Chapter 66: Not my problem

Atreides noticed immediately how much the girl had improved since their last go. He and the Speaker grappled the girl for a long minute, trying to negotiate. “Please consider those unable to defend themselves against this unprecedented threat,” he implored. “Tens of thousands of people could be converted into these monsters-”

“That sounds like a ‘you’ problem, prot,” Leliana growled and tried to break free. “Not my plague, not my problem.”

The Speaker opened his mouth only to have it rammed shut as Leliana’s fist slammed home. He flew back into a crowd of talented who’d come to assist. Atreides dropped, losing his grip on the girl but avoiding a vicious kick that threatened to take his head off. She was fifty meters away by the time he was on his feet again. She threw herself into the ocean of oncoming monsters.

“We gotta go get her,” the Speaker grunted.

“Kahlin!” Atreides flew to his best alchemical mind. “I need you to get something ready. Once we get her back in position, don’t hesitate to take the shot.” Kahlin nodded and threw himself into his work.

Atreides and the Speaker dove headlong into the morass chasing Leliana, ducking and dodging the gnashing and swiping that swung from every angle. The creatures worked themselves into a renewed frenzy, wailing and diving unpredictably in their fervor. He hit the dirt when a disintegrating jade-serpent flew by open-mouthed, nearly swallowing him.

They weren’t gaining any ground. Every meter they gained, she pushed two more. Damn she was fast. Then there was an explosion.

A shriek. A sizzle.

What the devil is-

Before he finished the thought, a blast of vapor swept out of an exploding barrel. It burned. Eyes, nose, mouth, every moment an agony of existence. His instincts took over and he found himself panting next to the Speaker, the Overseer, and Lilith a moment later.

“What is the meaning of this?” He managed between gasps. Lilith’s science corp drifted lazily overhead, tossing exploding barrels into the raging mass below. Swaths of the things were losing shape, melting into puddles of sinew and bone and gore.

“I’ve spent months perfecting this mixture,” Lilith answered with a grin. “It’s a pain in the ass to make, but I instructed my pilots to flush the girl back here with any means necessary.”

“You’re gonna kill the girl!” The Speaker objected.

“Relax,” Lilith sighed. “She’ll be fine. Leliana is a special specimen, she’s not going to die under a simple lye mixture.”

“That girl is not a specimen,” Atredies interjected. “I will not allow you to endanger her so casually Lilith. Tell them to stop or -”

“Relax,” she scoffed again. “Leliana is perfectly safe, you damn busybodies. She was designed for much more than this. She will feel much more than this. I didn’t waste twenty years of my life building a trump card for it to get itself killed on a fool’s errand in a backwater city.”

“Hey!” The Overseer objected. He was interrupted by an unearthly howl that seemed to go on forever.

The air trembled. A moment later a massive stag catapulted straight into the circling airships. One after another, nearly a score of putrid animals sailed into the air before the scientists scattered. Out of the half-dozen vessels, only four managed to escape. The two remaining listed and plummeted in their own time, propellers and engines full of entrails.

“Oops. I wish that hadn’t happened.” Without explanation, Lilith spun and bolted toward Gungrave. The Overseer did a double-take, taking off after her. He yelled at a commander in passing, and the Gungrave army repositioned themselves as a barrier between the creatures and the city walls. The men watched nervously as more and more of the things streamed through the pass and over the mountains in an unending parade of death.

The airships were back, even higher than before. Atreides had a split second to wonder what they were dropping this time before an enormous blaze heated the air around him. The fire was almost two hundred meters away, yet he felt as though he were warming himself by a campfire. He cursed himself under his breath, looking for ways to extract her from that swarming hellscape.

It wasn’t long before flames engulfed enormous sections of the plague host. They burned in a semi-circular pattern with a clear corridor free of any flames leading straight toward the city gates. Atreides swore again. Lilith was trying to use the Gungrave military, though he was much less confident in the girl’s survival. So deep in thought, the protector didn’t notice the bull’s head fly at him until he was tackled to the ground. Yellowed horn gored the space where he’d just been standing. Leliana blitzed out right behind it, and he was almost too slow to catch her.

“Leliana!”

Her cold, pale eyes were…strangely emotionless. Her skin tinged a slight blue. He winced as she squeezed his hand. “You must listen to me,” he yelled over the cacophony of the monks and military at war with the beasts all around them. He didn’t get a chance to say anything more before the air erupted with fists. There wasn’t a direction he could dodge fast enough to avoid being pummeled. The beating lasted an eternity before the Speaker materialized behind the girl to save him.

“Move!”

Atreides ducked out of the way just before a 12-inch needle stabbed into Leliana’s throat.

Leliana stopped just long enough to look at the projectile before she slammed her head back, breaking free with brute force.

She blinked to where Kahlin still held his blowgun, white and wide-eyed. Then he was lifted by a strong hand around the throat, feet kicking feebly against an uncaring Leliana. She pulled the barb free and reversed it in her hand.

A dark fist clenched around the pale hand holding Kahlin.

“Girl. Do not continue.”

Atreides could barely hear Vea, but he rushed to her side to stop the war brothers from renewing their assault. I hope she is still in there.

Leliana’s cold stare bored into Vea, but the woman did not relent. “I will protect you. Everything is going to be okay.”

Leliana’s scowl morphed into a feral growl and she hurled unconscious man to the ground. She snapped Vea’s grip and flew into the air, faster and further than Atreides had ever seen. Vea shot into the air after her.

She landed behind the Gungrave line of fire, cradling an unconscious Leliana.

Chapter 65: An offer to refuse

“Alright, hold on tight. I think we’ll be fine.”

“You better not drop me!”

Teena tightened her death-grip around Leliana’s neck. Leliana wheezed in one last gulp of air before she slipped over the city wall, letting gravity do its thing. The wind whipped Teena’s pigtails free in what was a mercifully, terrifyingly short trip back to the ground. Leliana cradled the smaller girl in her arms as she landed the most perfect tuck-and-roll she’d ever performed. The excess momentum was still too great however, and both still took a mouthful of scraggly grass for their trouble.

“Are you okay?” Karina, taking a much slower and safer route, padded over nearly a minute later. Teena spat raspberries to dislodge the dirt and grass from her mouth and slapped playfully at Leliana, who still lay on the ground and gasped for air.

“You big jerk I got dirt all in my mouth eeewww.”

Leliana giggled. “I didn’t drop you. You didn’t say anything about eating dirt.”

Teena grumbled and accepted her sister’s hand to her feet. She did a double take, looking from the wall to the battlefield. “Now what! We made the distraction but everyone is still out here smashing and shooting and…and…UGH! What even was the point!” Leliana’s smiled faded as Teena surveyed the scene.

“I can’t tell who’s winning…” Karina sighed. The stench of gunpowder and the copper tang of blood was strong, even this far from any of the actual fighting. “I can’t see anyone I recognize”

A monstrous shriek split the air without warning. All three snapped their attentions to the mouth of the mountain pass where a herd of refugees fled in terror from a …thing. A big, ugly thing. “What is that!” Leliana demanded.

“I can’t tell,” Karina fought the bile in her throat as she spotted Jovi on the hill leading away from the pass. “But we need to get up there now.”

Leliana hoisted Teena onto her back and took off running, slowing only to drop the tiny woman at Jovi’s position as she sped by. It seemed like no time at all before she was ass-deep in slimy ichor, teeth and claws gnashing and snapping so close they fanned the sweat from her forehead. Once she joined the fray an unearthly howling began, slowly at first, until every creature was singing the same haunting note. They went into a frenzy, ripping each other apart and diving Leliana en masse like a wild orgy of death, spraying the most foul smelling liquids she’d ever had the misfortune to taste.

“Girl!” Some ripped guy muscled a disintegrating moose out of the way to talk to her. “More on the way, they’re focusing on you! See if you can pull them to the enemy!” A wrinkly wolf leapt onto his back to get at her and Leliana grabbed it by the throat, using its body to beat back another.

“Okay!” It was nearly impossible to be heard over the chorus of snarling, shrieking, and barking. She plowed through a family of ground birds to get some perspective, seeing at once that the fighter was right. Nearly all of the beasts clustered around her, leaving the refugees to flee in relative peace. That didn’t mean the Gungrave soldiers were mitigated as a threat to them, however.

Leliana sprinted to the edge of the overlook, slipping on the recently-frozen gravel. Realizing she had no time to find a safe route downhill, she did the only thing she could think of.

She jumped.

I can do it I can do it I can do it she chanted over and over, remembering her leap of faith over the cliff when she’d chased Vea through the woods. The beasts slavered mindlessly after her, flying and running and tumbling end over end, hot on her heels all the way down. Leliana braced herself as the ridge sloped out, slamming into the ground at a near vertical sprint. At least a quarter of the beasts ended their chase at the bottom of that ridge.

She shrieked, in fear, or excitement. Or both? Before she had a clear idea of what was happening, she was halfway across the battlefield with a host of rampaging monsters at her back. Her lungs burned as she closed the distance to the nearest Gungrave bunker. They were busy shooting at a group of war brothers hiding behind a big metal suit, not noticing her impromptu raiding party until the beasts slammed into the flimsy log walls.

“Hi guys,” she yanked a rifle out of the group as the palisade fell and unloaded it into the middle of the rotting army.

It did nothing.

“Damn!”

The assault had the intended effect. Leliana wove a path through the Gungrave forces, leaving a trail of terror everywhere she went. The creatures were single minded in their pursuit, snapping and smashing anything that stood in their way. The many of the remaining soldiers ordered a retreat to consolidate their forces. The monks, shocked by the violence of the monsters, leapt into the fray to protect Gungrave’s wounded and fallen from the onslaught. The small, sharp-winged fliers pop out of their dead hosts like a boiling pot of water and are gunned down just as quickly.

After nearly an hour, the last of the infected withered under a hail of bullets. Finally, no more came to join them. An uneasy silence falls over the field, the men and women uncomfortable with resuming a fight against those who’d they’d just teamed up with against a common enemy. Leliana stealthily made her way back to the monk’s side of the field. As she did, a deep, brass horn pealed through the silence from the direction of the city.

Gungrave soldiers across the field came to attention, never letting their weapons leave their hands. The Overseer and a woman, Lilith, marched onto the battlefield. They strode confidently out into the peaceful chaos until they stopped in front of Leliana, guarded now by the Speaker and the Protector.

“You!” Leliana shrank back, ready to flee but too tired to do so.

“Hello Leliana.” Lilith purred. “It’s so nice to see you again.”

“Why do you attack my people, Mortimus?” The Speaker demanded. “The fourth section of The Peace accord strictly allows free passage-”

“Of all natural born Amica nationals, I know.” The Overseer sneered. Then he smiled. “But you’re not from Amica, are you?” He took one step forward, hand on his pistol.

“Enough.” Lilith shoved the Overseer aside. “I didn’t come out of my warm laboratory to freeze my ass off and watch you two piss all over each other. Speaker, hand over that girl so I can end this farce and you can get back to killing each other. I might even be willing to sell you something beautifully destructive, if you cooperate.”

Mortimus and the two monks looked at her with open mouths.

“Don’t you play this game with me, Atreides.” Lilith said. “You saw as well as I did how those things reacted to her. They went rabid.”

Leliana retreated a step and put her chin out. “No!” Her fists came up, daring anyone to approach. “I’ll never go back to that hellhole of a torture prison. I live my life on my terms from now on. I have friends now. I’m going to find my mother and father and then commandeer a ship and fly around the world. Under my own rule.”

Lilith giggled. “Allow me to check one off your bucket list then, little girl,” she said. “You’ve found your mother, I’m right here. Though daddy is all locked up hundreds of meters under that ‘torture prison’, I’m afraid. There’s no meeting him unless something goes catastrophically wrong.”

Leliana’s mind screeched to a halt.

“W-what? No, no you’re not my mother. You’re some two-timing, conniving, deceptive, evil bitch!” It wasn’t possible.

“Believe me or don’t, I don’t care. All that matters is that we stop this ridiculous infection. We have another project after that, you and I. And soon.”

The peace shattered as another shrill scream signaled a new horde of things lumbering out of the cold pass, knocking each other down the steep slopes in their hunt for Leliana.

The Speaker looked uncomfortably at the Protector. Protector Atreides turned to Leliana.

“I think her words ring partially true, at the very least Leliana. Those things did react differently to you.”

“Brutus whipped them up after utterly failing to find you himself, if that brings you any sense of pleasure.” Lilith chimed.

“No…” Leliana stepped back again. “You won’t take me. You can’t.”

“I don’t want to give you over to this woman, of course.” Atreides raised his empty hands in a gesture of peace. “Yet, if your cooperation would save thousands of lives, do you not feel it to be your responsibility to at least try?”

“No! It’s not my responsibility that they unleashed some demo-scat all over themselves and now they need me to clean it up for them!”

Protector Atreides and the Speaker looked at each other for a long moment, and then sighed. The Speaker took a step toward Leliana. “The Ilth es Trada have always moved to help the people of this wounded land Leliana. We will ensure your safety after the danger is passed, but we need to insist on getting your help out of this one.”

Leliana’s breathing came ragged as the world closed around her.

“I really would appreciate working through this together.”

Leliana, the Speaker, and Atreides flickered from view for a scant moment, suddenly standing a dozen meters away locked in fierce embrace.

“You’ll kill me first, you rotten bastards.”

Chapter 64: Captive

Hello Readers

Time to catch up with our sisters!

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“You better keep your hands to yourself you evil mongrel, or I’ll keep them for you!”

Karina sighed, her cheeks warming as Teena put up her fists.

“Wha-? I can’t even reach that low to the ground, shorty. Back in line!” The grey-uniformed man shoved Teena with the butt of his rifle, recoiling as it was yanked it from his hands. He grabbed for it, and she pivoted and shattered the weapon all over the pavement.

“Ha! Just as I thought. Flimsy piss-iron for a flimsy man. Bet your gran smelted the ore in her oven before a nice round of biscuits.”

Karina covered her crimson cheeks with her hands and allowed her hair to drape over her face. She’s so embarrassing. She jolted when she was jabbed between the shoulder blades, muttering while she resumed walking.

“Stop pestering the prisoners.” An older man barked, this one in a blue uniform. “Overseer wants ‘em in his office yesterday. Move!”

“Make me!” Teena took another swing.

“You’ve had your fun, girly. You been caught, now it’s time to face the music.” He growled.

“I bet the music is as bad as your hardware,” Teena huffed under her breath, then obediently turned and followed.

The girls were escorted through a wild maze of increasingly complex wires and tubes and gauges, all cramming together tighter and harder until the walls were a solid mass of copper spaghetti. They marched parallel to the southwestern wall for about twenty minutes, as far as Karina could figure. It was easy to keep track of time with the huge wall-mounted cannons firing rhythmically every sixty seconds, but they’d cut off about midway through the forced march.

The city was like an overturned anthill, thousands of bodies all crammed in the streets, all trying to be on their way at once. It was almost a relief when they finally sidestepped the busy street onto a well-manicured plaza. There was a small patch of grass and a few scraggly trees surrounding the most dour looking fountain Karina had ever seen. They were in a sprawling complex of simple, squat bunker-like buildings. They were all single story, splayed in a wagon-wheel pattern with the ‘spoke’ of the wheel clearly the command center. It was taller, twenty, maybe thirty meters high, and built like it was supposed to stand against the end of the world.

“Now this is architecture,” Teena’s eyes sparkled. “Do you still have the lift? Can I see the engine room? Give me five minutes to take it apart. I’ll be good, I promise!”

“Quiet!”

Teena crossed her arms. “No wonder the guys in the South say Gungrave was the technological capitol of the-”

“I said QUIET!” He snapped.

“Teena,” Karina chimed in. “You’ll hurt their feelings if you keep being so mean.” She was awarded a sharp look and a deep sigh from the officer.

“Gods, let’s use the lift. Anything to get them out of my life faster.”

“Wahoo!”

The lift turned out to be a box of solid steel grates connected to a pulley somewhere inside the building. It slid up and down the outside wall on a track, “which would probably be a lot faster if they let it hang free instead of scaling the side of the building.” Karina giggled as her sister belted out a verbal essay on the working conditions of the machinery and promised to make it run more efficiently if they’d just give her a chance. As soon as the doors to the third floor opened up, she and Teena were practically hurled into the waiting soldiers’ arms.

“Here, take them. By the gods take them from me now!”

Karina stumbled into a dimly lit corridor, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. There were windows every few meters down the length of it, but they were all shaded from the outside. There was no other decor. They were pushed into a room on the far end moments later to a dour-faced welcoming committee.

“What is this?” A big guy in a wrinkled uniform snarled as the door opened.

“The two female captives, sir. We caught them against the South wall artillery, CDE Scapps ordered them directly to you sir.”

Overseer Mortimus snatched up the sealed letter and scanned its contents. His eyes widened. “I got word that we’d fixed the guns. These two are responsible?”

Teena laughed. “It’s not like you really tried to stop them from being hijacked. I coulda broke those things one eye and two arms short!”

“Not sure how you’d survive getting any shorter,” the Overseer said. “Nevertheless, that does answer my question, in a manner of speaking. What do you have to say for yourselves? How many countless lives had to be lost for your bloodlust to be sated?”

“Now you listen here-!”

Karina trod on her sister’s feet to shut her up a second. There were times for posturing and times for finesse, and this was no time for posture. “If I may, your lordship. The cannons were a diversion, a protective barrier between our friends and your soldiers, so they could escape before you turned the guns on us. We certainly didn’t kill anyone, according to our lookout.”

Oops.

“What lookout?”

“She escaped before we were taken. I don’t know her name.” Karina said.

He grumbled into his hand, stroking his chin for a moment. Then he glared at a withered old man in a bathrobe on the other side of the war table. “Is she lying?”

The older man hesitated. “I don’t…believe so, Overseer. Reporting appears to agree, at least. A trench of craters half a dozen meters deep now runs South away from the wall, in fact.”

The Overseer paced the room, occasionally stopping to look out a window or read through a scrap of parchment. “These gods-damned vagabonds, why can’t they leave us in peace.” Then he seemed to remember they were in the room with him and directed his question, less rhetorical this time. “Why can’t you bastards leave us in peace? What did you hope to gain from the attack this time?”

Teena piped up again, and Karina tripped as the engineer took a half step forward to avoid being stepped on again. “What do we hope to gain? How dare you! You bunch of bullies, we were just passing through! We’re not the jerks setting up a whole army to keep some poor refugees off our doorsteps.”

Karina sighed.

“Passing through? Last time you passed through your people left half my city in shambles. It took years to recover economically.” He growled.

“The last time I was in Gungrave I was choking on your smoggy garbage air from the deck of an airship, I didn’t break nothin’.” Teena countered.

“And what are you doing hijacking our most important defense, exactly? Wait-” The Overseer double-snapped at a teen behind him, “how did you hijack our most important defenses?” The page at his back whipped open a yellowed notebook and began scribbling furiously.

“Well. It all began when I was back in school in Vinyard next to Craggy bay.” Teena started. “I was on a field trip to the-”

“PLEASE START WITH THE EVENTS THAT TRANSPIRED TODAY.”

Teena scoffed. “Alright but you should know this sort of impatience is why you’re losing your touch as a military leader of the world.” Karina wasn’t sure whether to laugh at her sister, or cry at her inevitable hanging. “So there we were, slinking through the dark like a couple of ne’erdowells on a clandestine mission through hostile territory.” Teena recounted the day’s events with excruciating detail and speaking in a conspiratorial whisper the entire time. By the time she’d started in on the elevator scene the Overseer had had quite enough.

“Enough, ENOUGH. I get the-” Mortimus rifled through a stack of fresh reports wearily and suddenly cut off. He stomped to the nearest window. “Thrice damn that cursed woman. General Smite,” he whirled on the old man, “that infection of Lilith’s has arrived. We need to shift focus, defense, fortify the men. See if we can’t use those bastards in the field as a meat-shield.”

“YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” Teena broke from her guard to peek through the window. “They could be killed, we have to wave them through! YOU GUYS!” She waved through the window. “RUN YOU GUYS!”

Mortimus shoved her away. “Take them to the basement, I don’t have time for this anymore.”

“You bastard I’ll kick your-” Teena broke off as her sister intervened.

“Not now. They’ll take care of themselves,” she whispered. Better to break out of a prison cell than be shot in the streets or, whatever served as capital justice around here.

They were surrounded immediately, but that didn’t deter Teena from shooting her sister a dirty look and stomping through the open door. “Fine!” The rest of the party scrambled to catch up and get control of the situation, Karina fighting through the soldiers to walk next to her sister.

Without warning, the window to her left exploded inward, spraying shards of plate glass every which way. Before she recovered her wits Karina found herself in a hard embrace, picked up off the ground like a babe, followed by Teena’s cry of surprise.

“Whaaa!”

One man went flying through another solid window on the opposite side of the corridor, smashing it out of place. The wind whistling in her ear told her she was plummeting out the window before her mind caught up with her eyes to see the same. Karina’s heart leapt into her throat as the ground rushed up to meet her.

WHOOMP

Karina was set gently on her feet.

Teena was elevated just above eye-level, her arms wrapped around the shoulders of a sturdy blond girl, a smile plastered to them both.

“Hey guys,” Leliana said. “Long story short, we gotta go. Run!”

Chapter 63: Surprise from above

Hello readers,

Chapter 63 of Lead Heart is ready to go!

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Cold, crisp mountain air filled his lungs as Antros breathed in his newfound freedom. The Continental Drifters were laid back enough to sleep in until noon, and disciplined enough to roll out of bed ready to march. No slacking, no moaning.

His kind of people.

“Bout ready to go, boy?” Gramps was the unofficial leader of the corp. Having traveled in merc bands for over a decade and still counting all four limbs, it was a good idea to follow his lead anyway.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, old man. Where to?”

Gramps shrugged. “Never much one for planning,” he said. “Figure we head West ‘til we hit the coast, turn South if nothin’ comes up.” The two walked in step back to the rest of the group. “Shame them fellers went North for the winter. No money to be made that way,” he grunted.

“It was a nice reprieve if I’m honest,” Antros drained his water skin and moved to refill it. “I’m used to working with idiots. Was real nice working with-” A hair-raising screech split the air, cutting him off and turning twenty pairs of eyes skyward.

“Sky eater?” Silliby’s magnifying glasses, always near to hand, were to his face in a second. Everyone hushed while they listened for the second cry.

“Awful low, init?” Romper broke the silence to ask. Odd pairings of prey and predators soared overhead, undeviating from a straight path back toward Blind Man’s Pass.

Odd…” Gramps commented after an extended silence. “Ain’t usually see birds go North for-”

BOOM

Antros ducked into a roll a fraction of a second before two giant talons would’ve cleaved him in two. “WHAT -” A massive beak smacked him mid-dive and sprawled him across the dirt. A roll to the left saved him, barely, from getting skewered like a kebab. He finally got a good look at the thing; those wings must have been at least fifteen meters wide! The sky eater’s skin was sick and slimy, rotten flesh sloughing off every time it flapped its wings. The moment of hesitation cost him, and a huge, yellowed beak clamped down on his hips and lifted him into the air.

“AHHH!” He’d never felt anything like it. White-hot pain exploded from his knees to his ribs, each bone in the affected area screaming for relief.

“MAN IN THE MIDDLE!” Gramps bellowed.

The squad went full business mode at his command, fanning out into a loose ring with the winged lizard in the center. It had enough time to get a good look at the men around it before they laid into the beast with everything they had. Gunshots and small explosives choked the air with a thick fog that infiltrated noses, mouths, and eyes.

The beast shrieked, a shrill sound known for paralyzing prey at a distance. Through tear-soaked eyes, Antros saw the outline of the animal with a marked lack of wings. The men tore into the monster methodically, as a well trained unit, until it finally crashed to the ground.
Antros ripped himself free of the spasming beak. The enormous body jerked and shook in a freakish way while half a dozen little black… things clawed their way out of it, not unlike what he imagined it would look like if your own skeleton clawed its way out of your skin. He shuddered, unholstered his revolvers, and emptied both cylinders into the little bastards.
When the smoke cleared this time, everything not human lay dead.

“Scats’ name, what is this thing? What are those things!”

Antros caught a nose full of putrescence while the zombified animal was being riddled with holes and gagged when he tried to reply. His mind reeled from the reality of the twisted animal in front of him, and yet…

Something told him he should know something about this. Gramps appeared to his left, dripping concern, but Antros held up a finger. If he lost his train of thought now…

There it was. The Speaker and that crazy lady, right after they’d just finished beating on that meek navy with the monks. “These must be what that old lady was talking about,” he said, mainly to himself.

“Come again?” Romper asked.

“That crazy flit with the lackeys and the weird-ass ship a few days back,” he explained. “She told the Speaker she was chasing an infection that kills…everything.” Another memory popped up, unbidden. He swallowed hard.

The freak with the lizard plopped into the middle of negotiations. “Prot slipped that new Leliana girl…” And that evil bat practically wet herself, “It sounds like my cure might be there too”

“Aw damn.” He sighed. “I think I just morally obliged myself into another rescue.”

“Morals? HA!” Gramps elbowed him in the ribs. “Only morals I got are the ones in my wallet, Antros m’boy. Those monks can handle a few wild birds, besides!” He chuckled, then took a look at Antros and sobered up. “You serious?” The older man turned to follow his gaze.

Antros looked to the horizon, drawing another deep, putrid this time, breath, dreading his near future. The skies over the forest to the South were no longer the placid, peaceful skies he’d sailed through a month ago. The air was clogged with every sort of flying thing he could imagine, swarming like a pissed off hive of hag bees. He definitely spotted at least one more sky eater.

“Never better. Least this time I won’t have to jump from an airship.”

Chapter 62: The fray

Hello readers,

Chapter 62 of Lead Heart is UP! Please enjoy it,

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Leliana’s lungs burned as she choked in the thick cloud of concrete powder. The familiar copper tang of blood filled her mouth. The thrum from the weird beam of light died down as the wall dissolved to dust. Another wave of light enveloped her before she escaped, this one blue. She snapped to the floor feeling like she’d gained a thousand pounds, the light itself felt like swimming through an ocean of slime and stinging ants at the same time.

“You. Bitch…”

She crawled a few inches, using pockmarks in the street to pull herself. Then there was an explosion and the blue beam wavered to the side, and the steel pipe it hit suddenly drooped to the ground. By the time Lilith refocused, Leliana was two streets away.

“MADAM LILITH.” Leliana heard a tinny loudspeaker flagging the woman even from this far away. “DESIST YOUR ASSAULT ON THE CITY OF GUNGRAVE OR WE WILL BE FORCED TO RESTRAIN YOU.” She turned, just for a second, curious what the old bag was going to do. She hadn’t even turned fully around before the shiny vessel bounced off of a big, 2-story building behind Leliana.

“Scat, she doesn’t know when to quit!”

Leliana kicked the door of the building out of its foundation and sprinted inside. She entered a well-ventilated room with a score of men milling around a pond of molten metal. She never slowed as she cleared the scorched air over the glowing pool and busted through the large loading-bay doors on the other side. The cries of surprise turned to panic as the roof to their workshop dissolved scattering the workers.

The alley behind the building split two directions; a huge driveway for loading vehicles, and another, smaller path only about a meter across leading left. She used both hands to help launch herself down the narrow corridor and hoped she’d be hard to spot. It worked. Kind of.

She made it nearly a dozen city blocks, shoving people to the ground and smashing handcarts threatening to slow her down, before Lilith popped out of the street ahead of her. Leliana’s legs burned, and the polluted air was wearing her out a lot faster than she’d anticipated. Maybe it was an effect of the weird light? A streak of green blazed by as she ducked, rolling behind a shop next to her. On legs of putty, Leliana jumped between two buildings until she could snatch a slate tile from the rooftop. She slung the plate, then another, and another. Each bounced harmlessly off of a shimmering bubble protecting the vessel. “Dammit.” She collapsed under the slimy blue beam again.

Mind whirling, she took survey of her situation, suddenly realizing… This roof, these tiles. Was she in the Poors? Memories of the short-lived revolution flooded her mind. These people couldn’t afford having their belongings zapped out of existence. They could scarcely afford belongings. She needed to get the hells out of-

Where were Teena and Karina?

“Leliana you scat-eating coward.” She growled. Smiling faces bubbled into her mind unbidden, a buff little engineer and her scrawny older sister, with flaming hair and sideways smirk. Hadn’t she promised herself never to make Teena cry again? Leliana’s face was hot, the pounding in her ears louder than the screaming sirens of the warships tailing Lilith. She couldn’t just…leave them. But what if she were caught?

…What kind of life could she lead outside of prison if she were willing to abandon the only friends she’d ever had?

This time when the warships interrupted the beam of light, Leliana had a purpose.

_____________________________________________________________
Two three-eyed red skulls with thirteen black teeth gazed over the battlefield from the mouth of Blind Man’s pass. A whistling wind muffled the sounds of their comrade’s fight with Gungrave, but wasn’t powerful enough to overcome the smell of so much devastation. Gib’s feet thrummed as the catapult loosed a boulder thrice the size of his head.

“Look alive, mate. Trouble on the slopes.” The Speaker pointed to the five, three-meter tall mechanical suits blasting out of their pods in front of the refugees.

Gib hefted the boulder he held into the bowl of the catapult and dropped to the ground. “Alas, fair Bristol.” He adopted his best theater voice. “Mine family has need of me far below, and so far below I go!” He galloped a handful of steps before a firm hand gripped him by shoulder. The Speaker.

“D’you think I’d let a fellow eyes out on the field of glory to soak it up for hisself, lad? Let’s take the beasts together!”

“That’s the spirit!” Bristol boomed his bone-shaking laugh and kicked the chocks holding his empty wagon in place. “Take the wheels, gents, and ride for your lives!”

Gib’s mind spun, it’d been a long time since he’d done anything so reckless. Yet he was glad to submerge back into his reckless youth if but for a moment. He and the Speaker clasped hands with Bristol once more and jumped into the box-on-wheels.

They picked up speed immediately, wind whooshing by as the uneven ground rattled the teeth in their heads. The Speaker was crying battle hymns to the sky that Gib had long forgotten, though he couldn’t help but feel his blood race as they picked up speed. Refugees fleeing uphill threw themselves out of the way as the two barreled passed at breakneck speeds until it was just Jovi, surprise in her eyes as she whirled to watch them go.

“ONWARD, FAIR PARTNER!” He called to her.

And then it was go-time.

Gib threw himself to the back of the cart while the Speaker threw himself at the front. The result was the overturning of the vehicle, flinging Gib like they’d flung so many rocks from the top of the hill just minutes before. He fought the force of the wind to bring his arms and legs to bear before he smashed into one of the metal suits terrorizing their small force of unarmed travelers. The suit hit the ground hard, steam pipes exploding at the shoulders as the limbs fell limp. The soldier inside struggled to free himself, but his four partners all pivoted to target Gib after the sudden assault.

He leapt into the air between two of them, forcing a cease-fire lest they hit each other, and then zigzagged toward the one on the left. The Speaker ran up behind the other, and Gib could only hope its aim would be distracted before he got shot in the back. “TO LIVE IS TO DIE.” He boomed.

“TO DIE IS TO LIVE!” The Speaker answered.

The battlefield was chaos. The wall cannons gouged a trench between the main force and the small battalion of metal suits, but they also separated Gib and the Speaker from most of their reinforcements. He crawled up the back of the three-meter suit looking for a weak point when his head exploded in fiery pain, and a small galaxy of stars filled his vision. He flew through the air and barely rolled to a stop when a small crater erupted out of the soil just a meter from his head. He lay dazed, staring into the sky at a blue star circling over head. His head was light, he couldn’t move a muscle. The star grew bigger. And bigger. Finally, it took the shape of a winged lizard standing over him.

“Get UP!” The gravelly voice commanded.

Tears welled in his eyes. His time had come. “Am I to feast with the gods?”

A white-haired face peeked out from behind the lizard’s confused face. “What?! Stop saying stupid crap and get your ass on your feet!”

Reality crashed back down around him. “Master Carkus! You have my thanks!” He was on his feet and sprinting unsteadily back into the fray in seconds. Several talented defenders were now locked in the struggle alongside the Speaker by now. Oscar, a young man with skin like stone, was hurling himself through the cockpit of the second armored suit to be felled and ripped the pilot brutally out of the harness. Then the Speaker was next to Gib, towing the cart.

“Master Gib, let’s show that one why he’s mistaken in his position by the trench, shall we?” The stout man nodded at a pilot standing too close to the cannon-fire, shooting with abandon into the crowd of defenders.

“Let’s!” Gib agreed.

Using the cart, first for cover, then as a battering ram, they charged the soldier in the armor and sent the machine flying to the bottom of the pit. They backpedaled out of the danger zone, waiting for the next shot.

But it didn’t come.

Sounds of fighting dwindled as the fighters realized whatever had been going on with the wall had been fixed. Gib’s heart fluttered briefly. He saluted the wall.

“Godspeed, lady Valkyries.”

Chapter 61: Meeting in the field

The early afternoon was pleasantly cool, warmed gently by the late autumn sun. Leliana took a moment to breathe in the fresh scents of…well war and destruction now. And coal, there was a ton of coal smoke in the air. Gross.

“This is the best Gungrave has to offer?” She teased a cluster of men trying desperately to take her down. They were actually pretty good, she’d already been hit twice. The last two groups had fallen over the ledge without landing a shot. “How ‘bout I let you gents go free so you can call your mommies to wipe your asses and we can get to business?”

She giggled as they raged, ducking between and over the hail of bullets, landing in their midst. Before they could react, she kicked a few over the side of the wall and threw one more for good measure.

Things were going well.

“Fall back!” The guy with the most stripes ordered a disorganized retreat, and Leliana decided to let them. They scampered away while she dug lead balls out of her arm. “Scat!” She’d been shot dozens, hundreds of times in her lifetime, but it never stopped hurting like hells. She allowed Her vision to wander while she idly picked at the holes in her forearm. They’d heal up in a couple of-

“That ship.”

Steel manacles cut savagely into her wrists, already soaked in blood as she was hauled inside from a beating in the courtyard. There was an ear-splitting boom. She whipped her head up, tossing the cloth wrap to the ground. There it was – a brilliantly shining, wedge-shaped airship.

“What is she doing here?”

Countless blisters burned against the wooden broom handle. Ugh, she’d been out here for hours. Were they serious with this scat? A pale, skinny woman sauntered out of the lab doors, not even deigning to look at Leliana while she passed by.

OOF” Leliana slumped to the ground as an enormous fist piled it into her gut.

“Do be sure to remember your manners, girl.” The woman said, sounding bored as she boarded her small, shiny ship.

“Oh no. No no no.” Leliana saw that hungry look in the driver’s seat now, fixed on her. She flipped a few rude gestures at the woman.

“We haven’t taught her to unlock the inhibitor yet, mistress.” Brutus sounded whinier than usual as he pleaded with that tall, skinny bitch. She just stared daggers at the small man. “She’s unruly, she could be dangerous. To herself, and us!”

“Gods’ sakes man, pick your dignity up off the floor,” she said. “You know as well as I this attack could happen anytime. The girl has to be ready, or we’ll die anyway.” Lilith bent over, her face inches from Brutus’, and said something in a deadly whisper. Leliana couldn’t make it out, but it must have been terrifying judging by the way he started whipping on her after that.

“I’m not going back,” Leliana promised herself. Fear bubbled up with every passing, unwanted memory. It clutched at her stomach, a feeling she hadn’t had to deal with in nearly half a year.

In an explosion of light, a dazzlingly bright beam streamed out of the sky and smashed the ship into the ground with enough force to embed it up to the wings. Leliana couldn’t make out the source of the light. Hells, she could barely see anything with this light in her face.

Then the ship started to rise. Shaky at first, then faster and more steady. Instincts took over, throwing her off the wall to the winding streets below.

“Leliana-?” A tiny voice called her name, but she didn’t recognize it. She didn’t care. The men suddenly swarming the narrow walkways, leveling their weapons and yelling orders. That was what was important. She had no idea what they were saying, and she didn’t want to. It took less than a minute to plow through the craven maggots who tried to take her for… For that woman.

Flimsy barricades practically melted as she whizzed by, running as fast as she ever had. She couldn’t make out faces, but she didn’t need to make out faces. The enemy was all around her. She just needed to escape.

It wasn’t until she knocked a railcar full of soldiers off its rail when she remembered the empty warehouse. She was close. She blitzed the city streets, smashing anyone aside who dared stand in her way. In a matter of minutes, she was breathless and alone in the dark munitions warehouse she’d spent yesterday emptying. There’s no way Lilith could-

The world erupted into light again. The ground trembled beneath her feet. The heavy walls and empty racks simply rose into the air and disintegrated.

She was exposed.

With that bitch in the air, staring at her again.

Without a second thought, she was a quarter mile away jumping a fence, heading for the North exit. She had to get away.
_________________________________________________________________________________
The cold wind felt amazing as it rushed through his hair. Carkus always loved being up here with Zimi.

So much that he’d almost forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. The explosions reminded him.

“Hey pal, you and I are gonna hit this galleon with the fat balloons, alright? Let’s fly above the top and we’ll get the bottom one last.” Zimi growled and flapped to gain altitude.

An intensely reflective ship zipped out of the blue, moving so fast it nearly cut them in half. Carkus toppled from his saddle.

“AAAH!”

Zimi dove in an arc and neatly plucked his rider out of the air. Then he growled again.

“Thanks, I owe you brother. What the hells was that?” They watched the ship come to an instant stop over front wall of the city. The air shimmered for a moment, and then a brilliant bolt of light pounded it into the grass. Zimi turned abruptly, knowing full well that losing his sight would cost them their lives.

“Let’s see where that came from!” Carkus ordered, tears freezing to his face unheeded. They wove circles around the enemy ships as everyone’s attention was dominated by the illuminated struggle. The metal ship slowly trembled to life, rising into the air, before –

BOOM

A sound like glass shattering was deafening. Then both the heavenly light and the ship below had vanished. “WHAT?!”

Carkus was ordering his friend to investigate when the air next to his head erupted into fire. “HOLY SCAT ZIMI! Let’s take care of those ships!” They pushed the bizarre attack to back of their minds for now; they had a job to do.
__________________________________________________________________________________

The tiny infant in Jovi’s arms was the most adorable thing she’d ever seen. “Boobooboo, it’s okay baby!” She swished her hair all over the girl’s face. The babe’s parents were nearby, leading a pack of stray children while Jovi took care of their own. “Aunt Jovi is going to keep you nice and warm, and we’ll get in a bit of a jog before tea time tonight. Okay?”

She almost smiled, but the war happening downhill startled her into crying again.

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” She checked to be sure everyone else was accounted for. One hundred and four scared wanderers and three talented monks to protect them. Judging by grumbling, the war brothers had never been in quite so tight a spot before either. She watched in awe as Vea and Mandel took out crew after crew, knocking out the mobile artillery nests Gungrave had set up to shell the mountain path. Wait… That was the last one!

“Alright everyone, time to go. Nice and orderly please!”

The moment her group stepped out of cover, the Omega team member running interference on the western ledge jerked back and forth and sprouted a dozen bullet holes. Despite the screaming and panic, the crowd just hugged the mountain a little tighter and ran a little faster. We’ve got to make it. We’re going to make it!

In what would otherwise be a pleasant descent down a grassy slope, Jovi faithfully led the band of gentlefolk unerringly through the outskirts of the fighting. They had to stop and detour a few times, taking cover when things got too intense. The huge wall cannons were still singing their deadly song and kept the bulk of Gungrave’s army at bay.

She had to believe the girls were alright. She’d see them in the foothills, once this whole thing blew over. Teena’s bouncy pigtails, Karina’s cynical sarcasm.

She had to.

The ground shook, accompanied by a series of deep explosions and plumes of black smoke rising over the city. A deep throated whistling slowly rose in pitch and volume, until it was all she could hear. In a violent explosion of crunched metal, five big blocks plowed into the ground between Jovi and the escape route.

One by one, the front panels popped off in a blast of steam. One by one, five bipedal, steam-powered combat suits stepped onto the field.

“Skymother’s arse…”

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?”

__________________________________________________________________________________________

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.”

__________________________________________________________________________________________

“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!

________________________________________________________________

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?”