have to listen to our demands.”

The misfits nodded enthusiastically. She gagged the Jovi in the back of her head again. Sure, she felt a little bad about using them like this. Then again, she’d caught them looting an entire housing complex full of terrified families, threatening to kidnap children if they resisted – so she didn’t feel that bad.

They were very enthusiastic after she’d painted the streets with their former boss’s insides.

Between the air pollution, the despotic government, and the exclusion of the Poors from the waste and food transport networks, people around here weren’t generally long-lived. If she inspired a few of them to action while accomplishing her mission, she’d count that a success.

“Paige, you ready with that skeleton key?” She asked.

One of the women, a short firecracker with singed bottoms and a stolen top, unfurled a small black pouch from an inside pocket. A few ounces of high-grade adhesive explosives was nestled into a pouch stuffed with cotton and sawdust. “Gotchya covered, chief.” Leliana clapped her on the back, sending the girl sprawling into the street.

“Ah, oh, sorry…We’re all counting on you, you got this!” The group chuckled good naturedly, helping Paige to her feet.

She took one last look at her merry band of outlaws. She could get used to this. “Alright team, give me a little distraction and wait for my signal.” Leliana dashed back the way they’d come, thankful that the people of the Poors all retreated into their homes once the shooting started. She didn’t have to worry about collateral damage, at least.

She turned down a narrow alley between the apartments and a ration store, whose roof was just about level with the top of the wall around this section of town. The Poors was a smelly section of Gungrave constructed entirely of concrete and human waste. The whole place was packaged neatly into a concrete border wall and a few wrought-iron gates to be closed promptly at 8pm. To keep crime down in the other sections of the city. She scoffed at the idea and took a running leap. She took a step and kicked off the apartment building toward the shop, then bounced back to the apartment, rebounding back and forth until she stood atop the food shop, fifteen meters up. The wall, including spikes and barbed wire, was just about level with her head.

Ugh, what she wouldn’t give for some of her old equipment. Just because it’d been the Labs’ hadn’t been a very good excuse to have lost it so recklessly.

Leliana took a couple of deep breaths, getting pumped up. “Time to make Vea proud,” she muttered.

Girl, do not invoke my memory to incite violence.

She laughed and shook away that chastising voice. Well, anything is better than when it used to be Brutus’s slimy voice, she supposed.

She bolted to the edge of the concrete-tiled roof and easily cleared the two meter height difference. She spotted her opposition through a burning haze of smog and watering eyes. Still only two groups of uniforms so far. Ten men to the left, fifteen to the right. Leliana rolled as she landed to shed some momentum. The slate tiles cracked and splintered as she landed, but the roof held.

Whew. That had been a concern of hers.

“Oi! Who’s up there?”

“Woops.” She had to hurry. She popped the igniter on one of the small grenades and bounced it off the warehouse next door. Her aim was good, if the screams of surprise were any indication. She sprinted across the rooftop and hurtled over the narrow streets onto another slate roof before the first explosive had even detonated.

BOOM.

Angling a bit to the right, she jumped and spun a full circle, dropping the grenade halfway through. It landed directly in the middle of the group, and she finished the spin to land on a flat concrete roof behind them.

Leliana whipped a couple of loose shingles into the peace officers to really stir things up, wincing as another blast sprayed a handful of gravel all the way up to where she was hiding. The added insult to injury worked, and most of the men gave chase as she fled the scene – taking special care to stay visible to both parties. She made an escape via rooftop, twenty five angry rifles in tow.

Damn I hope this works.

___________________________________________________
“So this…infection of yours-”

“Not mine, Gregory. Just a project I’ve taken on.” Lilith cut in.

“Right. Out of the charity of your heart, I’m sure,” Overseer Mortimus sneered. “This infection you tell me will wipe out my entire population unless I help you apprehend this girl of yours.” He stroked his chin. “Even were I agreeable to a charade like this, and I’m not, where would we even begin to search?” He threw his arms in the air, “do you have any idea how long a combing of a city this size takes? Longer than a damned week, I’ll tell you that much.”

Lilith smiled. “Don’t you fret your little head about it. This is a special girl. She’ll let us know when she’s here.”

The Overseer’s mouth gaped before he snapped it shut. “And you’re just going to be a pain in my ass, drinking my wine and dictating my country while you wait for a letter?” He was on his feet before he realized it, slapping a stack of papers into the opposite wall.

“Don’t be an idiot, Gregory.” She purred. “I’m not sure how she plans to tell me, I just know that she will. In the meantime you won’t even notice I’m here,” she assured him. “Now be a good host and fetch us some wine, will you dear?”

Chapter 56: A drive into town

Hello internet friends

Chapter 56 of Lead Heart is up!

______________________________________________

Three women watched with vacant expressions as a small vessel lift off into the air. Wind from the propellers blew smoke and grass into their faces, yet no one moved until the crew’s focus shifted back away from them.

“Told ya they’d never help us get ‘uncle’ to the hospital,” Teena said smugly.

“What would we have done if they’d said yes?” Karina put her hands on her hips and eyed her sister. Teena casually hoisted a section of blown-out wall from the destroyed house and hurled it like a frisbee, revealing her springy sprinters.

“Didn’t even think that far ahead,” she admitted. “Warship crews are the same the world over. ‘We fly, you crawl.’” She snorted. “Besides, now we’re off the radar. For now.” She hopped up onto the steambuggy and fanned the charcoal as it slowly came to life under Leliana’s careful tutelage. “Fill ‘er up girl, I’ll do the pyrotechnics.”

Leliana laughed, relinquishing Teena’s striker back to the girl and making the dozen trips out to the well to fill the reservoir with water. Karina eyed the smoking ruin that used to be a house while they worked, nodding to herself. “I’ll be right back,” she said, disappearing around back. Ten minutes later, Leliana was fidgeting with knobs and levers all over the vehicle when Karina finally returned.

“What was that all about?” Teena called from the front passenger seat.

“I just let the family know they should be safe now, and to give it a couple of hours before they leave.”

“Why?” Leliana looked confused for a moment.

Karina shrugged. “Farmers all over the world get the same treatment,” she said. “I feel bad for destroying their lives? Least I could do is to let them know they’ll be okay.”

It was Leliana’s turn to shrug. “If it makes you happy. Ready to go?” The last she directed at Teena, who was scratching schematics into the dirt with a sliver of wood she’d picked up. Leliana and Karina stared at their companion unblinkingly until she finally caught on.

“Wha-? Oh, ah, right! Let’s see,” Teena climbed into the rusted iron vehicle to check the pressure gauge. The steam tank itself was of pretty decent size, but the furnace was woefully inadequate to keep a reservoir that size going full time as she had explained some time earlier. “Looks like we can probably head out as long as you take it slow?”

“Alright, let’s go!” Leliana leapt into the driver’s seat and the whole thing squealed alarmingly. Teena jumped in just as eagerly, followed by an extremely reluctant Karina.

“Where in the hells do you keep it all?” She complained.

“Ah, shut it. We’ll be fine!” Leliana punched the accelerator to the floor; wood-and-iron wheels sliced the air with shrieks of metal-on-stone as the entire vehicle circled 360 degrees. Leliana stomped the breaks as soon as she found her footing and the whole thing skidded to a stop. It groaned and tipped to the right. “Whoa!” Leliana leapt out in time to stop it from rolling. She broke out in sweat, slowly righting the vehicle to all four wheels.

“WHAT. ARE. YOU. DOING?” Teena yelled, clutching the back of her seat where she’d barely managed to save herself from being catapulted.

“That was amazing,” Leliana grinned ear to ear. “No wonder those selfish bastards never let me drive back at the lab.”

“You…you mean you’ve never driven?” Teena paled. “Maybe one of us should driIIIIIIIIIIIIVE” She screamed as Leliana floored the accelerator again, managing to keep the steering-column straight.

“Are you kidding!?” Leliana yelled over the whistling wind. “This is easy!”

Karina and Teena’s replies were drown out by the cries of the buggy and the whooping of its driver as they careened down the road at breakneck speeds. More than once, all four wheels left the road after a small hill, the entire world dropping out from under them only to smash back into them moments later. Teena’s initial thirty minute trip estimate took less than ten minutes.

SLOW DOWN,” Teena yelled. They neared the outskirts of the city, and the surrounding warehouses and military stores were teaming with people.

“Awwww, but-”

“Running over the guards is very conspicuous,” Karina chimed in as the cart slowed. “Your idea to act like country bumpkins was a good one, I think. Let’s keep it until we leave the city.”

Leliana reluctantly agreed as the gate came into sight.

“And let me do the talking. Neither of you speak a single word, you understand?”

“What about-” Teena started.

“Those are words. Quit that.”

Leliana smiled as Teena pouted from the front seat. The grin melted as two uniformed men barred their way through the gates.

“State your business.” One demanded, rifle shouldered.

“Well you see, milord, we’s uncle Tredicus taken a right nasty spill out yonder in them’n fields anon once that there gun started boomin’ it’s top.”

Leliana screamed internally with every fiber of her being to keep from melting into a puddle of laughter. Karina’s accent matched the officer’s almost perfectly.

“We’s hoped we could get a doc or least some medicine to get ‘im on his feet again if you catch my drift.”

The two men relaxed visibly as she spoke, guns returned to the holders on their backs. “Tredicus? Poor bastard,” the second man replied. “Get a goin’ with you then. Park in the two garages on your left, first two buildings. Can’t miss it.”

“Thanks kindly,” Karina waved him off with a silly back-and-forth sort of hand wag before settling back as Leliana drove through the gate.

Thankfully, Leliana had a feel for the pedals by now and managed just to shower the guards with dust as they sped through the gates. Monstrous slabs of steel and iron dug into the ground. They were at least a meter thick by Leliana’s estimation. The trio stayed quiet until they turned into an empty warehouse with stone markers indicating the parking spots, neatly lined perpendicularly to the entrance. Leliana drew a shaky breath, not sure she could trust herself to speak. “Where…what…How did you…”

“That was amazing!” Teena cut her off, “where did you pick that up so fast?!”

Karina giggled. “I practiced with the family in the shelter. I knew one of us needed to sound like they were from around here.”

They abandoned the cart and set off into town on foot. Leliana noticed a wide road along the inside of the wall leading South, which Teena explained as an express route for the military. Or anyone rich enough to purchase a pass. Vehicles were forbidden from the city streets due to their mechanical nature. Even the road from the gate was inset with a rail of some sort, a series of copper tubes diving into the concrete on one side and springing out again on the other.

“Whooa, this is one of the first designs they came up with a century ago,” Teena sprung along next to Leliana, trying to point at and explain everything in sight. “That whole building can RAISE UP and roll down this track to the edge of town, or anywhere along the walls! There’s even some places in the city where you have to be careful or they’ll run you over kersplat!”

“They don’t have a bell or something to warn people?” Leliana asked.

“Well they didn’t have any in Frederickshire when I was there last so I wouldn’t imagine they would but really the amount of smoke spitting into the air is a pretty deterring factor as far as pedestrian traffic goes, you know?” Teena pointed across the street into an alley where a big, fluted tube jutted about 3 meters out of the ground. “That thing is the exhaust vent, see? When they move the building, that thing will spit enough smoke and steam to choke an army.”

“I see,” Leliana said.

Teena gasped.

“Karina!”

“What’s wrong!?” Karina ducked, scanning for danger.

“Do you have our wallet?!”

“I…I have my wallet?” she said tentatively.

“OHMYGOSH let’s go!” Teena sprinted uphill through a growing crowd of people, where a maze of stone and iron buildings belched steam and smoke into the air. The place looked like a ghost town, only with throngs of people darting in and out of the clouds. Most wore face masks to filter the air, though many did not.

“Wait!” Karina yelled. “I…” She looked from Teena to Leliana apologetically before running after her sister. “Teena!”

Leliana smiled. “Looks like I’m figuring things out from here,” she told herself. She gave herself time to wander the outer portions of the town. It had been a while since she’d had the opportunity, after all. Her first impression was…gross. The air was rank and smelled like the inside of a busted engine, and she gagged more than once when the wind shifted unfavorably. How do these people live like this?

She wandered aimlessly for an hour at least, maybe two. She avoided the shops, having no coin to her name. The bag she shouldered held a few days of food and her knife, but nothing of value.

Besides, that wasn’t what she was here for.

She kept her eyes peeled for any munitions storehouses or big piles of explosives just lying about, anything that may prove useful in creating a bigger diversion. The Protector said he’d be coming through that pass by the day after tomorrow, whether she’d been successful or not. She needed to capitalize on the chaos she’d already created. Even now, ships drifted lazily over the fields to the North instead of patrolling the mountain pass to the South.

If she could point some of that army inward somehow…

All this smoke was making it hard to think. The southern half of the city was further uphill than the markets she’d been walking around all day, and she saw considerably less pollution over there. She decided to check it out, and hopefully clear her lungs. She was groped and assailed more than once by poor souls down on their luck, looking to beg or steal what little she could possibly be carrying. Stepping over what she hoped to be unconscious or drunken bodies, she skirted the main market squares in favor of alleys and service roads when nobody was looking. Until the way forward was blockaded by an angry mob collecting in front of a dull wooden mansion.

The crowd was about one hundred strong, men and women, all sporting dark and stained tatters and grim signs. Some of them didn’t even have signs, they just wrote words into a shirt or coat and waved it menacingly.

‘Clean air now!’

‘Fair pay for honest work’

‘You bastards’

What’s this? Leliana stepped instinctively into the shadows, a parade of sooty faces spitting abuse at a line of uniformed officers in formation in front of the mansion. The police all shouldered rifles, but none were pointed at the protesters. The people protesting hurled insults and handfuls of wet ash or gravel at the men guarding the wrought-iron gates, but they kept their distance.

“I can use this?” She murmured, mind racing a mile a minute. A grumpy old man with his arms folded leaned quietly against a concrete wall a short distance from her. “Hey you,” she hissed, “what’s going on here?”

“Obvious, innit?” He scoffed. “Bloody Overseer been promising to blow the smog away from the poors but he never does. Some fool blastin’ scat up this morning tipped a smokestack and crushed a group o’ burners in the steamworks and now they all wants to rebel.” The old man sighed wearily.

She had a good idea what explosions he was talking about – she’d certainly not shied from tossing a few shells this way earlier. She felt a bit bad about those workers, but she shook the feeling away. She had a job to do.

Suddenly, the gates creaked and slid slowly open.

A mustached old man in a clean uniform stepped out of an elaborately adorned glass door, holding a megaphone. His sharp, tinny voice cast over the voices of the disgruntled workers below.

“The city is under an assault watch. Public displays are disallowed until we return to a state of peace.” The protesters stopped slinging debris, but continued their verbal assault.

“We’re always in an assault watch!”

“You won’t let us ‘ave any peace!”

The man continued, not bothering to respond. “Disperse this illegal gathering immediately or we will disperse you by force. You have to the count of three. One.”

Some cursed and walked away. The old man Leliana had spoken with sighed again, “guess we’d better get a move on, missus. You don’t want to be around if they start shootin’.”

“Two.”

Leliana saw many of the youths redoubling their efforts, slinging insults and debris with renewed fervor at the uniforms threatening them. “You…go on ahead,” she told him, “I want to watch a bit longer.”

“Your funeral.” He shrugged, disappearing into the alley.

“Three.”

A dozen people remained by this point, all of whom had spread out cautiously near side streets and alleys between the concrete buildings.

“Fire!”

The line of guards raised rifles, loosing a blistering volley of fire that sent clouds of stone chips and puffs of concrete everywhere, the shots ricocheted wildly. Luckily, none of the youth had been hit, she noticed. There were a few gouges blown out of the wall right next to Leliana, as well. The remnants of the protest scattered, disappearing into the shadows or sprinting toward the North wall.

Leliana let herself sink back into the shadows behind her, watching men in uniforms reloading their weapons, though no further shots were fired.

Interesting.

Chapter 55: Making a Ruckus

Leliana stretched in the crisp morning air, drinking in the view. From the top of the watchtower, Gungrave looked like little more than a steel campfire smoking in the morning light. “Ready?”

“Almost,” Teena poked and prodded, hammered and torqued the mechanism of a huge artillery cannon with a critical eye.

“Do you think this is necessary?” Karina hesitated to look over the railing. “You said those guys yesterday sounded familiar right? Shouldn’t we run as fast as we can?” A mess of red curls bounced every time she took a step closer to the ledge, only to jump back when the wind kicked up again.

“Yeah. I owe one of ‘em a lifetime of torture,” Leliana shoved her hands in her pockets. “If I run away now, I might miss my golden ticket.”

“I told you about the army, right?” Karina’s brow furrowed. “You against how many?”

“It’s what I was trained for. Be a waste not to at least try,” Leliana shrugged.

“I think I got it!” Teena chimed. “It seems fairly straightforward, at least. We can rotate cardinal direction using the orbital trajectory modifiers clipped on either side of the seat and then there’s a pitch modulator you can rotate with your feet to adjust the angle of attack, see?”

Leliana blinked. “Okay so… spin these, left and right.. Turn these, up and down?”

“That’s what I said!”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Karina kept glancing to the distant city, nervous they would be spotted any moment. The fifty meter vertical drop on every side made her dizzy, and she gripped the railing until she was white in the knuckles. “Maybe Teena and I should go, find a safe place to wait for all this to blow over?”

“No way!” Teena hopped to her feet. “Gib and Jovi are depending on us to take out that city! After we take a good look around of course. And pick up some tools and hardware first.” She paused to take a good look at the city walls. They were only about ten meters high, but miles of copper tubing criss-crossed and ran over themselves in a tangled mess. Squares of steel perforated the top, Teena’s best guess being that they were gun bunkers and copper coolant lines. “Yeah! We’ll rough em up right after we get in and take a look at those walls! And I heard a long time ago that Gungrave pioneered moving buildings, maybe we’ll see one of those! And then we rough em up!” She punched a tiny fist into an open palm.

“Whoa, easy killer,” Leliana giggled. “We’re only supposed to turn some heads away from the pass.” She reminded. “I’m confident in my ability to be eye catching. Less confident assaulting a military capital with three people.”

Karina retreated into the bunker. “And you think painting a target on our backs is the best way to do that?” She stepped gingerly over the bodies  of the tower’s previous occupants.

“There’s a huge gun in the sky and it’s my job to make trouble.” Leliana looked at Karina pointedly. “How could I not? Remember, let me know the second you see any navy ships coming this way.”

“Right well…you’re the expert.”

“Alright Teena, you’re my loader!” Leliana hopped into the gunner seat, wiggling the barrel back and forth to get a feel for it.

“Roger!” Teena kicked open a hatch, exposing clean rows of meter-long artillery shells. “Better put these on you guys,” she doled out thick earmuffs.

Leliana smiled, her heart raced. She’d never shot something this big before. She kicked the rotary pedals until the gun lined up with an identical tower to the East. “Here we go!”

A fireball erupted from the mouth of the cannon, and the BOOM rocked her entire world.

“Oh yes. Again, again!”

“Down four notches!” Teena commanded, shoving a new round into place with a clang.

In the distance, Leliana saw a cloud of dust poof up on the other side of her target. Damn, Teena was right.

“Ready!? Fire!”

Without thinking about why she was suddenly taking orders, Leliana notched the barrel down a few degrees and squeezed the trigger again. Every inch of skin tingled ferociously after the second shot.

“Alright, kick it one-eighty!”

“Wait, shouldn’t we-” Leliana started, stopping short when the distant tower went up in flames. The huge gun twisted free of its anchor and plummeted to the ground.

Don’t question me!” Teena kicked the ammo door shut. Leliana couldn’t stifle the laugh this time.

“Aye, captain. Tell me when!”

They spun the cannon and disabled the gun to the West even as it started turning their direction. “Nice!” Leliana yelled. “Alright cap, what next?!”

Shot after shot, the cannon blazed a trail of destruction through the countryside. Food stores and any grounded ships took the brunt of the assault, though they tore through a complex almost a quarter-mile wide or more too. That turned out to be a dry-dock, judging by the number of half built ships they tore up inside.

“Damn Teena, I never knew you could shoot!”

“I never knew you couldn’t!”

The two shared a laugh.

“Time to go!” The panic in Karina’s voice rained in like a splash of cold water. A trio of cruisers drifted through the black haze over the city.

“Oh slag, that’s close. Karina, you know what to do!” Leliana launched out of the seat and almost face-planted – everything was so numb from the constant firing. She hauled Teena up onto her shoulders and took the stairs three at a time. Her legs burned, and her lungs were on fire. A rope swooshed past when she was about halfway, and Karina slid to an easy stop at the same time Leliana finally reached the bottom. She huffed, leaning on the rail for support. “Where did you find a rope?”

Karina laughed. “It was in the box next to the stairs labeled ‘rope.’”

Teena strapped into the springy sprinters and they were off, racing across a half mile of manicured grass to the shadows of a barely-constrained forest. “Did you rig the -” The tower erupted into white-hot flames, disintegrating the top half.

The three warships approached cautiously, orbiting the tower for several minutes. They met in mid-air close to the wreckage, then scattered in different directions.

“Uh oh, let’s go deeper.” Leliana brute-forced a trail through the forest for the other two, crushing tree limbs and ripping through springy vines.

“Where to now?” Karina puffed. “We’ve made a diversion, can we leave the rest to them?”

“We’re going to Gungrave!” Teena bounced. “I thought we decided that already?”

You decided that already,” her sister grumbled.

Leliana gave a small laugh. “I’m afraid I thought the same thing. Gungrave, dead ahead.” She pointed through a break in the trees.

There were more ships in the air now, drifting dangerously between them and the city. Just a scant few miles away, an eternal column of black soot and smoke choked the air. A blemish in the otherwise cloudless sky. Gungrave was a squat town, most buildings built low to duck under the smoke of the charcoal factories. A sparkling river frolicked out of the Watchers from the South and through the industrial part of the city, only to come out thick and sullen with ash and debris on the other side. On the Northwestern side of the city sat a cluster of big warehouses and hangars all set up around a wide sliding gate inset into the wall.

“How are we going to get in with all these bastards looking for someone to shoot?” Karina eyed the skies warily. Four more airships flew in over the city, making twelve in total.

Leliana’s trigger finger itched. They’d given her a flare gun to signal the war brothers when she’d turned all the heads she could, but it wasn’t enough yet. Her gaze fell to a burning barn about a mile away, and the steam buggy parked next to it.

“I have…a plan.”

 

 

 

Chapter 54: Warning

Hello internet

Chapter 54 of Lead Heart is up!

________________________________________

“Jovi!”

Gib crushed the air from her in a sprawling tackle, a wagon wheel soaring harmlessly a few inches over their heads.

“Thanks, love!” She admitted to herself how little she’d been paying attention after the third time. She knew two ships had been shot down, one was even a shot she’d aimed herself. The survivors had surrendered immediately.

Even now, smoke billowed in lazy rings as a third ship spiraled in a controlled crash behind her.

No time to think about that.

Jovi had spent every second of the battle engrossed in the aerial maneuvers of her adversaries. It was her against twelve of Triad’s best, and she’d managed to keep going for… Skymother’s arse, what time was it?

“Gods I’m good,” she murmured as another ship turned to flee, chasing two others already disappearing over the horizon.

The battle had taken its toll. The ships carried a lot of air-to-ground munitions, far beyond what she would expect a normal warship to be outfitted with. Most likely for the ‘plague’ the two scientists warned about – whether that story was a cover for something else or not, she hadn’t decided.

Still. Her ears rang, her eyes watered, and she’d have a headache for weeks. Not to mention the cracked ribs from Gib’s life-saving tackles.
She turned her attention skyward. A few ships seemed on the brink of bolting. She needed to encourage that – her family on the ground wouldn’t hold up to much more abuse, she knew. “Bristol!” She shouted. “Those two are moving in tandem, they have to be coordinated internally. Get someone up there to shake one down. One flees, and the other will follow!”

Bristol followed her gaze, then smiled and rubbed his hands. He tossed down a multicolored smoke flare, and three winged beasts appeared in minutes. He bellowed instructions and they took flight. Five minutes later, the two ships turned tail and fled, a newly blooded trio of fliers raining severed limbs onto the deck to encourage retreat.

She was suddenly aware of a speck on the horizon. The features of the ship were barely distinguishable, but she could already tell it was more fearsome than the rest. The vessel was shiny, brilliantly reflecting sunlight, with no visible smoke-trails or balloons keeping it aloft.
The battle raged on, but it never really had Jovi’s full attention after that. She was a cog in the machine, handing ammunition to Bristol or aiming the cannons, never truly diverting her attention. It swam through the air like a shark, lower in altitude by at least half than the others.

“Gib,” she asked, “do you see that?”

“Aye, capt’n.”

“What do you suppose it is?” Gib’s rough hands manhandled her to the side, deftly avoiding the storm of splinters one wagon wheel had just become.

“If my eyes do not deceive, that appears to be the ship you told Sekkel you could not believe!” Gib laughed despite the destruction and plopped her onto his shoulders for a better view.

“Damn,” she realized, “I think you’re right. He did say she had one of those, didn’t he?” The Speaker boomed the monks to a halt from just behind her, and Jovi’s heart nearly leapt out of her throat.

“Cease attack!”

She looked around, suddenly a bit guilty about the nonchalance she and Gib held for the fight. A glance around was all it took to realize how lucky she’d been. Bodies, steel-plated and unclothed alike, were strewn about like so many discarded food wrappers at a festival. Three ships smoldered where they fell, survivors in custody and the dead lined in rows respectfully.

The warships overhead circled hungrily, but had stopped the assault. Of the original 12, only four remained. Everyone waited. For the shiny airship to approach? For the remaining warships to do something? .

A bright light slammed into the distant ship without warning. Jovi couldn’t see its source, but seeing a similar ship to this one so high up earlier that day couldn’t have been a coincidence. Right? A translucent bubble shimmered into existence around the ship as it buckled under the pressure of the light beam. The ship nearly scraped the ground as it fought the…whatever it was.

“Speaker!” A young man mounted upon a green serpent whipped his mount to the ground with a breathless warning. “The lands where yon light touches… Sir. They’re in flames!”

Before he could reply, the metallic ship responded, firing an invisible ball straight back at the source of the light. The clouds disintegrated until the invisible ring finally reached the monks. An explosion of force knocked Gib and Jovi to the ground. There was a moment of panic as those on the ground picked themselves up and ran to catch those plummeting from the sky.

“Skymother save us,” Jovi whispered.

The light beam faltered immediately, and had disappeared altogether in a matter of seconds. The metal airship settled down about one hundred meters away.

There was a hiss, and a door appeared at the top of a ramp. A platinum blond in a tight, silver jumpsuit swaggered down the ramp, tailed by half a dozen suited men hanging a variety of weapons from hips and backs. The two scientists from earlier marched behind who Jovi assumed was their leader.

The Speaker glanced behind him, as if seeking an approval. Jovi followed his gaze and saw an old crone with few teeth and less hair start to come forward through the aid of a staff. She moved excruciatingly slowly, and even the landing party waited patiently for several minutes while she made the trek. The Speaker held out an arm as the old woman arrived, and she accepted it with a smile.

“What is the meaning of this, Helga?” The woman demanded. “I need these men shooting monsters, not dying in the middle of some gods forsaken dirt patch!”

The old womans’ head bobbed up and down slowly. “Best be tellin’ them, Lilith.” She waved to the warships remaining. “Twasn’t my idea for a fleet of buggers to come a’knockin.”

“They said you started it.” The young woman scowled.

“Aye, flew their ships right overhead I did. Lined ‘em up pretty as a peacock.” The old woman chuckled. “Use your ‘ead dearie. Look around you.”

Lilith paused to consider, glancing at the broken bodies, ships and weapons. Then the Speaker chimed in.

“Your boys were pretty upset that I didn’t bark on command, threatened all sorts of death and demise to my people.” He crossed his arms. “Have you asked them about it?”

Her eyes narrowed.

The woman whirled and a hushed argument ensued, the two scientists gestured wildly as she glared. There was a crack and Brutus flew to the ground from a vicious smack. Lilith shrieked into the sky.

Then visibly wrestled herself under control.

“Death and demise, yes. But not from us-”

Before she could get more specific, a blue blur blitzed over the forest and smashed to the ground between both sides. “Speaker!” Carkus vaulted easily off of Zimi. “Gungrave have the pass pinched tight. Prot slipped that new Leliana girl and the redhead…through the mountains..” He gradually noticed the tension in the air. “He…said I should… Did I…Did I miss something?”

“Y’mean to tell me you didn’t smell fire and destruction when you flew right over it?” Bristol bristled. “I thought you could smell anything!?”
“I was distracted,” Carkus spat. “And I’ve eaten…well never you mind what I’ve been eating.”

Bristol turned pale.

“Enough,” Lilith both spat and cooed. “I was planning to visit the Overseer in Gungrave anyway. To enlist his aid in repelling the plague. It sounds like my cure might be there too, I should think he’ll be most helpful in retrieving it. Excellent.” Lilith pivoted and sauntered back toward her amazing ship. Then she stopped short, glancing over one shoulder.

“I’m going to Gungrave, you may die as you wish out here. Do not presume to stop me.”

She disappeared up that impossibly shiny ramp with a hiss and a puff of steam. The ship rose quietly and zipped into the distance.
The monks clustered around the Speaker and the mysterious old woman, most of them clamoring to know about the woman.

“Our priorities have shifted,” the Speaker interrupted, “and we find ourselves in need of a little haste. Let us put aside these questions for now. Gather our wounded and bury the dead quickly, and let’s get out of here.”

The old woman raised a hand, quieting the crowd.

“Lilith is a cruel, despicable woman whose greed knows no bounds. But she does not lie easily. I trust her word about the danger, at least. Let us forego burying the dead of the enemy this once. To better honor the safety of the living.”

The Speaker nodded. “War brothers, infiltrators – you scavenge from the wreckages,” he waved at the smoking warships. “Food, medicine, weapons, whatever you think is important. Inititates,” he addressed everyone else as the elite groups scattered, “check the dead and wounded. Bring the living here. The injured soldiers we’ll turn over to their comrades.”

Jovi looked up, noticing the four ships weaving a landing spiral. They’d be landed in just a few minutes. She broke free of watching the ships to assist her brothers and sisters just as another bone-shattering sonic boom rocked the clearing, from the direction of the mountains this time.

Stay safe you two!